The Italian Alphabet: a head start on pronunciation

Why is it important to start from the alphabet?

Have you ever stop to think what languages really are? We call language a string of sounds to which we attribute a specific meaning. This it’s completely arbitrary, which means that we all agreed to attach a conventional meaning to that specific sound string (if you’re interested you can read more on this topic in this publication on the Arbitrary of Sign).

This is why pronunciation is very important when you learn a language.

Therefore today I am going to break down the pronunciation of the Italian alphabet (with plenty of examples).

Click here to listen to the audio of the words!

 

A

The Italian A, unlike English, has only one pronunciation: like the a in father.
Try with:
albero [tree]
casa [house]
bambino [boy]
sale [salt]
amico [friend]

B

Like the English balloon.
Try with:
bianco [white]
bene [well]
buono [good]
buongiorno [good morning]
bambola [doll]

C

Before soft vowels (e and i), C is pronounced as [ch] in church. Elsewhere, it is pronounced as in car (more on that on the The Little Guide to Italian Pronunciation)
Try with:
camera [room]
cena [dinner]
ciao [hello]
correre [to run]
cucina [kitchen]

D

Letter D is pronounced like the d in desire.
Try with:
arrivederci [good bye]
dare [to give]
divano [couch]
pandoro [leavened Christmas cake]
domanda [question]

E

This can get tricky sometimes. I will give you examples of standard Italian, but just so you know, we have (so many!) dialects in Italy, and therefore there are many differences in pronunciation and prosody (aka the rhythm and pattern of sound combinations).
Let me stop you before you shrug and say “whatev, then!”! Pronunciation DOES make a difference!
As a matter of fact, E can be pronounced open as in bet or closed as in moment.
Try with:
sole [sun]
pesca [peach]
bere [to drink]
e [and]
è [is] – See? I was no joking!

F

Is pronounced like the f in fair.
Try with:
fare [to make – and so many other meanings]
filo [thread]
fuoco [fire]
fermata [bus stop]
farmacia [pharmacy]

G

Like C, G has a weird pronunciation – of which I also speak in The Little Guide to Italian Pronunciation – depends on what letter comes next. Before soft vowels (again, e and i) G is pronounced like in gem, in all the other cases it’s pronounced like in goal.
Try with:
gamba [leg]
gelato [ice-cream]
gioco [game]
goccia [drop]
guerra [war]

H

This letter would need a post for itself, however, here I will be brief (and perhaps come back at it later).
Letter H in Italian is completely silent. Everywhere.
What is it for then?!
It has mainly one function: to change the pronunciation of letters combinations that have two possible pronunciations like ce/ci [ch sound] and che/chi [k sound] or ge/gi [j sound] or ghe/ghi [g sound].
However, H can also be used to distinguish homophones (a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning) like anno [year] and hanno [they have] in written text.
Sounds not fun uh? Before you start complaining *big toothy smiles forms slowly*: right, rite, wright, write. There.
Try with:
cera [wax]
forchetta [fork]
cinema [movie theatre]
chiave [key]
gentile [kind]
spaghetti [ahem… duuuh?!]
giorno [day]
ghiaccio [ice]

I

Together with letter E, I is one of the most difficult vowels to get them right by English speakers. Why? Because they are exactly the opposite! Letter I is usually pronounced like the i in machine or like [ee] in bee.
Try with:
infradito [flip flops]
insalata [salad]
idraulico [plumber]
impiegato [employee]
isola [island]

L

Is pronounced like liquid.
Try with:
ladro [thief]
latte [milk]
luce [light]
lavatrice [washing machine]
lenzuolo [bed sheet]

M

Is pronounced like mother.
Try with:
mamma mia! [OMG]
maglietta [t-shirt]
maschera [mask]
moto [motorcycle]
musica [music]

N

As is no. *And the Facebook grumpy cat comes to mind*
Try with:
naso [nose]
noce [nut]
nutella [like… for real: best thing ever invented]
notte [night]
neve [snow]

O

Just as the E – this letter seems to be everywhere “come il prezzemolo” [as parsley] we would say in Italian. Where was I? Oh yes, letter O.
It can be pronounced closed as the a in ball, or open like the o porch. Unlike the E though, pronunciation does not change the meaning of the word.
Unless it’s a minimal pair such as botte [barrel] and botte [bruises].
Try with:
piano [slow]
dolce [sweet]
mondo [world]
domani [tomorrow]
piccolo [small]

P

Is pronounced like pizza of course!
Try also:
padre [father]
pieno [full]
pulito [clean]
più [more]
parco [park]

Q

Q exists only in connection with u followed by another vowel. It has the same sound of a hard C, therefore you pronounce it [kw].
Try with:
quando [when]
quadro [painting]
questo [this]
quello [that]
quattro [four]

R

The Italian R is one of the most difficult sounds to perform as a foreigner (unless you speak Spanish or Russian, then you are ahead of the game!) It is not pronounced with the tongue in the back, as it is in English, but trilled in the front part of your palate (right behind your front teeth).
Try with:
radio [radio] a word you’ll never remember!
per favore [please]
prego [you’re welcome]
prezzo [price]
rosa [rose]
Raperonzolo! just kidding. You got this. It’s just a matter of practice.

S

The S is mostly pronounced as the s in solo. However, if it’s in between vowels it’s pronounced as a z in maze.
Try with:
S sound
rosso [red]
solo [alone/lonely]
pasta [aka the other name of Italians abroad]
sera [evening]
maestra [elementary teacher]

Z sound
chiesa [church]
poesia [poem]
esatto [exact]
misura [measure]
vaso [vase]

T

Is always pronounced as in ton.
Try with:
treno [train]
torta [cake]
tutto [everything]
testa [head]
tavolo  [table]

U

In Italian, the vowel U sounds like a double O in English [oo] like in zoo.
Try with:
tu [you]
luna [moon]
frutto [fruit]
uomo [man]
uscire [to exit]

V

Is pronounced like in vision.
Try with:
vino [wine]
vestito [dress]
via [road]
vita [life]
verde [green]

Z

Eventually, Z has two types of pronunciation: like [dz] and like [ts] and – lucky for you – that really depends on the region. I, for example, being from the North of Italy (Venice) I would say [dzucchero] with a soft Z, while my friends from Tuscany would say [tsucchero] with a sharper Z.
Alas, standard Italian was based on the Tuscan dialect, therefore I would be wrong… yet still understood! (In the audio recordings I give the “standard” Italian pronunciation)
Try with:
nazione [nation]
tazza [cup]
eccezione  [exception]
zucchero [sugar]
zebra [can’t be lion, right?!]

DONE! Good job!

Don’t you feel like something is missing?

Where are the J K W X Y?! Yup. Not there. And this is because the Italian alphabet has only 21 letters!

Why?! Well, in the fascist era all foreign words (and therefore letters) were banned. Therefore you could observe interesting variations of words such as tassì for taxi and acquavite for whiskey (you can find other interesting words here)

But… how can we live without them?!

Trust me, I don’t know either. In fact, purists of the language gave in. Younger generations know how to use and pronounce those letters (there are taught in kindergarten!), as we use them in everyday life: Facebook, Whatsapp, jeans, okay, ketchup, killer, wow, yogurt, hobby, jogging,…

Now, I have organized for you a series of videos to get started with Italian pronunciation. Just go to my YouTube Channel and start practicing right now!

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you!

The Little Guide to Italian Pronunciation is FREE!

Woot woot!

Have I mentioned that it includes three short stories with audio to practice as well?

NO. WAY. Right?!

Well then! Just click on the link and you’ll have it in a heartbeat in your inbox!

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