The alphabet provides the basic building blocks for language. That’s probably why children’s blocks so often have letters on them. And yet, when you start learning a new language that uses the Latin alphabet like Italian, it’s usually assumed you can skip straight to learning more complicated things. Stepping back and starting with the Italian alphabet will save you time in the long run, however.
The Italian alphabet does look a lot like the English alphabet, but there are some differences. Here, we’ll walk you through the alphabet and teach you pronunciation rules that will have you speaking the language in no time.
The Italian Alphabet
Starting at the very beginning, here’s the alphabet in Italian:
A B C D E F G H I L M N O P Q R S T U V Z
Unlike in English, there isn’t an extremely popular song with which children learn the alphabet. You can find various songs on YouTube if that will help, but most Italians get the alphabet through rote memorization.
The Missing Letters
There are five letters in the English alphabet that don’t appear in the Italian alphabet: J, K, W, X and Y. You may still see these letters appear in certain Italian words, however, including loanwords (particularly from English) and a few proper names. They’re relatively rare, however.
Pronouncing The Letters
The Italian alphabet is easy to learn because, for the most part, each letter is pronounced the same every single time. It’s not like in English, where tough, though, through and ugh each have wildly different pronunciations. Of course, there are exceptions, but they shouldn’t take long for you to master.
The vowels are perhaps the most changeable letters in the Italian alphabet. They have both short and long pronunciations, but there’s a rule to follow there. When a vowel appears before a single consonant, it’s short. When a vowel appears before a double consonant, it’s long. This distinction might be a little hard for an English speaker to hear at first, but it just takes some practice.
- Long A: la pala (“the shovel”)
- Short A: la palla (“the ball”)
- Long E: la sete (“the thirst”)
- Short E: sette (“seven”)
- Long I: vile (“coward”)
- Short I: le ville (“the villas”)
- Long O: le note (“the notes”)
- Short O: la notte (“the night”)
- Long U: bruto (“brute”)
- Short U: brutto (“ugly”)
Another difference between Italian vowels and English vowels is that while in English, vowel combinations create new sounds (“oi” for examples doesn’t sound like “o” or “i”), Italian vowels don’t combine. When you see two vowels next to each other, you should pronounce them separately. There is one major exception to this, which we’ll discuss in the section on C and G.
- poi (“then”)
- due (“two”)
- mio (“my”)
- lei (“she”)
The Letter H
The letter H is always pronounced the same way. That is, it’s not pronounced at all. It’s entirely silent, but it differentiates words like hanno (“they have”) and anno (“year”). There are only two kinds of word that start with the letter H: conjugations of the verb avere (“to have”) and loanwords.
- ho (“I have”)
- l’hotel (“the hotel”)
- hanno (“they have”)
- l’hobby (“the hobby”)
The Letter R
The Italian R, unlike the English R, is rolled. Rolling Rs is not a skill that comes easily to everyone, but you can sometimes fake it by making a soft “D” sound. You can hear the R in different places in a word in various Italian place names.
- After T: Trieste, Tropea, Trapani
- Between Vowels: Firenze, Perugia, Siracusa
- At The Beginning: Roma, Rovigo
- Before M: Palermo, Parma
C And G
The letters C and G have multiple pronunciations, but it’s not hard to know which one to use: it depends on the vowel that follows. For the vowels A, O and U, C is pronounced like the “ch” in “chair” and G is pronounced like the “g” in “guard.” For the vowels E and I, C is pronounced like the “k” in “kind” and G is pronounced like the “j” in “just.”
- C Like “K”: cane, ancora, alcuni (“dog, still, any”)
- C Like “Ch”: cento, cibo (“hundred, food”)
- G Like “G”: la gara, la gonna, l’anguria (“the competition, the skirt, the watermelon”)
- G Like “J”: la gente, la giungla (“the people, the jungle”)
You may notice that in la giungla, the “i” is not pronounced at all. That’s because in most words where “ci” or “gi” is followed by another vowel, the “i” vanishes from the pronunciation entirely.
Lastly, if C or G are followed by an H, they sound like the English K (as in “kill”) and G (as in “gill”) respectively.
- chiesa (“church”)
- anche (“as well”)
- ghiaccio (“ice”)
- mughetto (“lily of the valley”)
S And Z
An important linguistic distinction is “voiced” and “unvoiced.” “Voiced” means your vocal cords are vibrating when you pronounce the letters, and “unvoiced” means they’re not. In English, S and Z are the unvoiced and voiced versions of the same basic sound (try alternating between them and you can hear that your mouth is in the same position for both). This is not the case in Italian.
The Italian S can be either voiced or unvoiced. It is unvoiced if it comes before either a vowel at the beginning of a word, or before any unvoiced consonants (C, F, P, Q or T). It’s also unvoiced if there’s a double S. The letter S is voiced if it comes between two vowels or it’s followed by a voiced consonant (B, D, G, L, M, N, R, V).
- il sole (“the sun”)
- lo sport (“the sport”)
- il posto (“the seat”)
- la sfilata (“the fashion show”)
- la classe (“the class”)
- la casa (“the house”)
- la musica (“the music”)
- smettere (“to stop”)
- Lisbona (“Lisbon”)
- lo sbaglio (“the mistake”)
The Italian Z is unlike any letter in the English alphabet. The unvoiced Z sounds like “ts,” like at the end of “rats.” It’s unvoiced when it comes before two vowels in a row; when it comes after an L or an N; or when it appears in the endings -anza, -enza or –ezza. The voiced Z sounds like “ds,” like at the end of “heads.” It’s usually voiced when it comes at the beginning of words or between two vowels.
- la agenzia (“the agency”)
- grazie (“thank you”)
- la pazienza (“patience”)
- la calza (“the sock”)
- l’ozono (“the ozone”)
- azzuro (“sky blue”)
- lo zoo (“the zoo”)
There are a lot of exceptions with both S and Z, unfortunately, and it’s something you’ll have to learn over time. A double Z for example can be either voiced or unvoiced, and there’s no real explaining which is which.
The letter combination “gli” makes a sound that doesn’t exist in English. The best approximation is that it sounds kind of like the “lie” in “friendlier.” If you’re really struggling, though, we have a few tips for improving your pronunciation.
- la figlia (“the daughter”)
- l’aglio (“the garlic”)
Like C and G, the Sc letter combination also changes depending on what it’s followed by. If it’s followed by E or I, it sounds like the “sh” in “shoe.” If it’s followed by A, O, U or any consonant, it’s like the “sk” in “ski.”
- Sc Like “Sh”: il prosciutto, non capisce (“the prosciutto, she doesn’t understand”)
- Sc Like “Sk”: gli scacchi, il tedesco, la scrivania (“the chess, the German, the desk”)