If someone provides you with an explanation but you struggle to understand the meaning behind their words, it is only natural to ask the question: What do you mean?
One way to express this in Italian is with the phrase Che cosa vuoi dire? which, word-for-word, can be translated as What do you want to say?
Che cosa vuoi dire?
What do you mean?
Che cosa is the combination of the words che and cosa and together they mean “What?” However, in more informal situations, you will hear these words used individually as an interrogative. Che on its own is more prolific in central and southern Italy, whereas cosa is heard more in the north and Sardinia.
- Che cosa vuoi dire? = What do you mean? (more formal, used everywhere)
- Che vuoi dire? = What do you mean? (central and southern Italy)
- Cosa vuoi dire? = What do you mean? (northern Italy and Sardinia)
Vuoi is the second-person singular of the modal verb volere meaning “to want / to wish”. If you were to change it to the third-person singular vuole, you’d end up with the very useful phrase:
Che cosa vuol(e) dire?
What does it mean?
Finally we come to dire which means “to say / to tell” in Italian.
Another possible way to word this phrase is by using the verb intendere which means “to intend“. However it will give the phrase an even more formal tone. You can also add di preciso, which means exactly, to add extra emphasis.
Che cosa intendi (di preciso)?
What do you mean (exactly)?
On the less formal end of the spectrum, we also have the expressions In che senso? (lit. In what sense?) and Ma come? (lit. But how?).
Non posso andare. – In che senso non puoi andare? Abbiamo già prenotato i biglietti!
I can’t go. – What do you mean you can’t go? We’ve already booked our tickets!
Below are a few other expressions that are used to inquire about the meaning of things:
- Che cosa vuoi inferire? = lit. What do you want to infer?
- Come sarebbe (a dire)? = What do you mean? (used when there is a conflict) / What’s that supposed to mean?
- Che cosa significa? = What does it mean? (more formal than vuol dire)