Usage of prepositions "a" and "in" in statements about places and directions

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The use of prepositions, showing direction and answering the questions "Dove?" and "Verso dove?", is usually explained with very few rules, such as

a with the names of cities, in with the names of countries, big islands and regions

and then just as a list of cases to remember, e.g.:

a casa, a scuola, a teatro, but in banca, in chiesa, in centro

Could anybody give me a hint about the etymology of these two prepositions, which might explain the difference in their use?

I.M.

Posted 2013-11-11T21:01:13.340

Reputation: 4 389

With big islands, I would use a: sono a Long Island, sono alle Galappagos. It is sono in Sardegna because that is the name of the region too. How would the etymology help you understanding how to use those prepositions? Both comes from Latin, but that doesn't help much.kiamlaluno 2013-11-12T10:50:57.503

@kiamlaluno I know how and when to use them. I'm more interested in why use them this way. Language (any language!) is a stable structure. For a structure to be stable, it should rely on certain laws, some logic behind every part of the construction. The fact that we don't remember or don't pay attention to such logic doesn't mean that it didn't exist at the time when the language has been developing. I'm perfectly aware that it's not always possible to recover such logic after centuries, but if it's possible, may I try? :)I.M. 2013-11-12T11:07:59.247

Yes, but you asked for the etymology, which means you are asking from which words a and in come from. For example, when asking the etymology of batterio, you would get that it comes from scientific Latin bacterium, from Greek baktḗrion, diminutive of bàktron. That doesn't help in understanding when batterio is used instead of another word, nor does it say anything about those laws behind the usage of a word.kiamlaluno 2013-11-12T11:20:25.337

I disagree on languages being stable structures, since neologisms are always possible. It's not always possible to get laws about natural languages' grammar; otherwise, a program would be able to analyse a phrase and say if it is grammatically correct.kiamlaluno 2013-11-12T11:22:59.800

@kiamlaluno 1. "Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time." If there was time when only a or only in had been used as a preposition of place, it's still the matter of etymology. 2. I don't say the languages are "rigid" structures, of course, they accept changes. But they are stable. Moreover, there are programs able to analyse the grammar rules--not perfect, but quite well.I.M. 2013-11-12T11:30:34.487

Answers

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The etymology of a and in is simple: they come from Latin ad and in.

This partly explains why we use both a and in to denote direction. But there's also da (which comes from Latin de) and probably only someone really expert in the history of Italian can explain the last preposition.

In Latin ad meant go towards some place, but not necessarily entering it. In the entry ad of Lewis and Short we find

As antith. to ab (as in to ex), in a progressive order of relation, ad denotes, first, the direction toward an object; then the reaching of or attaining to it; and finally, the being at or near it.

Conversely, in implies entering: the entry for in has

I. in, within, on, upon, among, at; into, to, towards.
I. With abl.
[...]
II. With acc.
A. In space, with verbs of motion, into or to a place or thing (rarely with names of towns and small islands;

So the Italian usage with towns and small islands is a direct descendant from Latin. A small island is probably identified with its main village or port, so in was felt inappropriate. A big island like Sicily had many towns and a vast land, so in was better suited.

We have vado a casa because one's home is not really a building, but something more intimate. We can and do say vado in casa, for example when I'm in my garden and want to say I'm going into the house. Conversely, vado in ufficio or in chiesa because we enter a building.

My feeling is that with scuola and teatro we don't identify them with a building, so they're abstractions, unless a particular school or theater is specified; not with cinema, probably because it's a recent addition to the language. Here are some examples:

  • vado a scuola, vado al liceo Fermi
  • vado a teatro, vado al teatro alla Scala
  • vado al cinema, vado al cinema Altino (not any more, actually, it has been closed for many years)

For countries it's normally in, but small countries often want a: vado a San Marino (but nel Lichtenstein and nel Lussemburgo).


Side note. As Mauro Vanetti brilliantly remarks in comments, it's not easy to know when an island is to be considered small. For instance, Cyprus is rather larger than Corsica, but we say

a Cipro and in Corsica

so Cyprus is small and Corsica is big, according to the ‘rule’. Also Ceylon is considered small (although being much larger than Sicily, 65 610 km² against 25 711 km²), but it becomes a big island when called Sri Lanka. And il Madagascar follows neither pattern, because it wants the article: maybe, at 587 041 km², it's too big even for an island; but no, Greenland is even bigger (2 166 086 km²) and we say in Groenlandia. Other examples are nel Borneo (743 330 km²) and a Sumatra (473 481 km²): while Borneo is undoubtedly a big island, it's difficult to believe that Sumatra is small.

Toponyms are always a source for controversies, finding one's way in them is always a problem.

egreg

Posted 2013-11-11T21:01:13.340

Reputation: 10 674

Fantastic. Thanks, @egreg!I.M. 2013-11-12T12:11:13.140

2This was a brilliant explanation indeed. Just a side remark: how big is a big island? Apparently, Corsica is a big island (Vado in Corsica) while Cyprus is small (Vado a Cipro). Unfortunately, Cyprus is larger than Corsica by 600 square kilometers! Another funny case is the island of Ceylon, since 1972 known as Sri Lanka. If you go to Ceylon, it's a small island even if it's 7 times larger than Corsica, but since 1972 it's become a large island... :-) I guess it's because Sri Lanka is perceived as a country and not just an island.Mauro Vanetti 2013-11-21T13:28:38.210

1@MauroVanetti Good question! The only answer is probably “who knows?”; neither Corsica nor Cipro have an eponymous city. Another curious case is il Madagascar. Conversely, Lussemburgo is a town, but the state is called il Lussemburgo, whereas the same doesn't happen with Andorra. Another doubt can be about why we say vado a teatro, but vado al cinema.egreg 2013-11-21T13:40:18.860

This link may help, I suppose.alexjo 2018-01-10T21:16:22.337

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Unfortunately there is no real rule for a or in in Italian; it's something you learn.

There are some guidelines, but as you will see they don't cover all possible cases.

  • Country, region, big isle: In - Abito in Italia, Vado in Sicilia
  • City: A - Vado a Genova, a Milano, a Londra
  • Own home: A - Vado a casa
  • Someone's home: Da - Vado da Marco, da mia nonna, da un'amica
  • With verbs: A - Vado a mangiare/a dormire/a studiare
  • Professional offices: Dal/dalla - Vado dal medico; vado dall'avvocato;
  • Places with speficic role: In o A
    • al cinema, a teatro, a una mostra, a scuola
    • in chiesa, in ospedale, in clinica

mucio

Posted 2013-11-11T21:01:13.340

Reputation: 830

Thanks, @mucio. It doesn't really answer the question, as I've asked why, not how to use them, but many thanks for these examples.I.M. 2013-11-12T11:12:16.443

Sicilia is the name of the region too, that is why in is used. Still, it's vado alle Galapagos, not vado in Galapagos.kiamlaluno 2013-11-12T11:25:41.653

@kiamlaluno I wrote "big isle", anyway Galapagos is an archipelagomucio 2013-11-12T11:28:19.897

@I.M. I think you will need something more that a SE website, the Italian language is not something that happened after the Latin, but the result of languages that were there before Latin and arrived during and after the Roman empire. In Latin "Vado a casa" is "eo domum", to explain this you probably need a couple of master thesis. This is why there is no rule or etymology of in or a, but you should find the etymology for each possible expression. And then you will find that sometimes a language can change just because it "sounds" better in a way instead of another.mucio 2013-11-12T11:35:38.547

@mucio Thanks for this comment, too. There are no languages that just happened after another language, as English doesn't come from Anglo-Saxon, etc. And yes, in most of the cases in most of the languages, it just "sounds better."I.M. 2013-11-12T11:41:10.790