Does “proper” Italian pronunciation really matter? No one seems to really agree on this point. And as usual, the only answer that makes sense is: it depends. But before answering the question, let’s ask ourselves, what exactly constitutes proper pronunciation?
By “proper Italian pronunciation,” we’re referring to the standard way a word is said. Native Italian speakers actually pronounce words in many different ways, and that’s how we identify someone’s accent. For example, the Venetian accent is marked by particularly nasal vowels, Naples has its schwa, the Lombard accent features lots of open “e” sounds and so on. The standard pronunciation, for most words, is based on the Florentine variant of Italian. Most people don’t use the Florentine variant, however, so this pronunciation doesn’t really exist in the wild, at least not for the majority of speakers. That’s why proper pronunciation is only used in highly specific contexts, particularly in radio, movies, theater and television. But the importance of the “standard” dialect is gradually decreasing.
Here’s why proper pronunciation only concerns a very small proportion of native speakers. Most of us don’t actually worry if we’re pronouncing the word stella properly. Whether we say the open E stèlla or the closed E stélla (the second option is the right one) doesn’t change much: the person we’re speaking to will still understand what we mean. That being said, we occasionally find ourselves wondering what the right way to say a word is. Here are some answers!
A Guide To Proper Italian Pronunciation
Let’s start with a brief intro. The Italian alphabet consists of five written vowels (a, e, i, o, u). But phonetically speaking, there are seven, because E and O can both be pronounced open or closed. Visually, open pronunciation is represented with a grave accent (è, ò); and closed pronunciation with an acute accent (é, ó). This phonetic distinction is the source of many dilemmas for those aiming for proper pronunciation. There are, however, a few rules you can follow.
Proper Pronunciation For E And O
- When the stress falls on the E or O and it’s not the last syllable, the letter is often pronounced closed: so it’s méla not mèla, dóccia not dòccia, sénno not sènno, móndo not mòndo, etc. But there are a few exceptions: gèlo, bène, gònna.
- In the case of truncated words (i.e., words with the stress on the final syllable) that end in E, the vowel is almost always pronounced closed: tré, the pronouns mé, té, sé, and any derivations of che (perché, poiché, affinché, etc.). Again, there are always exceptions to the rule: caffè, tè (as in the drink), karkadè, bèh and generally all exclamations.
- The E in the diphthong IE is almost always pronounced open: so cièlo not ciélo, mièle not miéle, pièno not piéno. There is an exception for words ending in -ietto, -ietta, -iezza (you say bigliétto, magliétta and ampiézza).
- For present participles, the E is always open: presidènte, solvènte, gerènte, potènte, etc.
And you can tell if the E or O should be pronounced open or closed based on the suffix.
- If the word ends in -ela, -elo, -endo, -enno, -ene, -ente, -enza, -erno, -ero, -errimo, -esimo, -estre, -evolo, -iera or -iere, you use an open E.
- If the word ends in -ecchio, -eccio, -efice, -eggio, -esco, -esimo, -essa, -eto, -etto, -evole, -ezza, -mente, or -mento, you use a closed E.
- If the word ends in -occhio, -occio, -olo, -orio, -osi, -ota, -otico, -otto, or -ozzo, you use an open O.
- If the word ends in -oio, -one, -oni, -ore, or -oso, you use a closed O.
The Proper Pronunciation Of S and Z
These two consonants can be pronounced in two different ways: the lip movement is the same, but they become unvoiced if you don’t engage your larynx, or voiced if you do engage the larynx. For example, the S in rosso and the Z in pazzo are unvoiced, while the S in sbagliare and the Z in mezzo are voiced. But how do you know if an S is voiced or not? While there are certain rules you can follow, there are also many exceptions to bear in mind. Hey, no one said it would be easy.
- If an S is followed by a voiced consonant (b, d, f, g, l, m, n, r, v), it’s also voiced. And vice-versa: if it’s followed by an unvoiced consonant (c, f, p, q, t), it’s unvoiced too.
- If an S comes between two vowels, it’s usually voiced, but, again, there are a few exceptions: for example, adjectives ending in –oso and -ese have an unvoiced “s”, although the voiced version is very common, especially in northern Italy.
- A double S is always unvoiced.
- An S at the start of a word, if followed by a vowel, is always unvoiced.
- An S preceded by a consonant is always unvoiced.
- A Z between two vowels is also normally voiced.
- Words ending in -zione, -enza, -anza, –orzo, –arzo, –erzo, or –onzolo have an unvoiced Z.
- A double Z is normally unvoiced, but there are a few exceptions, like azzurra and azzardo, which have a voiced Z.
- Verbs ending in –izzare have a voiced Z. While verbs ending in –azzare have an unvoiced Z.
- If a Z is followed by an I that forms part of a diphthong (and so is pronounced long), as in the words polizia, ozio, or pazzia, it’s unvoiced. The word zio is one of the most frequently mispronounced (i.e., voiced) words, particularly in the north.
The Most Common Italian Pronunciation Errors
Finally, when aiming for proper pronunciation, you should keep in mind that some mistakes are so common that they’re barely seen as errors anymore. In fact, there are some words that, for some reason or another, are so frequently mispronounced by almost everyone that the “mispronounced” variant is now accepted. These are usually cases of incorrectly placed stress: i.e., the stress is often placed on the wrong syllable. Here are some of the most common culprits.
- amàca — the stress should be on the second A (you don’t say àmaca)
- bocciòlo — the stress should be on the second O (you don’t say bòcciolo)
- codardìa — the stress should be on the I (you don’t say codàrdia)
- cucùlo — the stress should be on the second U, as bad as that may sound (you don’t say cùculo)!
- edìle — the stress should be on the I, not on the E (you don’t say èdile)
- facocèro — a very common mistake, but the stress should be on the E, not the O (you don’t say facòcero)
- guaìna — another very common error, the stress should be on the I and not the A (you don’t say guàina)
- infìdo — the stress should be on the second I (you don’t say ìnfido)
- persuadére — the stress should be on the second E (you don’t say persuàdere)
- pudìco — the stress should be on the I (you don’t say pùdico)
- rubrìca — the stress should be on the I (you don’t say rùbrica)
- scandinàvo — most people pronounce this word with the stress on the I, but the correct way is to emphasize the A (despite this, scandìnavo is now accepted given how widespread it’s become).
- utensìle— when it’s a noun, the stress should be on the I; when it’s an adjective, it falls on the E.
A version of this article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.