Word Nerd: 6 easy tricks to pronounce Italian words correctly

19 Jun

American physicist Richard Feynman was a genius. Not only did he know a thing or two about science (he won the Nobel Prize in 1965), but as an adult he learned how to speak Japanese, play a Brazilian musical instrument, and how to paint (he even sold some art). One thing he did not know was Italian. But he told the story of how he faked it, just for laughs. When he was in college, he accompanied his younger sister to her Girl Scouts banquet (he was filling in for their dad). Suddenly it was announced that the dads were expected to entertain the crowd. Unfazed, Feynman declared that he would recite a poem, but unfortunately it was not in English. He then recited several verses – very emotionally – in fake Italian, and had the girl scouts in splits. Later a couple of teachers sought him out to settle their dispute as to whether his poem was in Latin or Italian. He replied, “You’ll have to go ask the girls – they understood what language it was right away.”

Well, you don’t need Feynman’s IQ to figure out the rules of Italian pronunciation. They are relatively few and highly consistent, making the language easy to pronounce. Once you’ve got the rules down, you will never fumble while ordering gnocchi ai funghi or looking for an Ermenegildo Zegna store.

1. Emphasis

In general, the emphasis is on the second-to-last syllable, e.g. mi-la-no (Milan), gab-ba-na (surname). There are a few exceptions, such as università (pronounced u-ni-ver-si-ta, not u-ni-ver-si-ta) and opera (op-era, not op-er-a). The best way to get a feel for the language is to listen to native speakers.

2. Vowels

Unlike English vowels, which can be pronounced in many ways (for example, go, got, gown), Italian ones are pronounced in pretty much the same way all the time. Here are the approximate British-English equivalents: ‘a’ as in ‘car’, ‘e’ as ‘get’, ‘i’ like the ‘y’ in ‘springy’, ‘o’ as in ‘go’, and ‘u’ like the ‘oo’ in ‘book’. As you can imagine, a vowel in a stressed syllable is a bit longer than in an unstressed syllable. An ‘e’ at the end of a word is not silent – Salvatore (man’s name) is sal-va-to-reh.

Store in Hong Kong

Store in Hong Kong (photo by istolethetv, used under CC license)


3. ‘C’ and ‘g’

It’s easier than it looks! The sound is hard when the letter is followed by ‘a’, ‘o’, or ‘u’, so ‘c’ is pronounced like ‘k’, and ‘g’ as in the English word ‘go’. Now you know how to pronounce casa (house), cosa (thing), and Guido (man’s name). Reminder: accent on the second-to-last syllable – ca-sa, co-sa, gu-i-do.

When followed by ‘e’ or ‘i’, the Italian ‘c’ is pronounced like ‘tch’ in the English ‘watch’, and the Italian ‘g’ is pronounced like ‘j’ in ‘Justin’. So now you can pronounce cera (wax), cucina (kitchen), and gelato (duh!).

One thing to remember is that if there’s another vowel after ‘gi’ or ‘ci’, you should pronounce only the second vowel! The ‘i’ only softens the sound of the ‘g’ or ‘c’. Thus, for example, Giovanni (man’s name) is ‘jo-van-ni’, not ‘ji-o-van-ni’. So now you know how to pronounce ‘Giorgio Armani’ (jor-jo ar-ma-ni), ciabatta (tcha-bat-ta, a kind of bread), and ciao (tcha-o, meaning hello).

When ‘g’ is followed by ‘n’, it sounds like ‘ny’ in ‘Tanya’. So bagno (bath) is pronounced ‘ba-nyo’, Bologna (name of a city) is bo-lo-nya, and lasagne (a type of flat, layered pasta) is la-za-nyeh.

‘Gli’ denotes a peculiarly Italian sound made by pressing the tip of your tongue just behind your front teeth. The ‘g’ is silent, but the ‘l’ is emphatic, and almost like a ‘y’. For example, taglia (ta-llya, meaning size).

Tagliatelle, a type of ribbon pasta

Tagliatelle, a type of ribbon pasta (photo by Gonzalo Malpartida, used under CC license)


4. ‘Ch’ and ‘gh’

There’s no ‘k’ in Italian (‘j’, ‘k’, ‘w’, ‘x’ and ‘y’ are used mostly in foreign, i.e. non-Italian, words). The letter ‘c’ takes on a soft sound when followed by ‘i’ or ‘e’. So, to spell words with a ‘kay’ or ‘ki’ sound, Italians add an ‘h’. Very few Italian words use an ‘h’ by itself (and it’s usually silent, as in hai, meaning ‘you have’). More commonly, the job of the ‘h’ is to harden the ‘c’ or ‘g’. Thus you get chiaro (‘kia-ro’, light-colored) and funghi (foon-ghi, mushroom). Now you know how to say Chianti and Michelangelo: ki-an-ti, mi-kel-an-je-lo.

A store in Venice

A store in Venice (photo by Dimitris Kamaras, used under CC license)

5. Double letters

Easy! Just pronounce them doubly. Most letters are pretty simple: Ferragamo (surname), doppio (double). Now we’re ready to tackle macchiato (a kind of strong black coffee). The ‘h’ tells you that’s a hard ‘c’, pronounced like a ‘k’. Two Cs are pronounced like 2 Ks. That’s right – it’s pronounced mak-kia-to.

What if there are two Cs or two Gs without an ‘h’ – as in the famous Gucci (surname) or the all-important formaggio (cheese)? The ‘i’ means that the ‘c’ has a ‘tch’ sound (or the ‘g’ has a ‘j’ sound) and now you need to double it: gutch-chi, for-maj-jo. Easy, right? Now that you know all this, you will never misspell cappuccino.

6. ‘S’ and ‘z’

A single ‘s’ is pronounced like the English ‘z’, as we already saw in lasagne. A double ‘s’ is pronounced like in the English word ‘hiss’ – massimo (meaning greatest; emphasis on the first syllable). The letter ‘z’ is pronounced like ‘ts’ – for example, gorgonzola (gor-gon-tso-la, a type of cheese). It is difficult to double the sound for a double ‘z’, so it sounds pretty much the same as a single – for example, pizza (pit-sa, and you know what that word means!) and mozzarella (mo-tsa-rel-la, a kind of cheese).

How you pronounce ‘sc’ depends on whether the ‘c’ is hard or soft. If the ‘c’ is soft, ‘sc’ is pronounced like ‘sh’. So you get pesce, meaning fish (pronounced pe-she) and Gramsci (surname, pronounced gram-shi). If it’s a hard ‘c’, then ‘sc’ is pronounced like ‘sk’: scherzo (joke) is pronounced sker-tso.

Now you are ready to tackle any Italian name, map, or menu. Have fun!

Read more Word Nerd posts here.


By Uma Asher


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