How to read and pronunce the Italian alphabet

If you choose to learn the Italian language, you’ll need to start by learning it’s alphabet.

When you have an innumerable amount of other “useful” languages to choose from, why would you choose Italian — a language spoken by about 59 million people, compared to, let’s say Mandarin’s 935 million

Despite the fact that every day more and more Italians are learning English, there is still a huge appeal to learn la bella lingua.

Italian alphabet

A [a]: Is pronounced like “a” in “father”.

B [bi]: Is pronounced like “b” in “bucket”.

C [ci]: The pronunciation of “c” depends on the letter that follows it:

  • When the following letter is “e” or “i”, it is pronounced as “ch” in “chair”. This pronunciation is called C dolce, “Sweet C”. The word dolce (DOL-che, as in dolphin and check) is itself an example of this pronunciation. Note that when “ci” is followed by another vowel, the “i” is silent, e.g. ciao (CHA-o, as in cha-cha and on) “hello”.
  • It is silent in “sci” and “sce”. We will learn how to pronounce “sci” and “sce” later.
  • In all other cases, it is pronounced like “k” in “key”. This pronunciation is called C dura, “Hard C”. For example capo (KAH-po, as in car and pot), “head”.

D [di]: Like “d” in “do”.

E [e]: Like “e” in “bet” or in “hey”. The former is called la è aperta (“open E”), and the latter la é chiusa (“closed E”). The two sounds are very similar and native speakers of Italian sometimes confuse them too. It is best to get used to the differences through listening.

F [effe]: Like “f” in fast”.

G [gi]: It has 4 different pronunciations:

  • When is followed by “e” or “i”, you have to pronounce it like “j” in “jump”. This pronunciation is called G dolce (“sweet G”), e.g. gelato (ge-LAH-to, as in gel, lava, and top), “ice cream”. Note that when “gi” is followed by another vowel, the “i” is silent, e.g. gioco(JO-ko, as in John and cop), “toy, game”.
  • When it is followed by “n”, it is pronounced like the Spanish “ñ”, which is a sound that does not exist in English. To pronounce it, try to say “y” as in “yes”, but lift your tongue in such a way that it touches the upper palate. It is like saying “n”, but with the fleshy part of the tongue instead of the tip. Example: gnocchi.
  • When it is followed by “li + a vowel”, it is pronounced like a very soft “y” as in “yield”, e.g. aglio(EYE-yo, “yo” as in “yogurt”) “garlic”. However, “gli + a consonant” is pronounced as separate letters, e.g. negligenza(neg-lee-JEN-zah) “negligence”.
  • In all other cases, you must pronounce it like “g” in “go”. This pronunciation is called G dura(hard G), e.g. gabbia (GAB-byah) “cage”.

H [acca]: The letter “h” is silent in Italian, and it is only used to modify the pronunciation of “c” and “g” to invoke the hard pronunciation before “e” and “i” (so “chi” sounds like “ki” in “kitten”, “che” like “ke” in “kelp”, “ghi” like “gi” in “give”, and “ghe” like “ge” in “get”). It is also used at the beginning of several forms of the verb “to have”, e.g. ho (“I have”) and ha (he/she/it has), and in some loanwords.

I [i]: Like “i” in “marine” or “ee” in “see”. However, it is silent when it follows “sc”, “gl”, “g”, or “c” + a vowel, for example ascia (AH-sha) “Axe”, maglietta (mah-YET-tah) “T-shirt”, gioco (JO-ko, as in John and cop) “toy, game”, and ciao (CHA-o, as in cha-cha and on) “hello”. When “sc”, “gl”, “g”, and “c” are followed by “i” and a consonant, the “i” is not silent, e.g. scimmia (SHEEM-myah) “monkey”, glicine (GLEE-chee-neh) “wisteria”, giraffa (GEE-rahf-fah) “giraffe”, and cibo (CHEE-baw) “food”. 

L [elle]: Like “l” in “like”. Remember that it is silent in “gli + a vowel”.

M [emme]: Like “m” in “mad”.

N [enne]: Like “n” in “no”. Remember that “gn” is pronounced differently.

O [o]: Like “a” in “all”. Just like the letter E, it has two pronunciations, one called aperta (“open”) and one called chiusa (“closed”), but the difference is very subtle. We will discuss the differences in another article.

P [pi]: Like “p” in “park”.

Q [qu]: Like “k” in “key”. It is always followed by “u” and another vowel. The word “Soqquadro” is the only exception, in which “Q” is followed by a consonant.

R [erre]: A rolled “R”, like in Spanish or in Scottish English. If you pronounce it like the usual English “R”, you will be understood, but perceived as having a foreign accent.

S [esse]: “S” has three possible pronunciations:

  • It is pronounced like “s” in “set” when
    • it is at the beginning of a word and followed by a vowel, e.g. saltare (sal-TAH-re, “re” as in red), “to jump”,

    • it is followed by “c” (but not “ci” or “ce”), “f”, “p”, “q”, “s”, or “t”, e.g. squadra (SKWAD-rah), “team”,

    • it follows a consonant, e.g. polso (PAWL-so, “so” as in sock), “wrist”. This is because then it usually belongs to a separate syllable, but there are als a few words where it is pronounced like in “desert”, e.g. transatlantico (tranz-aht-LAHN-tee-ko), “transatlantic”.

  • This kind of pronunciation is called S sorda (“deaf S”, “unvoiced S”).
  • It is pronounced like “s” in “desert” (or “z” in “zealot”) when
    • it is followed by “b”, “d”, “g”, “l”, “m”, “n”, “r” or “v”, e.g. sbarrare (zbar-RAH-re, “re” as in red), “to block”,

    • it is between two vowels in Italian spoken in the north of Italy. In the south of Italy, people say “s” as in “set” even between two vowels.

  • This kind of pronunciation is called “S sonora” (“sonorous S”, “voiced S”).
  • When it is followed by “ci” or “ce”, it is pronounced like “sh” in “shy”, e.g. scienza (SHEN-tsah), “science”.

T [ti]: Like “t” in “table”.

U [u]: Like “oo” in “food” or like “w” in “well” before a vowel, e.g. questo(KWES-taw), “this”.

V [vi]: Like “v” in “view”.

Z [zeta]: This is the most difficult letter in the whole Italian alphabet. It has two pronunciations, one called sonora (“sonorous”, “voiced”), which sounds like “z” in “amazing”, and the other called sorda (“deaf”, “unvoiced”), which is pronounced like “ts” in “tsunami” or “zz” in the English pronunciation of “pizza”. However, unlike “S”, the rules are very complicated and there are lots of irregular words. 

Learning the basics

If you’re pressed for time, focus on the fundamentals. Study the Italian ABC’s and Italian numbers, how to pronounce Italian words and ask questions in Italian.

However, the quickest and most effective way to learn Italian is the total-immersion method.

Whether it’s reading an Italian textbook, taking a language course at a university or local language school, completing workbook exercises , listening to a tape or CD, or conversing with a native Italian speaker. Spend some time every day reading, writing, speaking, and listening to Italian to become accustomed to the target language. Slowly but surely, your confidence will build, your accent will become less pronounced, your vocabulary will expand, and you’ll be communicating in Italian.

If you need help to improve your Italian I can help you, please contact me! 🙂

Can you pronounce the Italian alphabet? Has this article been helpful? Let me know with a comment 🙂

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.