Is there any difference between “Che”, “cosa” or “che cosa?” for asking “What?” in Italian? Set phrases and webcast.
The short answer is no, there’s no difference between “che”, “cosa” or “che cosa”.
They are all correct questions. What (thing) are you eating tonight?
If we translate word by word, “che” means “what” and “cosa” means “thing”. The versions “che” and “che cosa” as “what?” used to be the only options accepted, but “cosa” alone became prevalent with time. Literally “Thing you are eating tonight?”
The doubts that “Che cosa” is a duplication and “Cosa” alone sounds incomplete, is not uncommon among native speakers and finds a clear answer in the Accademia della Crusca, the Italian Academy of Linguistics. It depends on regional Italian.
“Cosa” alone, is used more in Northern Italy and Sardinia, “Che” in the centre-south and “che cosa” is the classic literary form. They are all perfectly interchangeable in spoken Italian. I can confirm that in Milan “cosa” is way more common than the other two, although “che cosa” is also an option, and “che” alone sounds non milanese. In Roma for example, people tend to use “che” alone.
Classic authors such as Boccaccio (1300s), always wrote “che cosa”, which is somehow more elegant and makes more sense, when we pay attention to the actual meaning (“what thing..?”, “che cosa…?”).
“Cosa” without “che” was introduced in the Italian literature rather recently, less than 200 years ago. Alessandro Manzoni (mid 1800s), one of the fathers of the contemporary Italian language, an authentic Milanese like me, gave literary dignity to “cosa” instead of “che cosa” in the famous romantic novel I promessi sposi, “The Betrothed”, a hefty book that every Italian student is forced to read and explain in class.
Translated word by word, “Cosa mangi stasera?” is something like “Thing you eat tonight?”. It may sound strange to non-native speakers, but you should just learn it this way. “Cosa” in this case just means “what”.
Some set phrases
I will mix “che” “che cosa” and “cosa” randomly but you can play around with the sentences and try the three alternatives. The following are very common in spoken Italian. Listen and repeat.
That’s just a small set of examples. Learn to speak Italian like the Italians do. Try a Skype class with a native teacher. Alla prossima.
Italian painting of today:Francesco Hayez – Il bacio 1859