Now that you've decided to learn Italian, it's time to dig into the language learning process. The best place to get started is by learning Italian pronunciation starting with the Italian alphabet. The Italian alphabet is the foundation of all Italian pronunciation and a great way to develop a good Italian accent and spelling skills.
The Italian alphabet looks very similar to the English alphabet, but there are a few key differences, in that there are only 21 letters and 7 oral vowels.
First, let’s see what the 7 oral vowels are.
How to pronounce the Italian vowels
We’ve said that there are 7 oral vowels, but the vowels in the alphabet itself are only 5: A, E, I, O, U.
Before we delve deeper into their pronunciation, let’s talk about their length: every vowel, depending on its surrounding letters, can either be short or long.
A vowel is long when it is stressed and there are no consonant clusters following it. Eg.
A vowel is short when it is stressed and it’s followed by a consonant cluster, and at the end of a word.
The “to” syllables in both words feature a short “o” vowel. Vowels that are not stressed are all short.
Now, let’s see all the vowels in more detail:
The vowel A
The Italian “a” sound resembles the “a” in father, but it’s a bid wider. There’s only one way you can pronounce this sound (always remember the distinction between short and long vowels).
It’s rare for an Italian vowel to be stressed at the end of a word, and when it is it is marked with an accent, as in velocità here.
The vowel E
“E” has two pronunciations, a narrow and a wide pronunciation.
The first two words feature a close “e”, while the “e” in palestra is wide. As in velocità, perché is stressed on the last syllable so it carries a mark. È is a conjugation of the verb essere, to be, and it carries a mark so that it is distinguishable from e, the Italian translation of and, which in standard Italian is pronounced with a close sound.
At the end of a word, -é is pronounced close.
The vowel I
The vowel O
Final ò sounds are always open, like the o in otre. You’ll hear the two o’s in orso have a different sound. Notice that if you miss the accent mark on the last word, farò, you will write faro, which is pronounced very differently (the stress will be on the “a” vowel and not on the last syllable) and it will mean lighthouse!
The vowel U
How to pronounce the Italian vowels combinations
Differently from English, every vowel in a vowel combination is pronounced. Let’s see all the possible combinations:
The vowel combination AAAA, as a long “a” in “father”
The vowel combination AEAE, ah-eh
The vowel combination AIAI, pronounced as “eye”
The first word, faida, features how the combination “ai” is almost always pronounced, with the stress on “a”. Some very are exceptions occur, such as faina, with the stress on “i”.
The vowel combination AOAO, ah-oh
The vowel combination AUAU, ah-ooh
The vowel combination EAEA, eh-ah
The vowel combination EEEE, pronounced as a long “eh” sound
The vowel combination EIEI, eh-ee
The vowel combination EOEO, eh-oh
The vowel combination EUEU, eh-oo
The vowel combination IAIA, ee-ah
The vowel combination IEIE, ee-eh
The vowel combination IIII, a long “ee” sound
The vowel combination IOIO, ee-oh
The vowel combination IUIU, ee-oo
The vowel combination OAOA, oh-ah
The vowel combination OEOE, oh-eh
The vowel combination OIOI, oh-ee
The vowel combination OOOO, oh-oh
OU, oh-oo, is found in loanwords from English and French, such as “outlet”, and Italian words with this sound are pretty unique.
The vowel combination UAUA, oo-ah
The vowel combination UEUE, oo-eh
The vowel combination UIUI, oo-ee
The vowel combination UOUO, oo-oh
The vowel combination UUUU, oo-oo
This is another rare combination.
How to pronounce the Italian consonants
Now that we’ve seen the Italian vowels, it’s time to look at how consonants behave. Most consonants are pronounced as in English, however you have to be careful with a few of them.
Unlike the English consonants, the Italian consonants can also undergo what is called gemination in linguistics: double consonants, like TT, LL and MM, are audibly longer than T, L and M consonants alone.
Let’s see the important consonants in detail.
The consonant C
C is never aspirated in Italian, meaning that it is never followed by a puff of air as in “cat”.
When it precedes -e or -i, C has a “ch” sound, like in “check”. Otherwise, in front of -a, -o and -u it behaves like the English “k”.
CIA, CIO, CIU are pronounced like cha, cho, choo respectively.
CH is pronounced like “k”.
The consonant G
It follows the same rules of C, so:
- In front of -e and -i it is pronounced like the “j” in “John”
- It has a hard “g” sound in front of -a, -o and -u, as in “guide”
- GIA, GIO and GIU are pronounced like jah, joh and joo
- GH behaves like the “g” in “game”
This consonant cluster has a sound that doesn’t exist in English, but the “lli” cluster in “million” is a good starting point.
Tip: raise your tongue towards the palate while pronouncing “L”.
It’s pronounced like the Spanish ñ. Raise your tongue towards the palate while pronouncing “N”.
The consonant H
Unlike English, the Italian H is always silent. It might as well disappear and it wouldn’t make a difference in how words are pronounced.
The consonant P
It’s never aspirated. Beware of geminates!
The consonant Q
Like the English “k”.
The consonant R
It’s trilled, like the Spanish R, but it’s not as long.
Tip: the single “r” sound resembles the faint “d” sound that results from pronouncing “butter” or “water” with an American accent. See if you can roll the tip of your tongue starting with that sound!
The consonant S
In standard Italian, if between vowels or before a voiced consonant it’s pronounced voiced, sounding exactly like the “s” in “case”. This is unlike English, where words like “sleep” or “snake” are pronounced with an unvoiced S. In all other cases, it’s pronounced like the “s” in “six”.
When it precedes -e and -i it’s pronounced like the “sh” in “shake”. In front of -a, -o and -u it sounds like the “sk” in “skate”.
The consonant T
It’s never aspirated!
The consonant Z
In standard Italian, it’s voiced at the beginning of a word, unless the next syllable contains an unvoiced consonant, when it’s between vowels, and it’s unvoiced when it belongs to a verb ending in -izzare.
Where is the stress?
About 75% of the words are stressed on the second to last syllable, like “Portone”, “Labirinto”, “Nessuno”.
When a word has an accent mark on the last vowel, the stress is always on that vowel:
Notice that if you miss the accent mark on “sospirò”, you’ll actually say something else, “sospiro”, which can either mean “sigh” or “I sigh” depending on context! So accent marks are important.
Superlatives, that means adjectives ending in -issimo, issima, -issimi and -issime, are stressed on the third to last syllable.
These two tips aside, there’s really no way to know where the accent will fall. Some words (they are tricky for natives as well!) are stressed on unexpected syllables:
It’s easy to make a mistake and say “àmaca”, and many natives say “mòllica” and “scandìnavo” on a daily basis, but these are all wrong!
This is the end of our free lesson. Although this seems like a lot to take, I assure you that the Italian pronunciation is pretty easy because it has a limited amount of sounds. Keep practicing and listening, and you will master its pronunciation in no time!