Italian Language Blog

La Pronuncia, part 1. Posted by on Dec 1, 2008 in Grammar

Italian, as I’m sure you will have discovered by now, is a ‘challenging’ and often confusing language, and for every rule there seem to be twenty-five exceptions.

The good news however is that one set of rules is consistent, and those are the rules governing la pronuncia (pronunciation). Once you have mastered these fixed rules your life as a student of Italian will become much easier.


Firstly the vowels:

a is pronounced like a as in apple: e.g. banca

e sounds like e in met: e.g. fetta

i is similar to ea as in easy: e.g. vino

o sounds like the o in toffee: e.g. opera

u is pronounced oo as in cool: e.g. uno


So far so good, now for the consonants:

C is one of the consonants that most often confuses English speakers. Take the title of this blog for example, La Pronuncia. In the English word pronunciation the ci is pronounced like the word sea, in Italian however ci sounds like chee as in cheese.

Likewise c followed by e uses a soft ch sound as in chat.

So the rule is: c followed by i or e = soft ch sound: e.g. cinque, centro, circo, cena.

C followed by a,o,u, or a consonant, on the other hand, makes a hard sound like c as in cat: e.g. casa, cotto, classico, cucina.

It’s easy to see how this can lead to confusion for an English speaker. Take the Italian word China for example. In Italian China is not a country but a popular alcoholic drink and it is pronounced keena. The country China is in fact written Cina and pronounced cheena, and a Chinese person is una persona cinese.


The consonant G follows a similar rule, taking on a soft sound when followed by e or i like the g in ginger. Some examples of this are Genova, giraffa and agenzia.

G uses a hard sound like g in gap when followed by a, o or u, and most consonants: e.g. grazie, albergo, pagare, gamba.


H, well this one is easy because it’s silent, we don’t pronounce it! : e.g. hotel pronounced otel, hai pronounced ai, and so on.


Now I’ll give you a bit of time to digest these rules. Try finding some Italian text and applying what you have learnt to unfamiliar words. More to follow in part two…………………

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  1. Julia Shields:

    La Pronuncia, part 1 is really confusing. Perhaps it is written only for speakers of the Queen’s English?
    “a is pronounced like a as in apple: e.g. banca” – but apple in American English is a short a. Isn’t the Italian a pronounced as ah?
    “o sounds like the o in toffee: e.g. opera.” But toffee is pronounced tahfee in most of America; some places it’s pronounced more as tawfee. Is that what you meant? More like au, as in maudling, etc?
    And haven’t I read that the Italian e is difficult to get really correct because there an open e and a closed e in Italian? One pronounced eh and one pronounced ay?
    Help. Please straighten me out.

  2. Serena:

    Salve Julia, Thanks for your comment which raises some interesting points.

    Any written description of pronunciation is bound to be inadequate especially in an international forum such as the internet where readers speak English with a wide range of accents. Dictionaries have developed complex systems for describing pronunciation, something which is beyond the scope of my humble blog and which could in any case only lead to further confusion. My reccomendation is that there is no real substitute for listening to Italian being spoken by a native speaker, so please take every opportunity to do so.
    As for myself I learned English whilst living and teaching in England for 14 years. I taught Italian mainly to English people but also to people from New Zealand, Norway, Holland, Mauritius, Venezuela, India, and Pakistan amongst others. My point of reference however is obviously standard U.K. English.
    Regarding your particular queries about basic vowel sounds:

    The letter A in Italian is a short sound as in apple, cat, bag, sad, etc.
    Our letter O sounds like the o in toffee (U.K. English) and not tawfee as you wrote. It also sounds like the o in got, hop, bottle, etc. However I am aware that in American English the o often sounds like aw. I will have to have a chat with an American friend of mine to see if he has any suggestions because I can’t take into account easily all the different regional variations in pronunciation.
    As to your final question about the letter E. Well in fact you could say that in Italian we have seven vowels because there are two variations on o and two on e. However even a lot of Italians would find it difficult to distinguish the difference between them. Don’t forget that Italy itself has a huge range of regional accents and dialects some of which even I find it difficult to understand!
    I hope this helps clarify things a bit. Please take my advice and listen to the Italian language spoken by an Italian, preferably one who speaks good Italian and not dialect. The standard Italian is meant to be that spoken in Tuscany where I live although of course every little village will have it’s own words of dialect. You could try listening to “Word of the day” on the web site, or download the free Byki sampler for a start.

    Buon proseguimento con lo studio, Serena

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