Italian pronunciation

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.

Fato

Fate

A vowel is short when it is stressed and it’s followed by a consonant cluster, and at the end of a word.

Fatto

Done

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).

Abaco

Abacus

Velocità

Speed

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.

Elemento

Element

Perché

Why / Because

Palestra

Gym

È

(It) is

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

Intero

Whole / Entire

Colibrì

Hummingbird

The vowel O

Orso

Bear

Otre

Wineskin

Farò

I will do

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!

Faro

Lighthouse

The vowel U

Uva

Grapes

Cucù

Cuckoo

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 AA

AA, as a long “a” in “father”

Nausicaa

Nausicaä (A character in Greek mythology)

Graal

Grail

The vowel combination AE

AE, ah-eh

Aereo

Airplane

Saetta

Thunderbolt

The vowel combination AI

AI, pronounced as “eye”

Faida

Family feud

Faina

Stone marten

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 AO

AO, ah-oh

Caotico

Chaotic

Aorta

Aorta

The vowel combination AU

AU, ah-ooh

Aureo

Golden (Related to gold)

Cauto

Careful

The vowel combination EA

EA, eh-ah

Rea

Guilty (feminine)

Reale

Real / Royal

Reazione

Reaction

The vowel combination EE

EE, pronounced as a long “eh” sound

Europee

Europeans (feminine)

Trincee

Military trenches

The vowel combination EI

EI, eh-ee

Lei

She

Vorrei

I would like

Caffeina

Caffeine

The vowel combination EO

EO, eh-oh

Eolo

Aeolus (A character in Greek mythology)

Galeone

Galleon

The vowel combination EU

EU, eh-oo

Europa

Europe

Feudo

Feud / Fief

The vowel combination IA

IA, ee-ah

Fiala

Phial

Pia

Pious (feminine)

Fobia

Phobia

The vowel combination IE

IE, ee-eh

Iena

Hyena

Piede

Foot

The vowel combination II

II, a long “ee” sound

Addii

Farewells

Miagolii

Meows

The vowel combination IO

IO, ee-oh

Piolo

Rung of a ladder

Assiolo

Horned owl

The vowel combination IU

IU, ee-oo

Più

More

Fiuto

Sense of smell

The vowel combination OA

OA, oh-ah

Soave

Agreeable / Pleasing

Coatto

Compulsory / Forced

The vowel combination OE

OE, oh-eh

Poeta

Poet

Eroe

Hero

The vowel combination OI

OI, oh-ee

Poi

Then

Poiana

Buzzard

The vowel combination OO

OO, oh-oh

Oologia

Oology

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 UA

UA, oo-ah

Tua

Yours (feminine)

Sua

His, hers (feminine)

The vowel combination UE

UE, oo-eh

Bilingue

Bilingual

Due

Two

The vowel combination UI

UI, oo-ee

Fluido

Fluid

Suino

Pork

The vowel combination UO

UO, oo-oh

Uovo

Egg

Suo

His, hers (masculine)

The vowel combination UU

UU, oo-oo

This is another rare combination.

Continuum

Continuum

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”.

Cane

Dog

Cena

Dinner

Cina

China

Pancia

Belly

Cobra

Cobra

Cuore

Heart

Tasche

Pockets

Chiave

Key

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

Gelato

Ice cream

Gigante

Giant

Gonna

Skirt

Giorno

Day

Sughi

Sauces, juices

Pronouncing GL

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”.

Aglio

Garlic

Maglione

Sweater

Pronouncing GN

It’s pronounced like the Spanish ñ. Raise your tongue towards the palate while pronouncing “N”.

Ragno

Spider

Montagna

Mountain

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.

Hotel

Hotel

Ho

I have

The consonant P

It’s never aspirated. Beware of geminates!

Palla

Ball

Pera

Pear

Coppa

Cup

The consonant Q

Like the English “k”.

Quindi

Then

Qualcuno

Someone

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!

Laura

Laura (Italian first name)

Regalo

Gift

Chitarra

Guitar

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”.

Sete

Thirst

Rosso

Red

Sbaglio

Mistake

Sleale

Disloyal

Pronouncing SC

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”.

Pesce

Fish

Scatola

Box

The consonant T

It’s never aspirated!

Tetto

Roof

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.

Zanzara

Mosquito (both z’s are voiced)

Zuppa

Soup (hard z because of “p”, which is an unvoiced consonant)

Spezzare

To break

Organizzare

To organize (-izzare, voiced)

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:

Sospirò

He/she sighed

Familiarità

Familiarity

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.

Altissimo

Exceedingly high

Bravissimo

Exceedingly good

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:

Amaca

Hammock

Mollica

The soft inside of bread

Scandinavo

Scandinavian

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!

A presto!
Maria DiLorenzi
Rocket Italian


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