This section of the website is a collection of resources and insights meant to enhance your Italian learning experience and to make it more interesting.
Questa sezione del sito è una raccolta di risorse e approfondimenti utili a migliorare la tua esperienza di apprendimento dell’italiano e a renderla più interessante.
THE BEST MAP OF ITALIAN PRONUNCIATION
If you happen to struggle with pronouncing Italian words correctly, don’t worry: that’s a perfectly natural stage of the learning process.
Moreover, many Italians also deviate from the pronunciation prescribed by standard Italian, even some of those who work for the national mass media.
In this post I’ll indicate some references for correct Italian pronunciation, useful for avoiding strong regional accents. You will also find spoken samples I created to foster your progress.
To begin with (assuming you already have a general idea of Italian sounds and spelling), I’m suggesting that you consider a greatly effective tool: the phonetic notation created by the International Phonetic Association (IPA).
As you might know – since it’s utilized worldwide – the International Phonetic Alphabet is a standardized system created to objectively represent the sounds of any spoken language. Its symbols can be found online, in some of the best dictionaries and in good manuals of grammar or linguistics.
In the case of the Italian language, the relevant IPA symbols are thirty (thirty-two or thirty-four, according to some experts who include subtler variations).
For each one of them, a word is chosen to exemplify the sound, followed by its complete phonetic transcription (usually enclosed between two slash symbols; please note that the main stress of the word is marked by an apostrophe preceding the accented syllable).
The audio samples to associate with the IPA charts are to be chosen with extreme accuracy, especially in the initial stage of the learning process, in order not to form bad pronunciation habits (which may be spread even by uneducated native speakers, whose accent is often extremely far from standard Italian).
To help you with the sounds of Italian, I am contributing my own voice recordings, based on the phonetic transcriptions and guidelines by the experts Maurizio Dardano, Pietro Trifone and Luciano Canepari (the first two wrote brilliant books on Italian grammar and linguistics, while Canepari published an extensive manual on Italian pronunciation, whose content is partly accessible for free in the form of an online phonetics dictionary you can find here).
I recommend that you listen to the audio samples with your headphones, in order to perceive more subtleties.
The essentials I’ve just provided are a key to spoken Italian. If you learn them, you will immediately know how to pronounce the IPA transcription of any Italian word without needing to rely on spoken samples all the time.
Indeed, it’s common knowledge that standard Italian pronunciation is disciplined by stable rules, which are rather well reflected by spelling. Yet, there are some grey areas that might create confusion, since the latin alphabet is not well equipped to represent each and every sound variation. That’s why we need to be grateful to the International Phonetic Association for creating a more powerful instrument.
Learning how to correctly reproduce the sounds of a target language is a fascinating experience, and a skill that can prevent us from saying inappropriate things which have an only superficial resemblance with our intended message.
In Italian, small things like an open or closed vowel can radically change the meaning of a word, but there’s good news: you can learn the fundamentals of Italian phonetics once and for all since they’re rather steady, especially if compared to those of other languages.*
I hope you will find enjoyment in practising Italian sounds, and I am here to help you also personally.
*On a sidenote, Italian pronunciation can also change due to syntax, but that’s a topic for another time.
LET’S CAST A… SPELLING
The Italian ALPHABET has 21 letters that are specific to the language, plus other 5 that are mostly used to transcribe foreign words or dead languages, for a total of 26.
The sum of those characters follows the same alphabetical order as the English one.
The strictly Italian letters are:
A – B – C – D – E – F – G – H – I – L – M – N – O – P – Q – R – S – T – U – V – Z.
Their Italian full names are: A; BI; CI; DI; E; EFFE; GI; ACCA; I; ELLE; EMME; ENNE; O; PI; QU or CU; ERRE; ESSE; TI; U; VU; ZETA.
The extra letters we make use of are:
J – K – W – X – Y
We give them the full names of: I LUNGO/A or JAY; KAPPA; VU DOPPIA or DOPPIO VU; ICS; IPSILON or I GRECO.
Italian spelling is rather stable and predictable, especially in comparison to other languages like English. Most of Italian words have all of their letters clearly pronounced, even double consonants. Nonetheless, there are some rules and exceptions to be learned. Let’s take a look at them.
As for what regards vowels, the explanations and samples I already produced in Extra section 1 are what you need to know. I am redirecting you there, if you want to learn about Italian vocalic sounds.
Let me just add that – in normal spelling – the open or closed sounds of “e” and “o” are not signaled by a grave or acute accent, unless they are by the end of an oxytone word or in a dictionary entry (e.g. “perché” = why).
Same goes with the main stress of a word, which is normally not marked by an accent, unless it falls on the final vowel or it entails a major change in meaning (e.g. “virtù”= virtue; “prìncipi” or “princìpi”= princes or principles).
The weaker vowels “i” and “u” can also take the role of semiconsonants/semivowels (whose IPA transcriptions are /j/ and /w/, as exemplified in section 1).
Finally, elision is typically marked by an apostrophe rather than an accent (e.g. “po’ “, which is a shorter version of “poco”= a little).
Please note: in presence of two or more consecutive vowels, each one of them is to be pronounced separately. So, for instance, the group “au” of the name Aurora does NOT become “o” in Italian enunciation, but the “a” and “u” sounds are clearly differentiated. Same goes with the pronunciation of a word like “aiuola”, where all of the four initial vowels are more or less distinctly audible.
But pay attention to the fact that “u” and “i”, when take on the role of semiconsonants, require a weaker pronunciation. So, in a word like “cacio”, the “i” is not stressed but it only facilitates the pronunciation of a sound identical to the initial syllable of the English term “chore”.
Double vowels (like “aa”, “ee”, “ii”, “oo”, “uu”) are found in so few Italian terms that they don’t deserve an extensive explanation. Suffice it to know that in most cases they’re compound words, terms of direct Latin derivation or irregular plurals. In such occasions, the double vowel can either be pronounced as two distinct occurrences of the same sound (like in “veemenza”, that in the English equivalent “vehemence” underlines this separation with an H) or as a slightly longer vowel, or again as a single vowel (for instance, the plural of the word “principio” is “princìpi”, that in the past was spelled as “princìpii” or “princìpî”; the modern pronunciation of the final “i” sounds more like a single vowel, but in the old-fashioned use it was slightly longer).
C and G can transcribe different sounds, depending on the letters they are followed by.
C, when followed by E and I, corresponds to the palatal sound /tʃ/ (e.g. “deciso”, “dicembre”).
While C becomes the velar /k/ when it precedes A, O, U, HI, HE, L, R, N (e.g. “casa”, “collo”, “cura”, “chiesa”, “chele”, “cloro”, “cromatico”, “aracnide”).
The same rules apply to G, that indicates the palatal /dʒ/ in the first case (like in “Genova” and “Gino”) and the velar /g/ in the second (e.g. “gala”, “gorgo”, “guscio”, “ghiro”, “gheriglio”, “globulo”, “grandezza”, “gneis”).
S and Z can be pronounced in two different ways each, but there aren’t clear spelling rules about this, except that the correct enunciation is indicated in good dictionaries and exemplified in received pronunciation of standard Italian. In any case, those subtleties very rarely produce a change in meaning, so you may find variations even in natives’ spoken samples. If your aim is perfect diction you might want to rely on phonetic transcriptions, otherwise there’s no need to worry excessively about this, since such mistakes are among the least relevant an Italian speaker could make.
Anyway, S can transcribe the voiced pronunciation /z/ (e.g. “asma”) or the aphonic /s/ (like in “sera”).
Similarly, Z designates the voiced /dz/ (e.g. “zaino”) or the aphonic /ts/ of “vizio”.
In Italian, the H has no sound whatsoever, indeed there’s no aspirated sound in this language (exception made for the Florentine accent, and some other regional variants, where it replaces the velar C).
Then, why is it part of Italian spelling?
First, the H marks some forms of the indicative of the verb “avere” (= to have, from the Latin “habere”). Namely, the present forms “ho” (= I have), “hai” (= you have, only for the singular) “ha” (= he/she/it has), “hanno” (= they have). The past simple is formed with the forementioned + the past participle of the verb “avere” or other verbs (e.g. ha avuto, hanno detto, hai mangiato, ho letto etc.).
As I said, this letter is not pronounced in Italian, unlike in the English equivalents. All the other forms of this verb don’t include any H in the spelling. This is due to an irregular preservation of the Latin orthography through the history of Italy’s vulgar tongues.
H is also used for sounds that don’t have a strictly Italian letter to indicate them. As exemplified in the section about C and G, the placement of an H after those letters transform the palatal sound into a velar sound (for instance, “giro” and “ghiro” begin with totally different sounds; same goes with “cielo” and “chiedere”).
But be careful: this rule is valid only if an I or an E follow the H, whereas forms like *”moscha”, *”ghuardia” or *”chorpo” would NOT be correct!
H is also used in the spelling of Italian interjections like “ehi!”, “oh!”, “ah!”, “ahi!”, “ahimé!”, to extend their sound.
In Italian, the Q has no sound of its own but, when it’s followed by a U, its pronunciation corresponds to the velar sound /k/ (e.g. “quadro”, “quesito”, “quisquilia”, “quota”).
Sometimes, Italian speakers keep the original pronunciation of foreign or ancient terms, while sometimes we transform those into more familiar sounds.
The letter J can transcribe both the semiconsonant I (/j/) and the palatal G (/dʒ/).
K always designates the velar sound /k/.
W corresponds at times to the pronunciation of the semiconsonant U (= /w/) and other times to the sound /v/.
X is enunciated by Italian natives only as “ks” and NEVER as “gz” (e.g. in “xenofobo”).
Y is just used to mark the semiconsonant I.
As you might already know, in Italian we actually pronounce in a stronger way those consonants that are duplicated in spelling. This is sometimes tricky for foreigners, especially English speakers, who tend to articulate those sounds either too softly or with an overcompensation. But with some patience and practice, you will get it right, I promise.
The reason why you should not completely neglect this aspect of Italian phonetics is that single or double consonants can change the meaning of similar words, even to embarassing terms at times.
Here are my guidelines for you:
– No consonant is ever written more than twice in a row.
– The consonants X, W and Z, despite not duplicated in spelling, are considered double by Italian pronunciation. The Z can also be written as double, but not in all contexts (I will explain more about this).
– H and Q are never duplicated in spelling (except in “soqquadro”= disarray), and when the latter is to be pronounced as double, it must be written with a C preceding it (e.g. “acquisto”, “nacque”).
Here’s a list of the Italian consonants that can be duplicated both in pronunciation and spelling:
– BB= it simply transcribes the sound /bb/, like in “rabbia”. Please note: in standard Italian, unlike in some dialects, B is NEVER duplicated before the word ending “-ile” (e.g. it’s “stabile”, NOT *”stabbile”).
– CC= it can indicate both the strong palatal sound /ttʃ/ (if followed by E or I, e.g. “accento”, “occidentale”) or the double velar /kk/ (if followed by A, O, U, H+I/E, L, R, like in “acca”, “accoglienza”, “taccuino”, “occhio”, “nacchere”, “acclamato”, “accrescere”).
– DD= marks the sound /dd/, like in the word “addosso”.
– FF= spelling of /ff/, e.g. in “affari”.
– GG= it can transcribe both the strong palatal sound /ddʒ/ (if followed by E or I, like in “aggettivo” and “oggi”) and the double velar /gg/ (if followed by A, O, U, H+I, L, R, e.g. “agganciare”, “raggomitolare”, “agguato” “agghiacciante”, “agglomerato”, “aggravante”). Please note: in standard Italian, unlike in some dialects, G is NEVER duplicated before the word ending “-ione” (e.g. it’s “stagione”, NOT *”staggione”).
– LL= it indicates the sound /ll/, found in words like “illuminare” and “allarme”. Pay attention to how the Italian pronunciation of the L, single or double, is different than the English one. Listen carefully to the audio samples and you’ll be able to distinguish those subtleties.
– MM= it marks the sound /mm/, e.g. in “ammettere”.
– NN= it stands for /nn/, like in the word “anno”.
– PP= it transcribes the sound /pp/, e.g. in “appello”.
– RR= it indicates the double rolled R (/rr/), like in the word “arroganza”.
– SS= in Italian it only stands for the double aphonic S (not the voiced one), that is /ss/, e.g. in “assurdo”.
– TT= it marks the sound /tt/, like in the word “attrazione”.
– VV= it simply stands for /vv/, e.g. in “ovvio”.
– ZZ= it can transcribe both the aphonic and voiced Z, therefore the sounds /tts/ and /ddz/, like in the words “cazzotto” and “azzurro”. Please note: in standard Italian, Z is NEVER duplicated before the word ending “-ione” (e.g. it’s “azione”, NOT *”azzione”).
Italian spelling translates some complex sounds by using digraphs and trigraphs. You could found them in the audio samples and IPA transcriptions of Section 1 but here I am getting into more detail. (Please note that I am skipping those I already mentioned while explaining consonants: namely CI+O/A/U, GI+O/A/U, CH+E/I, GH+E/I, QU).
SC= when followed by E or I, it is to be pronounced as /ʃ/, like in “scena”.
GL= when followed by I, it indicates the sound /ʎ/, found in a word like “egli”.
GN= if followed by any vowel, it normally corresponds to the sound /ɲ/, e.g. in “ogni”.
SCI= followed by A, O, U, it marks the sound /ʃ/, like in “sciame”.
GLI= when followed by A, E, O, U, it transcribes the sound /ʎ/, e.g. in “moglie”.
If you pay attention, you will notice that the sound produced while enunciating them is a single phoneme, despite transcribed with multiple letters.
CU= Italian grammar doesn’t classify it as a digraph, since the U forms a diphthong with the following syllable. Anyway, note that its pronunciation is identical to that of the pair QU, thing which can create spelling doubts even in native speakers.
(I will talk more extensively about dyphthongs in another section, where I’ll explain the Italian rules to divide words into syllables).
GL= in this case, it transcribes a sequence of sounds that’s pretty rare in Italian. I am referring to /gl/, found in words like “glicine” and “gloria”.
CN= it corresponds to the sound sequence /kn/, e.g. in “tecnico”.
GN= here, the sound sequence is /gn/, atypical for Italian. Indeed, this velar pronunciation is mostly used to imitate some sounds of English or ancient Greek. An example is the word “gnosi” (sometimes pronounced wrongly even by natives, who mistakenly attribute the sound /ɲ/ to it, rather than the correct /gn/).
SC= here the spelling corresponds to the sequence of sounds /sk/, that can be found in the word “scafo”.
Some Italian spelling habits have euphonic reason
For instance, some compound words were formed by placing the preposition/prefix “in-” before a preexisting term beginning in P or B. Nonetheless, they currently begin with “im-“, because an M is easier to pronounce than an N, when followed by a P or a B. So, we have words like “imburrato” and “impegno” (coming from the lost forms *”in-burrato” and *”in-pegno”).
Even when the elements that originated the word are not so transparent anymore, the M is ALWAYS the right spelling choice before a P or a B. Therefore, we shall write “bambino” or “amputare” (and NOT *”banbino” or *”anputare”!)
A rare form of euphonic spelling contemplates the use of an I after the preposition “per” and before a word beginning with S. For instance, two obsolete phrases are: “per isbaglio” (originally, and nowadays, “per sbaglio”), “per ischerzo” (originally, and today, “per scherzo”). The only one of those old-fashioned forms that survived in contemporary Italian is “per iscritto” (euphonic form of “per scritto”).
Finally, an optional but recommended kind of euphonic spelling entails the addition of a D between a vocalic preposition/conjunction and a word that begins with a vowel. So, in order to prevent those near vowels from clashing, Italians often place in between a (written and pronounced) D.
For instance, we might have a sequence that’s difficult to pronounce, like “e era” (= and he/she/it was); to make things easier, we’d rather write and say “ed era”. Please note that the euphonic D is always added to the preposition/conjunction and NOT to the following word. Other examples are: “ed allora”, “ad altri”, “ad essi”, “ad iniziare”. The rarest form is “od”, that originates from the conjunction “o” (= or); it’s become pretty obsolete, and its contemporary use survives mostly before words beginning with “o” (e.g. “od obbedire”) rather than with other vowels.
Italian is one of the rare languages that exhibit a phonetic phenomenon called phonosyntactic gemination (“raddoppiamento fonosintattico” in Italian). This term refers to the (exclusively spoken) doubling of the initial consonant of a word, happening for syntactic reasons. Such a phenomenon occurs when the word is preceded by one of the following:
ALL STRESSED MONOSYLLABLES AND SOME UNSTRESSED MONOSYLLABLES: a, fu, né, qui, già, etc. A famous example is “a casa” where, in this syntactic context, the single velar C of “casa” is actually pronounced as double (this becomes apparent by taking a look at the IPA transcription of this phrase: /a‿kˈkaːza/). Other examples are “qui vicino”, “già detto”, “né quello”, “fu meraviglioso” etc.
ALL OXYTONE POLYSYLLABLES: every words with more than one syllable, where the final vowel is stressed. For instance, “città bellissima” (IPA transcription: /tʃitˈta‿bbelˈlissima/), “caffè buonissimo”, “andrà bene”, “così pericoloso”, “dirò male” etc.
SOME PAROXYTONE WORDS: some words with the stress on the second-last syllable, e.g. “qualche”, for example in the phrase “qualche cosa” (IPA transcription: /’kwalke‿k’kɔza/).
the Italian ARTICLES and CLITIC PRONOUNS don’t induce phonosyntactic gemination in the standard variety of the language, although the phenomenon might be found in some regional accents.
Another the that prevents this doubling from happening is the presence of a PAUSE in prosody.
When the STRESSED FINAL VOWEL IS LENGTHENED, no gemination occurs.
Finally, an ABRUPT CHANGE IN PITCH can disrupt the phenomenon.
On a sidenote, phonosyntactic geminations is so natural to native speakers of Italian that most of us don’t realise how often it occurs; furthermore, due to the influence of regional accents, in some areas of Italy this phenomenon is either minimized or overly emphasized.
This, together with the content of Section 1, is all you fundamentally need to know to be able to navigate Italian phonetics and their relative spelling. Please don’t feel overwhelmed by all those rules, you don’t need to memorize them at once. I suggest that you keep this article as a handbook to consult when you are in doubt, and you will gradually internalize each piece of information, especially if you also consume the relevant audio content, from this and other sources. If you relax and constantly expose yourself to Italian, all this will become a second nature and cease appearing as a complex set of rules.
There would be other aspects of Italian orthography and sounds to explain, like how to use punctuation, how to divide words into syllables, how to read with the correct intonation, what the Italian dyphthongs are, when does apocope happen etc. But those are subjects for another time. I sincerely hope this guide clarified for you all of the main doubts on Italian spelling.
An Afterword (ENG):
GLOSSARY OF ITALIAN PHONETIC TERMS USED IN AUDIO SAMPLES
Raddoppiamento fonosintattico= phonosyntactic gemination
SOME VALUABLE RESOURCES FOR INTERMEDIATE
AND ADVANCED LEARNERS OF ITALIAN
This time I am suggesting some resources that can specifically help intermediate and advanced learners of Italian.
The first one is the online version of a renowned Italian encyclopedia called Treccani. On www.treccani.it you will find multiple sources of knowledge.
First of all, you will find a valuable monolingual dictionary (by opening the section “vocabolario”), inclusive of historical notations and dialectal variants.
Then, you will find an excellent thesaurus of synonims and antonyms (by clicking on “sinonimi e contrari”), helpful to expand your Italian vocabulary.
On Treccani’s website you’ll also find many articles on the Italian language, and all the forementioned resources are free.
The second suggestion that I have for you is related to the most prestigious institution for the preservation of the Italian language: the Accademia della Crusca. By visiting www.accademiadellacrusca.it, you will find the most reliable and updated information on the correct use of Italian vocabulary and grammar rules, with a certain attention paid also to new words and recent transformations.
Further good news are, this extremely high-level website also comes with an English version.
Last but not least, if you are a book lover who’s seeking for an up-to-date monolingual dictionary, I would suggest that you should buy “Lo Zingarelli”, in its traditional or digital version.
The main characteristic of this best-seller is that it adapts to the changes of contemporary Italian, with yearly updates full of neologisms and new speaking and writing habits. You can find this detailed and dynamic overview of the Italian language on the website of Zanichelli publisher (www.zanichelli.it) or in any Italian bookstore and library.
A WINNING APPROACH AND A BOOK RECOMMENDATION
In her book “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages”, Kató Lomb (1909-2003), one of the greatest polyglots, wrote about her extraordinary experience of language learning.
One of the author’s main opinions is that, contrary to what many think, the best way to seriously learn a language is by starting from the most challenging contents, instead of focusing too much on beginner’s studies.
Indeed, she tells us about her university peers calling her crazy when, with great determination, she began to learn a new language by immediately taking advanced classes. When she was asked the reason for her counterintuitive choice, she answered: “Because those who know nothing must advance vigorously.”
I personally agree with her because, in my opinion, an early consumption of challenging but subjectively interesting content makes our progress much faster and more effective. Whereas keeping ourselves in a beginner’s comfort zone for too long could prevent us from making any significant progress.
But I respect any different opinion on the matter. Indeed, I know that some people struggle with self-motivation, so they feel less intimidated when they are guided through the learning experience in a very gradual manner.
Of course, if you chose me as an Italian teacher, I would do my best to adapt to your favourite learning style.
However, I find Kató Lomb’s approach to be very interesting, that’s why I decided to share it with you. If you love reading, I warmly recommend her book, which is full of enthusiasm for the study of foreign languages, the same that certainly brought you here.