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Expressing Need with Servire

In a recent lesson, Daniela talks about using the noun il bisogno (the need) to express need.


Ho bisogno di fare ginnastica.

I need to do some gym (literally, “I have need of doing some gym”).

Caption 31, Corso di italiano con Daniela - Concetto di "bisogno"

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Per cominciare, abbiamo bisogno di due melanzane lunghe,

To start with, we need two long eggplants,

Caption 10, L'Italia a tavola - Pasta alla Norma

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Hai bisogno di qualcosa?
Do you need something?


Of course, bisogno looks like the first person singular of the verb bisognare, but it’s not. It’s a noun.


But, since we have already discussed bisogno in another online lesson, let's look at a different way to express need, this time with a verb.


We might agree that there’s sometimes a fine line between something that's necessary and something that is useful. Italian has an interesting verb that covers both bases much of the time. In Italian, we can express need with the verb servire (to serve). It’s used with an indirect object, as if it were “it serves to me.” Remember that ci in the following example means noi (to us).


Allora, mamma, quali sono gli ingredienti che

So, Mom, what are the ingredients

ci servono per preparare una granita al limone?

we need to make the lemon ice?

Caption 13, Adriano - La granita al limone

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The verb servire is conjugated according to what is needed, what is necessary, or what is useful. In the above example, the noun that determines the conjugation is ingredienti (ingredients) so we use the third person plural of servireservono.


Servire works similarly to the verb piacere. Remember mi piace (I like it)? Here’s a lesson on it to refresh your memory.


If you are helping someone in the kitchen you might ask:


Cosa ti serve (what do you need/what is necessary for you)?


You could also ask, as Daniela explains in this week's lesson:


Di che cosa hai bisogno (what do you need/what do you have need of)?


However, when followed by the preposition (to), servire can also mean “is used.”


C'è una corda che è almeno il doppio di questa qui,

There's a rope that's at least twice as long as this one,

che serve a far muovere il cavallo prima di montarci sopra.

that is used to warm up the horse before mounting him.

Captions 35-36, Francesca - Cavalli - Part 2

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So a dialogue in the kitchen could go something like this:


Cosa ti serve (what do you need)?
Mi serve un mestolo (I need a ladle).
che cosa serve un mestolo (what is a ladle used for)?
Serve a servire il brodo (it’s used to serve the soup).


And now you have seen that servire also means “to serve.” It’s a true cognate in this case.
There’s also a reflexive version of this verb, but we’ll talk about that in another lesson.


Conoscere il verbo servire serve (knowing the verb servire is useful)!

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