It’s always nice to have a variety of words that mean pretty much the same thing, so that, appunto (indeed), you don’t have to say the same thing all the time.
Sapere (to know) is normally about sure things. When you’re not quite sure about something, you use verbs like pensare (to think), credere (to believe), supporre (to suppose), or sembrare (to seem), among others. Right now, though, we’re going to talk about a very popular modo di dire (way of saying) that Italians use in everyday conversation when they don’t know for sure but they have a pretty good idea: mi sa che... (to me it gives the impression that...). But wait! If we don’t know for sure, why are we using the verb sapere? Good question! We’ll get to that, but first, let’s have a look at some real-life examples.
On its most practical level, mi sa che is used, for example, when someone is thinking out loud.
Anna is deciding which of the tantalizing Roman pasta dishes to order.
Guardi, mi sa che andrò sulle, ehm, linguine cacio e pepe?
Look, I think I'll go with the, uh, linguini with cheese and pepper?
Caption 11, Anna e Marika - Un Ristorante a TrasteverePlay Caption
Another way to translate what she said would be, “I guess I’ll go with the linguini...”
In the next example, however, it’s more about “I have a feeling” or “I sense.” Inspector Lara Rubino and another policewoman are looking at the telephone records from a murder victim’s phone and they see a very long list of women’s names. Lara comments dryly:
E da quanto vedo,
And from what I see,
mi sa che io e te siamo le uniche due sceme
I have the impression that you and me are the only morons
che non l'hanno conosciuto.
who didn't know him.
Captions 57-58, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP3 - Rapsodia in BluPlay Caption
As for why we use the verb sapere (to know) when we are really just guessing, well, it comes from the other major definition of sapere which has to do with the senses. In its intransitive form (without a direct object), sapere means “to have an odor or taste” (also in a figurative sense). Its figurative meaning is also “to give the impression of.” (English uses other senses to say the same kind of thing: “it looks like”; “it sounds like.”) If you think about it like this, does it make more sense?
In Italian colloquial speech, mi sa che, which is exclusive to the first person singular, is interchangeable with mi sembra che (it seems to me that) and is really quite user-friendly once you get the hang of it. There’s a whole WordReference page dedicated to it! See the long list of forum threads, too.
When you’re not feeling very chiacchierone (talkative), and a short answer will do, mi sa di sì/no works just like penso di sì (I think so), credo di no (I believe not), suppongo di sì (I suppose so), and gets followed by di rather than che.
Ah bè, perfetto.
Oh well, perfect.
Allora forse mi conviene quello. -E mi sa di sì.
So maybe I am better off with that. -Yeah I'd guess so.
Captions 26-27, Passeggiando per Roma - per RomaPlay Caption
In Part 2, we’ll talk more about sapere having to do with taste and smell, both literally and figuratively. Stay tuned.
1) To practice this new modo di dire, follow along with the transcript of a given video, selecting one with conversation. When you see a telltale penso che, credo che, mi sembra che, or suppongo che, press “pause.” Mentally insert mi sa che as a substitute and repeat the phrase.
2) Plan your day, thinking out loud about what you’ll probably do. Here’s a head start:
Mi sa che oggi salto la colazione, non c’è tempo. Mi sa che dovrò comprare il pane, perché mi sa che è finito. Ma mi sa che più tardi andrò in centro.
I guess I’ll skip breakfast; there’s no time. I guess I’ll have to buy bread, because I think there’s no more left. But I think later on, I’ll go downtown.