Italian Pronunciation: Is Italian Really a Phonetic Language?

When discussing their language, Italians often claim: “We pronounce the words just how they are written!” implying that Italian pronunciation is simpler compared to other languages.

In this article, we intend to explain to what degree this statement is true and explore some intricacies of Italian pronunciation. The truth is, Italian pronunciation isn't as straightforward as it may seem.

Italian is considered to be a «phonetic language»

Italian is commonly recognized as a phonetic language. In linguistics, phonetic languages are known to have a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

In other words, each grapheme of the alphabet corresponds to a phoneme, and each phoneme would invariably be represented by its paired grapheme.

On the contrary, other languages like English or French are said to be non-phonetic. The French word «eau» perfectly confirms that… and we all know how tricky English pronunciation can be! (We compare French to Italian here)

However, despite some degree of accuracy, we must partially disconfirm what Italians often say about their language. The truth is that no natural language is entirely phonetic. Even those languages that have gained the reputation of being ‘phonetic’ have some irregularities in their pronunciation!

Furthermore, English wasn't always non-phonetic. Languages evolve over time, much like living organisms. English, for instance, underwent significant changes, leading to a transformation in its spoken form.

Not all these changes affected the written aspect, though. As a result, we now have a version of modern English characterized by a “delicate” set of pronunciation rules.

So… Plot twist: we can’t claim that English is a non-phonetic language, nor that Italian is always a phonetic language and that its words are always easy to pronounce!

In reality, some Italian consonants are pronounced differently depending on the letter or group of letters that follow. Additionally, word stress can alter a word's meaning, and emphasizing a double consonant can create a new term. In the following paragraphs, we will go through each of these cases.

Groups of letters

If you've ever listened to someone recite the Italian alphabet, you might have noticed that certain consonants only seem to have a soft sound. Specifically, we're talking about 'C' and 'G'.

Actually, these consonants are chameleonic: their sound changes depending on the letter that follows them. Let’s go into more detail!

When ‘C’ is followed by ‘A’, ‘O’, or ‘U’, its sound is hard, and it’s akin to the English ‘K’ sound. Some examples are:

However, when the same consonant is followed by 'E' or 'I', its sound becomes softer. Hence, we have:

You might be aware that the Italian language features a silent consonant: the letter 'H'. In this context, the silent ‘H’ acts like an intruder. It can slip in between the ‘C’ and the ‘E’ or the ‘I’. The result? The sound of the ‘C’ will become hard. For example:

It's interesting to note that Latin (the parent language of Italian) doesn’t have a soft ‘c’ sound. In Latin, the letter ‘c’ always corresponds to a hard sound. (there are many more interesting differences & similarities between Italian and Latin)

Just like the ‘C’, the ‘G’ can have both a soft and a hard sound. Its pronunciation depends on the letters that follow it. More specifically, if followed by ‘A’, ‘O’, or ‘U’, we will have to tag it as a hard sound consonant. Here are some examples:

On the contrary, when followed by ‘I’ or ‘E’, the ‘G’ sound will turn into a soft one:

What about the intrusive ‘H’? Well, they say that the ‘H’ is so curious it wants to visit the ‘G’ as well. GHI and GHE are both pronounced as hard sounds:

However, that’s not all! There is more about the ‘G’ sound. It has a hard sound when followed by the letters LA, LE, LO, LU:

When followed by LI, instead, its sound will be soft and… difficult to be pronounced correctly:

Please note: there are a bunch of exceptions to this exception. Generally, all the words that originate from Greek maintain their hard sound:

Before we wrap up our discussion on the letter 'G', we must highlight the intriguing 'GN' combination. When 'G' is followed by 'N', they unite to create a distinct sound, quite reminiscent of the Spanish letter 'ñ' (especially for those acquainted with this fellow Romance language). You might be familiar with the word "Gnocchi," right?

Some Italian Homographs

The Italian language is equipped with words that seem to be identical, but, in fact, they are not. In linguistics, homographs are those terms that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings.

The difference in pronunciation is due to an acute (´) or grave (`) accent on the same vowel, or to the position of the accent on another vowel of the term. Confused? It is actually easier done than said!

Not-fun fact: it’s not mandatory to signal these accents graphically. How will you know if the text you’re reading is referring to principles or princes? Well, just like in many other cases, you will have to pay attention to the context!

Double consonants

Last but not least: double consonants. Two words may differ in meaning because of a sole extra consonant: spot it or make a mistake! Whenever you see a word with a double consonant, all you have to do is to give a stronger emphasis to that consonant.

We have reached the end of this short voyage into the intricacies of Italian pronunciation. As you can observe, the spoken articulation of Italian is far from being regular.

Just like every other language, Italian has some complexities too. But there's no need to worry —simply dedicating some time to practicing your speaking skills will do the trick!