Grammar 101: Capisce?

The English language borrows many words from many languages, oftentimes butchering the pronunciation or spelling (or both) in the process. For example, you might know about the cathedral in Paris called Notre Dame. Literally translated as “Our Lady,” Notre Dame is also the name of a university in the United States. However, the pronunciation has been “Americanized” to rhyme with “boater game,” which is quite different from the original French.

You may have come across the term “capisce” in casual conversation, but you may not have necessarily ever seen it in print. As such, you may not have been all that sure how to spell it. Is it capisce? Maybe it’s capice, capishe or capiche… or even as anglicized as capeesh!

Do You Understand?

Oftentimes associated with the Italian Mafia (along with their presence in the United States), “capisce” can colloquially be used as either a question (with a question mark) or as a statement. When posed as a question — Capisce? — it means, “Do you understand?” In the context of the Mafia, its usage can feel threatening.

You’re going to pay me back for all these damages, capisce?

As a statement, capisce would be the equivalent of saying “I understand” or “Understood.” In either case, it is very rarely written and that is why we find so many different variations on its spelling. Segue is another one of these words that is rarely written, but at least segue has a standard form. If you were to write “capische” instead of “capisce,” not too many people would fault you.

The Origins of Capisce

Given the connection to the Mafia, thanks to movies like The Godfather and TV series like The Sopranos, most people would assume that “capisce” is derived from from Italian. That’s partly correct.

The truth is that “capisce” comes from the Neapolitan language, which is named after the Kingdom of Naples in the southern part of modern day Italy. As such, it is sometimes called Southern Italian, which is different from what we consider to be “standard” or “official” Italian; the latter has its origins in the north, mostly in Tuscany where we find Florence. We associate the Mafia with Sicily, but “capisce” is technically derived from Neapolitan and not Sicilian.

The original Neapolitan term is capisci (three syllables), which is the second person (the “you” form) of the verb capire, which means to understand. A good example of its modern-day slang usage can be found in this classic Pepsi commercial. Unsurprisingly, it plays up the Godfather stereotype, but you ought to watch it anyway. Capisce?