The Italian alphabet has the same letters as the English alphabet, but native Italian words do not use j, k, w, x, or y; these letters are only used in foreign words, e.g. un whisky, il jazz.
Pronunciation is different from English. Voiceless consonants normally have very little aspiration, stressed vowels are not "automatically" diphthongized as in English boat or bait, and the distinction between long and short consonants, which is essential in Italian, does not exist to the same extent in English (contrast "dully" and "sully" for an exception).
The Italian r is quite different from English r. It is rolled, and can be formed by placing one's tongue on the roof of one's mouth just behind the teeth as if one is trying to pronounce a d.
The letter l is pronounced keeping the tongue against the upper teeth.
There are two consonantic phonemes absent in English. The letter pair gn represents a sound similar to English ni in onion. The letter pair gl, if followed by an i or an e, represents a sound similar to ll in million.
The letter h is not pronounced. Its prime purpose in writing is to distinguish some forms of the verb avere ("to have") from other words with the same pronunciation, and to signal the pronunciation of c and g as "hard" when followed by i or e.
Double consonants are regarded as split between two syllables: fanno ("they do") is pronounced ['fa.nːo]. If you say "ten nails" quickly (rather than "ten ales"), you'll replicate the sound rather closely.
There are nine vocalic phonemes corresponding to the letters a, e, i, o, and u.
All vowels are normally short, except for stressed vowels in an open syllable (i.e. a syllable that ends in the vowel). Both vowels in fatto ['fatːo] are short, for example, whereas the /a/ in fato ['faːto] is longer.
- a: like the a in "father".
- open e: like e in "bet".
- closed e: like a in "main".
- vocalic i: like e in "we".
- semiconsonantic i: like y in "yoga".
- open o: like o in "got" (in a British English accent) or the ou in thought (in a General American accent).
- closed o: like the o in "boil".
- vocalic u: like u in "June".
- semiconsonantic u: like u in "quake".
Usually y is pronounced like i.
The letters c and g change sound when they're followed by the letter e or i. They become 'soft' before e and i, like the English ch and g, respectively – think of the words "China" and "gem" for an idea of the sound. Otherwise, they have a 'hard' sound, like the English k in "kite", and the English g in "gain". In order to make these hard sounds even when e or i follow, the letter h is added between the c or g and the i or e.
The Italian language is phonetically regular (that is, words are pronounced as they are spelt), however it has some quirks common to the Romance languages (changing C and G sounds, for example).
Italian has no letters, digraphs, or trigraphs that are especially hard to pronounce for speakers with experience in other Romance languages, nor does it have an exceptional number of phonemes. However, students whose native language is English should pay close attention to the vowels: there are no lax vowels in Italian.
Don't be afraid of trying to pronounce the words using the approximate English pronunciations below (or the IPA if you are familiar with it). The Italian plosives are not aspirated, i.e. you should not blow much air when you pronounce d, t, b, p, k, hard c, or hard g). The approximate English below indicates stressed syllables with capital letters. And now for all of this in more detail:
When trying to pronounce the words below, try to remember the following:
- Certain words have double consonants. Unlike in English, those consonants are phonemically geminated consonants. That means you must pronounce a double consonant with more energy, giving more length to the sound. As an alternative, try pronouncing them separately but with less pause between the two.
- Example: coppia (KOP-pyah) ['kɔpːja], "couple"
- "H" is silent (see below).
- "I" can also be silent (see below).
- Stress is on the penultimate (next-to-last) syllable in most cases.
In the following explanation "hard vowels" (vocali dure) refers to 'a', 'o' and 'u', and "soft vowels" (vocali morbide) refers to 'e' and 'i'.
- "A" is pronounced like in "father".
- Example: amici (ah-MEE-chee) [a'miːtʃi], "friends"
- "B" is pronounced like in "balloon", but without aspirating air.
- Example: bianco (BYAHN-ko) ['bjaŋko], "white"
- Before soft vowels (e and i), "C" is pronounced as "ch" in "church". Elsewhere, it is pronounced as in "car".
- Example soft sound: ciao (TCHAH-o) ['tʃaːo], "hello"/"hi"
- Example hard sound: casa (KAH-sah) ['kaːsa], "house"
- "D" is pronounced as in "death".
- Example: arrivederci (ah-rree-veh-DEHR-chee) [arːive'dertʃi], "goodbye"
- "E" can be pronounced either open as in "bet" or closed as "ay" in "pay", but shorter.
- Example: sempre (SEM-preh) ['sɛmpre], "always"
- There is no way to know the pronunciation of e in a word that you don't know.
- There are also minimal pairs such asː
- venti ['venti] "twenty", ['vɛnti] "winds"
- pesca ['peska] "fishing", ['pɛska] "peach"
- "F" is pronounced like in "fair".
- Example: farmacia (far-mah-CHEE-ah) [farma'tʃiːa], "pharmacy"
- Before soft vowels (e and i), "G" is pronounced like in "gem", otherwise like in "goal".
- Example soft sound: gioco (JOH-koh) ['dʒɔːko], "game"
- Example hard sound: gamba (GAHM-bah) ['gamba], "leg"
- "H" is completely silent everywhere. It can be used to
- distinguish homophones in written text
- Example: anno (AHN-no) ['anːo], "year" (vs. hanno (AHN-no) ['anːo], "they have"
- Change the pronunciation of letters and digraphs that have two possible pronunciations (see below).
- Usually, it is pronounced like in "machine".
- Example: libera (LEE-beh-rah) ['liːbera], "free"/"without constraints"
- Example of stress pronounced: farmacia (far-mah-CHEE-ah) [farma'tʃiːa], "drugstore"
- if it is followed by a vowel and unstressed, it is pronounced like "y" in "year".
- Example: ieri (YEH-ree) ['jɛːri], "yesterday"
- it can change the pronunciation of letters and digraphs that have two possible pronunciations (see below).
- Sometimes it makes no difference in the word pronunciation.
- Example: scienza (SHEN-tsa) ['ʃɛntsa], "science"; coscienza [ko'ʃːɛntsa], "conscience"
- "J" does not exist in modern Italian spelling, except in loanwords in which it can be pronounced [j], [ʒ] or [dʒ]. A few Italian words can still be spelt with an initial "J" as an alternative to "I".
- Example: jattanza (dated) or iattanza [ja'tːantsa], "haughtiness"
- "K" does not exist in Italian, except in loanwords, and it is always pronunced like in English.
- "L" is pronounced like in "liquid", never the "dark L" sound as in
- Example: libera (LEE-beh-rah) ['liːbera], "free"/"without constraints"
- "M" is pronounced like in "machine".
- Example : madre (MAH-dreh) ['maːdre], "mother"
- "N" is usually pronounced like in "navy".
- Example: Napoli (NAH-po-lee) ['naːpoli], "Naples"
- When it is followed by [k] or [g] it is pronounced [ŋ].
- "O" can be pronounced either open as the "a" in RP English "ball" or closed like "oa" in Canadian English "boat".
- Example open: poi (POY) ['pɔi] "afterwards"
- Example closed: mondo (MOHN-doh) ['mondo], "world"; sole (SOH-leh) ['soːle], "sun"
- There are minimal pairs such as botte ['botːe] "barrel", ['bɔtːe] "blow".
- "P" is pronounced like in "paste".
- Example: pizza (PEET-tsah) ['pitːsa], "pizza"
- "Q" is a surplus letter with the same sound of hard c.
- It is used only, but not always, when followed by approximant u.
- Example: quando (KWAHN-doh) ['kwando], "when"
- The geminated sound followed by approximant u ([kːw]) is usually written "cq".
- Example: acqua ['akːwa], "water".
- The only rather common exception is "soqquadro" [so'kːwaːdro], "mess".
- "R" is always trilled (rolled), like "rr" in Spanish perro.
- Example: Roma (ROH-ma) ['roːma], "Rome"
- "S" is pronounced like in "snake" except when it is between two vowels (in most cases) or before a voiced consonant, when it is pronounced like "Z" in "maze". There are many important exceptions, as "cosa" and "così".
- Example "z" sound: uso (OOH-zoh) ['uːzo], "use"; sbaglio (ZBAH-llyoh) ['zbaʎːo], "mistake"
- Example "s" sound: rossa (ROH-ssah) ['rosːa], "red"
- "T" is always pronounced like in "ton" (without the aspiration) and never like in
- Example: tu (TOOH) [tu], "you"
- "U" is always pronounced like in "rude", never laxed as in
- Example: tu (TOOH) [tu], "you"
- If it is followed by a vowel and unstressed, it is pronounced [w].
- Example: uomo (WOH-moh) ['wɔːmo], man.
- "V" is pronounced like in "vision".
- Example: andavi (ahn-DAH-vee) [an'daːvi], "you went"
- "W" does not exist in Italian, except in loanwords.
- "X" does not exist in Italian, except in loanwords.
- "Y" does not exist in Italian, except in loanwords.
- "Z" can be pronounced voiced, producing the "dz" sound, or devoiced, producing the "ts" sound.
- Example voiced: zero (DZEH-roh) ['dzɛːro], "zero"
- Example devoiced: zia (TSI-a) ['tsia], "aunt"
The same applies to the double-z.
- Example voiced: mezzo (MED-dzo) ['mɛddzo], "half"
- Example devoiced: pezzo (PET-tso) ['pɛttso], "piece"
Digraphs or trigraphs are not diphthongs, rather they are two letters representing a single sound. Italian has one digraph and two trigraphs with peculiar sounds to English speakers.
- "GN" is pronounced as "ny" in "canyon", like the "nh" sound in the Portuguese word "sonho" or like "ñ" in the Spanish word piñata. It is always long (geminated) between vowels, within a word or in connected speech.
- Example: agnello (ah-NNYEH-lloh) [a'ɲːɛllo], "lamb"
- GL before I
- "GL" before "I" is pronounced similarly to the "lli" in "million" or the 'lh' sound in the Portuguese word "filha". Between vowels it is always long (geminated).
- Example: figlio (fee-llyoh) ['fiʎːo], "son". This sound has the same tongue position as [l] but the manner of articulation is as in [j]
- There are some notable exceptions: glicine ['gliːtʃine] "wisteria", and some words that come from the Greek root "glyk", such as "glicerina" [glitʃe'riːna] "glycerin".
- SC before I and E
- "SC" is pronunced as "sh" in "shoot" when it precedes an "i" or an "e". Between vowels it is always long (geminated).
- Example: pesce (PEH-sheh) ['peʃːe], "fish"; sciare (shee-AH-reh) [ʃi'aːre], "to ski"
I and h
H can be used between 'c', 'g', 'sc' and a soft vowel indicating that they must be pronounced as if they were followed by a hard vowel.
- Example: ghetto (GEH-tto) ['getːo], "ghetto"
In the same way, "I" can be used between 'c', 'g', 'sc' and a hard vowel indicating that they must be pronounced as if they were followed by a soft vowel.
- Example: bacio (BAH-cho) ['baːtʃo], "kiss" (noun)
Note that there are also words in which "i" is pronounced:
- Example: sciare can be pronounced [ʃi'aːre] "to ski" or ['ʃaːre] "lava plains".
Accents and stresses
Each word has one stressed syllable, usually the penultimate. An accent can be used to mark a stressed vowel. The accent is mandatory
- when the stress is on the last syllable
- Example: città (chih-TAH) [tʃi'tːa], "city"
- on some one-syllable long words which have homophones.
- Example: da "from", dà "he/she/it gives"
When the stress is on a syllable other than the last, the accent isn't mandatory and it is never used, but it can be optionally employed to disambiguate homographs. Dictionaries may use the accent in order to show the pronunciation: the lack of accent means accent on the penultimate. A significant example of possible disambiguation is that of principi: prìncipi (PREEN-chee-pee) ['printʃipi], "princes" vs. princìpi (preen-CHEE-pee) [prin'tʃiːpi], "principles". However, this can also be done by writing princìpi as principî, though this spelling is becoming rare.
When the accent is present it also carries information about the pronunciation of "e" An acute accent over the "E" (i.e. é) indicates a closed "E", while a grave accent (i.e. è) means that the "E" is open.
Examples: "E": perché (pair-KEH) [per'keh], "why" "because"; tè (TEH) [tɛ], "tea"
In handwriting, the difference between the two accents is not usually respected.