Italian tends to look daunting because it has so many double consonants, but it is actually quite an easy language for English speakers to learn how to pronounce. Even if you haven’t studied it, or travelled to Italy, I guarantee that most English speakers know a lot more about Italian pronunciation than they may think. Familiar words such as spaghetti, gelato, lasagna, chianti, cappuccino, pizza, and ciao contain the secrets for pronouncing almost every Italian word – it’s just a matter of extracting the rules and applying them.
2. Is Italian Pronunciation fixed, or can the same letters produce different sounds?
Italian pronunciation rules are fixed and finite, with very few exceptions. In English and French, the same letters, or group of letters can produce a mystifying array of sounds – think about ‘-ough’ in English, and spare a thought for foreign students who have to wrap their heads around ‘bough’, ‘bought’, ‘cough’, ‘through’, and ‘slough’! They have no reference or rule why ‘-ough’ should be pronounced differently in all these words. You don’t have this problem in Italian.
3. Are there any sounds in Italian which do not exist in English?
Italian and English have a great deal in common, and there are very few actual sounds in Italian which do not exist in English in some way. The one exception is the Italian ‘r’ which is rolled more fiercely than in English, but this is no major impediment to being understood, so if you can’t get it right, and you probably won’t be able to without a lot of practice, you don’t need to worry about it.
Remember – there is a difference between accent and phonetic pronunciation. If you think of the word ‘brought’, it can sound quite different depending on where the speaker comes from – Scotland, Ireland, the USA and so on. That is accent related. Phonetically the word remains the same – it would be incorrect if you rhymed the ‘-ough’ in ‘brought’ with ‘cough’, for example’, but the variations in accent make no difference to any English-speaker’s understanding of the word.
So while there are no sounds in Italian which are phonetically alien to the English speaker, there is a difference in pronunciation because of accent.
English speakers have a tendency to pronounce ‘-er‘ in Italian (and French and Spanish for that matter – this rule applies across all 3 languages) to rhyme with ‘her’ and ‘were’, which is understandable but always incorrect. The ‘-er‘ in these languages rhymes most closely with the ‘e’ in ‘where’, which rhymes with ‘air’.
5. How do you say ‘c’ and ‘g’ in Italian when these letters are followed by an ‘i’ or an ‘e’?
If you spend any time at all on this site you will soon work out that ‘c’ and ‘g’s in Spanish, Italian, French, as well as English all soften if they are followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. The difference is only in how they soften:
C In English a ‘c’ followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’, softens to an ‘s’ sound: Celebrity, Cinema;
In French a ‘c‘ followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ softens to an ‘s’ sound, as in English:
Célébrité – say/lay/bree/tay
Cinéma – see/nay/mah
InItalian a ‘c‘, or a ‘cc’ followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ softens to an English ‘tch’ sound as in ‘catch‘:
Celebrità – tcheh/leh/bree/TAH
Cinema – TCHEE/neh/mah
In Spanish a ‘c‘ followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ softens to an ‘s’ sound in ‘sit’ (in Latin-America), or to the ‘th’ sound in ‘thin’(in Spain):
As I’ve already shown, like ‘c’s, and ‘g’s soften when they are followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. If you see an ‘h‘ following the ‘c‘ in Italian then you can be sure that it functions as a buttress to prevent the ‘c’ from softening. This goes against the grain for English speakers, because when we see ‘ch’, it is natural to want to say it as we do in English, for example, ‘chick’, but this is completely wrong in Italian. Use ‘Chianti‘ – the famous Italian wine – as your reference point: you say ‘KYAHN/tee’.
The correct sound for the ‘c’ in these combinations in Italian words: ‘chi’ and ‘che’, is the hard ‘c’ as in ‘cut’ or if you prefer, a ‘k‘ sound. It makes no difference whether there is one ‘c’ or two. The rule stays the same:
7. How does the ‘ch’ sound differ in French, Spanish and Italian?
In Spanish ‘ch‘ sounds more or less the same as in English – like the ‘tch’ in ‘catch‘;
In French the ‘ch’ sounds like the ‘sh’ in ‘shot’;
In Italian ‘ch‘ sounds like a ‘k‘. To get the English ‘ch’ sound in Italian, you follow the ‘c’ with an ‘i’ or ‘e’.
8. How to pronounce ‘ghe’, and ‘ghi’ in Italian?
Most English speakers know how to say ‘gelato’ and ‘spaghetti’, so use these two words to help you pronounce other Italian words.
Let me set out the rule to make it clearer. In Italian, a ‘g‘ followed by an ‘e‘ (or ‘i‘ for that matter) will soften to a ‘dj‘ sound as in ‘gelato’. In ‘spaghetti’ the ‘h‘, which you know is not pronounced, acts as buttressto prevent the ‘e’ from softening the ‘g’. This will apply whether you say ‘gelato’ and ‘spaghetti’, or ‘Genova’ (Genoa), and ‘ghetto’ (same as in English), or ‘funghi‘ (mushrooms).
It makes no real difference to the phonetic pronunciation if there are two ‘g’s in a word e.g. ‘ggi’, ‘gge’, ‘gghi’, and ‘gghe’ – you follow the same rules.
9. Why don’t you pronounce an ‘i’ after ‘g’s and ‘c’s in some cases?
Most English speakers know that ‘ciao’ is pronounced as one syllable – ‘tchow’. You know that despite the presence of the ‘i’ after the ‘c’, you do not say ‘tchee/ow’. Use this word to help you remember the following rule.
When a ‘c’ or a ‘g’ is followed by an i and another vowel e.g:’ci + a/e/i/o/u’ and ‘gi + a/e/i/o/u’, the ‘i’ is only there to modify the ‘c’ and ‘g’ (to a ‘tch’ and ‘dj’ sound respectively), and you do not pronounce it as a separate syllable. The ‘i’ performs the same function as the English ‘h’ does in ‘ch’ – it modifies the pronunciation of the ‘c’ – but has no sound of its own:
Arancia – you don’t say ah/RAHN/tchee/ah, you say ah/RAHN/tchah
Carciofi – you don’t say kahr/TCHEE/oh/fee, you say kahr/TCHOH/fee
Formaggio – you don’t say fohr/MAHD/djee/oh, you say forh/MAHD/djoh
Fagioli you don’t say fah/DJEE/oh/lee, you say fah/DJOH/lee
Parmigiano you don’t say pahr/mee/DJEE/ah/noh, you say pahr/mee/DJAH/noh
Ciabatta – you don’t say tchee/ah/BAHT/tah, you say tchah/BAH/tah
10. Why don’t you pronounce ‘u’ + a vowel as 2 separate syllables?
If a ‘u‘ in Italian is followed by a vowel, it sounds like an English ‘w’, and the ‘u+vowel’ makes up a single syllable. For an example which clearly demonstrates both this rule, and the ‘g+’i+vowel’ I mentioned above, commit ‘buongiorno’ (Italian for ‘good-day, or ‘hello’) to memory:
buongiorno – you don’t say bu/on/jee/or/no, you say bwon/DJOHR/noh.
11. How does ‘lasagna’ help me to pronounce other words?
Everyone knows how to say ‘lasagna’, so why would anyone say ‘gnocchi’ with a ‘g’ – ‘gnokki’? The ‘g’ is silent, as in ‘lasagna’, so you say ‘NYOHK/kee’. If you see ‘gn‘ in Italian (and indeed in French) pronounce it like the ‘ny’ in ‘canyon’. Also note that, in a similar vein, where you see ‘gl‘ in Italian, you don’t pronounce the ‘g‘ – the sound is similar to the ‘ny‘ in ‘canyon’, for example ‘aglio’ (garlic) in Italian sounds like ‘AHL/yoh.
Is there anyone in the English speaking first world who does not know how to say ‘pizza’ or ‘mozzarella’? So why would you pronounce ‘mezzo’ like ‘meso’? If you see ‘z‘, and ‘zz‘ in Italian words then use ‘pizza’ as your reference, use a ‘ts’/’ds’ sound.
You will find that if you look up words in an Italian-English dictionary, ‘z’ can be phonetically rendered ‘ds’ or ‘ts’, and this is reflected in my pronunciation guide. It’s there for technical correctness, but it’s not something you pick up on easily when listening to the spoken language.
13. Must I pronounce every syllable in Italian?
Italian, like Spanish is a phonetic language, and you pronounce every syllable. The only ‘exceptions’ are where a ‘c’ or ‘g’ is followed by an ‘i’ and another vowel which I discussed earlier – here the ‘i’ is present only to modify the ‘c’ or ‘g’, as the case may be, and is itself silent. It fulfils the same role as the ‘h’ does in the English ‘ch’. The other is where a ‘u’ is followed by another vowel (see above).
I have heard so many English speakers pronouncing ‘grazie’ (thank-you) like ‘grah/tsee’, and leaving off the ‘e’ on the end. Don’t do this in Italian and in Spanish – if there is an ‘e’ on the end of a word you must sound it. You say ‘GRAHTS/yeh.
14. What about stress and accents in Italian?
Italian words are usually stressed on the penultimate syllable (the second to last syllable), and this is indicated by the use of capitals in my phonetic spelling of each word. ‘Spaghetti’ and ‘lasagna’ are spah/GET/tee, and lah/SAHN/yah, for example.
In a word which has only 2 syllables, the first syllable is stressed, for example ‘dolce’ is DOHL/tcheh. There are words in which the third or fourth to last syllable is stressed, but these are the exception rather than the rule.
Accents in Spanish and Italian do not have the same effect as accents in French. A French accent will change the sound of a letter, usually the ‘e’, whereas in Spanish and Italian, the accent will change the stress in a word.
Look at ‘caffè‘ and ‘ragù‘. Because these are two syllable words you would normally expect to say ‘CAF/fe’, and RAH/gu, but the accent changes the stress in the word so that the stress is on the final syllable, where the accent is, so you say ‘caf/FE‘, and rah/GU.
There is a tendency for English speakers to sound the accented ‘e’ in Italian like the ‘é’ in French and give it the ‘a’ sound in ‘yay’. This is incorrect. If you are using an Italian word, sound the ‘e’, whether accented or not, as in ‘egg’.
15. What about gender, and the indefinite and definite articles (‘a’ and ‘the’ in Italian)?
English speakers tend to misunderstand the issue of gender in foreign languages. In Italian, Spanish, and French, each noun (naming word, e.g. ‘cow’, ‘friend’, ‘mother’, ‘vase’) is assigned either a masculine or feminine gender.
The distinction is quite clear when it comes to living things – for example brother, nephew, sister and niece are all obviously masculine or feminine.
Less clear are things – what makes a table, or a book, or a rock masculine or feminine? The answer is that there is no set rule to guide you – it’s something you have to learn as you go along. Just don’t make the mistake of reading more into gender than there is – it is a grammatical issue, and there is no deeper meaning attached.
In Italian it’s generally really easy to tell the difference between masculine and feminine nouns. Have you ever heard of a girl called ‘Mario‘? Or a boy called ‘Maria‘? The difference is in the endings – a singular word (e.g. one brother) ending in ‘-o‘ is masculine, and a singular word (e.g. one sister) ending in ‘-a‘ is feminine. It’s that simple for most words. Another common feminine ending is ‘-re‘ e.g. ‘madre‘ (mother).
There are a number of exceptions where the word will end in something else, and I will explain them as you come across them searching the words on the site. This page is intended to give you a general idea, and it by no means provides you with an exhaustive explanation of all the possible endings nouns can have.
Why am I telling you about this? Because I want you to be able to see how an adjective (a word which describes a noun, e.g. ‘mad cow’, ‘bad friend’, ‘kind mother’, and ‘hideous vase’) has to agree with the noun it describes.
If you look at the phrase ‘buona sera‘ which means ‘good evening’ in Italian, you will notice that both words end in ‘a‘. This is because ‘sera‘, which means ‘evening’ in Italian, is a feminine noun, so the adjective ‘buona‘, meaning ‘good’ has to have the same ending.
Definite (‘the’ in English), and indefinite (‘a’ in English) articles also have to agree with the word they refer to so:
Masculine il gelato un gelato
Feminine la piazza una piazza
Watch out for feminine nouns which begin with a vowel, e.g. ‘aranciata’ (orangeade). Instead of ‘la aranciata’, the definite article, ‘la’ will contract to give you ‘l’aranciata’. This is to avoid the clumsiness of the sound of two ‘a’s following each other.
In the plural, masculine words end in ‘-i‘, and the definite article, ‘il’, becomes ‘i‘:
In the plural, feminine words ending in ‘-a‘ in the singular end in ‘-e‘, and the definite article, ‘la’ becomes ‘le‘
Watch out – some feminine nouns end in ‘-re’, for example, ‘la madre’ (the mother). In the plural these will end in ‘-i’, like masculine nouns
la madre le madri
16. What is the difference between Spanish and Italian?
Both Spanish and Italian are descended from Latin, along with French and Portuguese. There are marked similarities between Spanish and Italian, but watch out that you don’t confuse Spanish and Italian rules of pronunciation. Knowing some Spanish will definitely help you with Italian and vice versa, but be careful that you know how to distinguish between the languages, otherwise you will make some serious mistakes.
If you have watched ‘Fawlty Towers’ you may remember Basil Fawlty trying to say ‘butter’ in Spanish, and using the Italian word for butter: ‘burro’? The part of the joke you may have missed is this – in Spanish ‘burro’ means ‘donkey’ – the Spanish word for butter is ‘mantequilla’.
As far as written language goes, distinguishing between Spanish and Italian is very easy. All you have to do is look out for double consonants: ‘cc’, ‘gg’, ‘ff’, ‘pp’, ‘tt’ etc. As a rule, there are very few double consonants in Spanish, whereas Italian is littered with them. Here are some examples: ‘café’ is Spanish, and ‘caffé’ is Italian. ‘Sofrito’ is Spanish, and ‘soffritto’ is Italian.
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