The correct pronunciation in Italian can be difficult for some folks in the very beginning, but the learning curve is pretty quick on this aspect of the language. At least everything is very standardized and stays consistent (unlike English). Once the basic rules are understood, it is actually quite simple to pronounce each word correctly.
Italian grammar is difficult, but the pronunciation is not; the words are always spoken just as they are written.
First, let’s look at how to pronounce the Italian vowels, because in Italian, the vowels are always spoken clearly and distinctly—unlike in English where we tend to slop everything together. In English, there are 20-something vowel sounds (depending who you ask and where they're from). In Italian there are only 7 vowel sounds, and here’s how they should sound every time:
The One-Sound Vowels: A, I, U
In Italian, the “A” is very open. For many American English speakers, it is similar to the short “O” in hot or to the first “A” in papa. It should never sound like "uh" or "aw."
The “I” and “U” are easier because they make sounds which regularly occur in just about everyone's English. Italian "I" makes a long "E" sound, as in the word steep. Italian "U" makes the sound of "oo" in boot.
The Two-Sound Vowels: E, O
Each of these vowels has both an "open" and "closed" sound. Unfortunately, there is often no way to know which sound to use in a particular word if you haven't heard it spoken correctly. It's much too complicated a subject to embark on here, but there is one simple rule for the spoken language: Italian unstressed “E” and “O” are always closed.
Open “E” makes a sound similar to the English short “E”’ such as in “bet;” however the Italian sound is a bit more open (mouth taller). Closed “E” makes a sound like the “A” in “chaotic.” It's not the same as the much more common (in English) vowel sound, since this slides from the sound we're looking for into “ee.”
The open “O” is like the vowel in “awe” if you say it without any hint of diphthong. Closed “O,” like closed “E,” rarely occurs in English without sliding into something else. It's the first vowel sound in “go,” before it turns into “oo.”
Again, Italian vowels are always spoken in a sharp, clear fashion; they should never be garbled or pronounced weakly. Vowels always keep their value in diphthongs—in other words, each vowel retains its own sound even when coupled with another vowel. For example, the Italian word for airplane is “aereo.” An English speaker might try to pronounce it “air-ee-oh,” but in fact it should be, “ah-er-eh-oh.”
Much like the vowels, the sound that each consonant makes remains consistent, so once the rules are understood, it is simple to pronounce the words correctly.
The consonants B, F, M, N, and V are pronounced exactly as they are in English.
C: Before a, o, u and before consonants has a sound similar to the English k; this is called a hard sound; before e and i it has a sound similar to the English ch as in church. This is called a soft or sweet sound.
G: Before a, o, u and before consonants has a sound like the g in good (hard); before e and i like the g in general it is soft/sweet.
So what happens if we need to make a hard sound with either letter preceding an “e” or “i”? In those cases we insert an “h” in between:
Instead, the soft sound is produced by inserting and “i” when between “c” or “g” and preceding the vowels “a,” “o,” or “u.”
Giappone (Sounds like an English “j.”)
Let’s have a look at the groups GL and GN. The first is pronounced similarly to the double L syllable in the word “millionaire” in English, or it could be phonetically better written as “yi”; the latter is read like the Spanish “ň” with tilde.
D is much sharper in Italian than it is in English; with the tongue near the tip of the upper teeth but with no aspiration.
H is silent in Italian. In Italy, elementary school children are taught that the “h” is the “mute little letter” (la letterina muta). This means that this letter has no sound of its own. When found at the beginning of a word, it is totally silent. “Why do they use it?” one might ask. It’s mainly to remove any ambiguity. For example “ha” is a form of the verb “to have,” for the third person, present tense, meaning, “he/she has.” But “a” is a preposition and means “to.” Although “ha” and “a” sound exactly the same, they must be spelled differently according to their meaning. (And by the way, the sound for a laugh, in Italian, is spelled “Ah, ah” and not “Ha, ha”, for the same reason.)
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Most Italian words are stressed on the next to the last syllable, whether it’s a long word or a short word. For example: Por-to-FIN-o (a city in the Liguria region); al-BER-go (hotel); ca-VAL-lo (horse). Then it stands to reason that the first syllable is usually stressed in two syllable words. For example: ME-la (apple), or PRON-to (ready). There are exceptions, but this rule will serve you about 95% of the time.
If the last vowel in a word is to be stressed, there will be an accent over that vowel. For example: cittá (city), caffè (coffee), or lunedì (Monday). When this occurs, the words do NOT change in their plural forms. Example: una (one, 1) cittá; due (two, 2) cittá.
The written accent is used with some words as a way to distinguish them from others that have the same spelling, but the words have a different meaning, as in the example above. Another example is, “casino” which means a big mess, while “casinò” is a place to play cards or roulette. Notice the written accent over the “o” in the second case.
If this weren’t difficult enough, this phenomenon sometimes happens without the benefit of a written clue (the 5% exception that I mentioned earlier). For example “leggere” means “to read” when the accent falls on the first syllable, and it means “light” (not heavy; fem. plur.) when it falls on the second syllable. Uh-oh.
Don’t worry about this too much. As I say, it’s the exception rather than the rule and the more common exceptions will be used often enough where they will just become memorized.
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