The Drops Blog

A Beginner’s Guide to Italian Pronunciation

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Published:
Jul 16, 2020

On my first day at university, my English professor showed the class a poem entitled “The Chaos”. It’s been stuck in my mind ever since. It goes…

“(…) Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol? (…)
Which rhymes with enough – 
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!”

This brilliant tongue-twister from the 1920s makes an excellent point about the inconsistencies in English pronunciation and has been probably scaring off students for decades!

English spelling can indeed be very tricky, not to say outright illogical--even for native speakers. This is supported by several studies which show about 25% of English words, and even 400 of the most frequently used English words, have an irregular pronunciation.

That said, the good news for you is that Italian pronunciation is much simpler and more consistent than what you’re used to with English. In comparison, it will be a piece of cake for you!

Italian is a phonetic language. This basically means it is spoken the way it is written. This also implies that, once you have learned a few simple rules and exceptions, you will be able to pronounce any new word you come across and even predict the spelling of any word you hear-- even without knowing the meaning.

Moreover, Italian uses the same writing system as English. The Italian alphabet only has 21 letters, plus 5 more (j, k, w, x and y) that only appear in foreign loan words. This means there are no new characters for you to learn.

Additionally, most Italian letters are similar in pronunciation to their English counterparts. There are, however, a few exceptions we will focus on in the following paragraphs. 

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Hard and Soft Sounds

An important fact to know about the Italian language is that some letters (and letter combinations) are pronounced differently depending on which vowel follows.

More specifically, they have a hard sound when they occur before the vowels “A”, “O” and “U” and a soft sound (or sweet sound, dolce, as we call it in Italian) when they are followed by an “E” or an “I”. But beware! When paired with an “H” or any other consonant, they go back to their hard pronunciation.

This rule applies to the following letters:

The Consonant “C”

Within the syllables “CE” and “CI”, the “C” is pronounced like in the word “cheese”, whereas before “A”, “O”, “U” or any consonant (including “H”), it has a hard sound, like in the word “keys”.

The Consonant “G”

“G” plus “E” or “I” makes a soft sound, like the “J” in “Joe”; when followed by “A”, “O”, “U” or a consonant, you pronounce it like in the word “go”. 

The Cluster SC

When “SC” comes before “E” or I”, it will sound like “sh” in “ship”; otherwise, it will have a hard “SK” sound (as in “skip”).

It seems like a lot to memorize, right? Well, don’t worry. Because if you really think about it, all of these sounds already exist in the English phonetic system; therefore, you will be able to learn them much faster than you might expect. 

Double Consonants

When learning Italian, you will often come across words containing the same consonant repeated twice in a row--just think of words like “pizza” or “spaghetti”.

These so-called double consonants (le consonanti doppie) are pronounced more forcefully than other letters, which means that you have to hold the sound a bit longer than you would do with single consonants to add a little emphasis. 

Doubling a consonant usually changes the word’s meaning completely, so you will need to train your ear to notice the difference. For instance, “nonno” is the Italian word for “grandpa”, whereas “nono” is the ordinal number “ninth”; you can put your “cappello” (hat) on your “capelli” (hair) but not the other way round; and you won’t find any “pollo” (chicken) at the “Polo Nord” (North Pole).

Fun fact: In Italian, “H” is the only consonant that cannot be doubled and “soqquadro” (mess) is the only word containing a double “Q”.

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The Biggest Challenge: “GN” and “GL”

These two sounds, which can occur both at the beginning and in the middle of words, are the most peculiar of the Italian language, as well as the most difficult for non-native speakers to master.

The Italian cluster “GN” (rendered in Spanish with the extra letter “Ñ”) has no equivalent in the English language. The “G” contained in it is silent and the focus is on the “N”, which is produced by pressing the tongue against the palate, then sliding it backward slightly when releasing the sound. To start, you could use the “NY” sound in “canyon” or “onion” for reference.

As for the cluster “GL”, it is usually pronounced as two separate letters, like in the English word “glass”--easy-peasy! There is, however, an exception. When “GL” occurs before the vowel “I”, thus building “GLI”, the sound becomes challenging. This spelling produces a sound that doesn’t exist in English--it is often compared to the Spanish “LL”, but this isn’t quite accurate either--and that even many Italian learners struggle with it.

Here’s my personal advice to help you get it right. First, forget about the letter “G”, which is once again silent. Then, with the tip of your tongue touching the back of your front teeth, make an “L” sound and add a long “YI” sound (as in the word “yeast”). That’s it!

The Last Few Rules…

  • In Italian, the letter “H” is always silent whether it is placed in the middle of the word or at the beginning. Yes, we really do pronounce hotel as ‘otel.
  • The Italian “R” sound is nothing like the British or the American “R” sound. It is always rolled slightly and you produce it by making the top of your tongue vibrate against the roof of your mouth. Sure, it is easier said than done; as a child I myself couldn’t pronounce my R’s and had to learn it from scratch, so I know very well how much effort you have to put into it. But don’t get discouraged--practice makes perfect! 
  • Italian vowels are clear-cut, crisp, and never drawn out. There are seven of them: “E” and “O” count double since they can have both a ‘closed’ and an ‘open’ pronunciation depending on their position in the word – as well as on the regional accent of the speaker.

Enough with details now, it’s time to test what you have learned in this brief guide!

To do so, here’s a list of well-known Italian dishes that are most commonly mispronounced by tourists when ordering at the restaurant. Try your hand at them! 

  • Bolognese
  • Bruschetta
  • Carpaccio
  • Focaccia
  • Gelato
  • Gnocchi
  • Lasagne
  • Macchiato
  • Prosciutto
  • Spaghetti
  • Tagliatelle

If you are uncertain how to pronounce any of them, leave a comment here below or check out these extremely useful websites: DOP, the official Italian Spelling and Pronunciation Dictionary, and Forvo, an online database collecting over 85,000 Italian words and phrases recorded by native speakers.

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About the Author: Viola Librenti is a translator who, as part of her work, translates for Drops.

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