On the Scent

The verb sentire in Italian is an interesting one. I’ve come across it a few times recently on Duolingo, meaning to hear. I could see how it was related to English words associated with feelings like (to) sense, sensitive, sentiment(al) etc., but found it curious that in Italian it seemed to be used only to refer to one sense. Seemed to anyway…

At some point it made me think of the English word scent. That’s related to a sense, and sounds like the word sense, so could it be related to the all those words above?

Yes, it could, and it is! All these words can be traced back to the Latin sentire (to feel, perceive, sense, discern, hear, see). Because of its multitude of possible meanings, English words that are derived from it are fairly general, related to feelings in a broad sense. Except of course, for scent, which specifically only relates to the sense of smell (the C was picked up in the 17th century, probably due to the similarity to words like ascent and descent).

I wondered if a similar thing had happened in Italian, with the language naturally developing different verbs for different senses, but with sentire remaining solely to refer to hearing. After a little basic research though, I discovered that this was not the case. In fact, sentire in Italian is basically the same as sentire in Latin (even though the languages are not always as similar as people might imagine). It can refer to the different senses, or feeling in more abstract and emotional ways. It’d be like if we used the verb to feel the way we do now, but also to mean to see, to hear etc.

I found that quite fascinating, because it’s so different from English. It can be confusing for a non-Italian to learn (thought not really so much: as at least if you can’t remember the verb for a particular sense, sentire will probably be correct), but there’s nothing inherently odd about it. If put English aside for a moment, it doesn’t seem so strange, but if you grow up with it, it isn’t confusing at all.

On its own, it’s not weird that the word scent evolved from sentire, and means to smell. And on its own, it’s not weird that sentire in Italian evolved from sentire in Latin, and has lots of meanings. Compare them though, and it’s another example of the different feel that each language has, and getting a sense of those little things unique to a language is key to learning it well. I’ll probably never get to that stage in Italian (and I don’t really need to for a six-day holiday!), but at least now I know a little more about sentire!

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