Italian orthography

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Italian orthography uses a variant of the Latin alphabet consisting of 21 letters to write the Italian language.

Alphabet[edit]

The base alphabet consists of 21 letters: five vowels (A, E, I, O U) and 16 consonants. The letters J, K, W, X and Y are not part of the proper alphabet, and are used only for loanwords (e.g. 'jeans') and foreign names (with very few exceptions, such as in the native names Jesolo and Bettino Craxi, derived from Venetian). In addition, grave, acute and circumflex accents may be used to modify vowel letters.

Letter Name IPA Diacritics
A, a a [a] /a/ à
B, b bi [bi] /b/
C, c ci [tʃi] /k/ or //
D, d di [di] /d/
E, e e [e] /e/ or /ɛ/ è, é
F, f effe [ˈɛffe] /f/
G, g gi [dʒi] /ɡ/ or //
H, h acca [ˈakka] silent
I, i i [i] /i/ or /j/ ì, í, [î]
L, l elle [ˈɛlle] /l/
M, m emme [ˈɛmme] /m/
N, n enne [ˈɛnne] /n/
O, o o [ɔ] /o/ or /ɔ/ ò, ó
P, p pi [pi] /p/
Q, q cu [ku] /k/
R, r erre [ˈɛrre] /r/
S, s esse [ˈɛsse] /s/ or /z/
T, t ti [ti] /t/
U, u u [u] /u/ or /w/ ù, ú
V, v vi [vi], vu [vu] /v/
Z, z zeta [ˈdzɛːta] /ts/ or /dz/

Vowels[edit]

The Italian alphabet has five vowel letters, ⟨a e i o u⟩. Of those, only ⟨a⟩ represents one sound value while each of the others has two. In addition, ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩ indicate a different pronunciation of a preceding ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩ (see below).

In stressed syllables, ⟨e⟩ represents both open /ɛ/ and close /e/. Similarly, ⟨o⟩ represents both open /ɔ/ and close /o/ (see the Italian phonology for further details on these sounds). There is typically no orthographic distinction between the open and closed sounds represented, though accent marks are used in certain instances (see below). In unstressed syllables, only the close variants occur except before sonorants.

In addition to representing the respective vowels /i/ and /u/, ⟨i⟩ and ⟨u⟩ also typically represent the semivowels /j/ and /w/, respectively, when unstressed and occurring before another vowel. Many exceptions exist (e.g. attuale, deciduo, deviare, dioscuro, fatuo, iato, inebriare, ingenuo, liana, proficuo, riarso, viaggio). Unstressed ⟨i⟩ may represent that a preceding or following ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩ is 'soft' (dolce).

C and G[edit]

Normally, ⟨c⟩ and ⟨g⟩ represent the plosives /k/ and /ɡ/, respectively, unless they precede a front vowel (⟨i⟩ or ⟨e⟩) when they represent the affricates /tʃ/ (like English ch) and /dʒ/ (like English j).

The letter ⟨i⟩ may also function merely as an indicator that the preceding ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩ is soft, e.g. cia (/tʃa/), giu (/dʒu/). When the hard pronunciation occurs before a front vowel, digraphs ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨gh⟩ are used, so that ⟨che⟩ represents /ke/ or /kɛ/ and ⟨chi⟩ represents /ki/ or /kj/. In the evolution of the Latin language, the postalveolar affricates /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ were contextual variants of the velar consonants /k/ and /ɡ/. They eventually came to be full phonemes, and the said orthographic practice was introduced to distinguish them. The phonemicity of the affricates can be demonstrated with the minimal pairs:

Plosive Affricate
Before ⟨i⟩, ⟨e⟩ ch china /ˈkiːna/ 'India ink' c Cina /ˈtʃiːna/ 'China'
gh ghiro /ˈɡiːro/ 'dormouse' g giro /ˈdʒiːro/ 'lap', 'tour'
Elsewhere c caramella /karaˈmɛlla/ 'candy' ci ciaramella /tʃaraˈmɛlla/ 'shawm'
g gallo /ˈɡallo/ 'rooster' gi giallo /ˈdʒallo/ 'yellow'

The trigraphs ⟨cch⟩ and ⟨ggh⟩ are used to indicate geminated /k/ and /ɡ/, respectively, when they occur before ⟨i⟩ or ⟨e⟩; e.g. occhi /ˈɔkki/ ('eyes'), agghindare /aɡɡinˈdaːre/ ('to dress up').

⟨G⟩ is also used to mark that a following ⟨l⟩ or ⟨n⟩ is palatal, i.e. /ʎ/ (only when followed by ⟨i⟩), /ɲ/ (everywhere) respectively (this is not true in words derived from Greek, where ⟨gl⟩ is a plain /ɡl/, like in glicine, 'wisteria').

The digraph ⟨sc⟩ is used before ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩ to represent /ʃ/; before other vowels, ⟨sci⟩ is used. Otherwise, ⟨sc⟩ represents /sk/, the ⟨c⟩ of which follows the normal orthographic rules explained above.

/sk/ /ʃ/
Before ⟨i e⟩ sch scherno /ˈskerno/ sc scerno /ˈʃɛrno/
Elsewhere sc scalo /ˈskaːlo/ sci scialo /ˈʃaːlo/

Other than a few Northern Italian dialects, intervocalic /ʎ/, /ɲ/, and /ʃ/ are always geminated and no orthographic distinction is made to indicate this.

S and Z[edit]

⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ are ambiguous to voicing.

⟨s⟩ represents a dental sibilant consonant (/s/ or /z/). However, these two phonemes are in complementary distribution everywhere except between two vowels in the same word and, even in such environments, there are very few minimal pairs.

  • It is voiceless (/s/):
  • It is voiced (/z/) before voiced consonants (e.g. sbranare /zbraˈnaːre/).
  • It can be either voiceless or voiced (/s/ or /z/) between vowels; in standard Tuscany-based pronunciation some words are pronounced with /s/ between vowels (e.g. casa, cosa, così, mese, naso, peso, cinese, piemontese, goloso); in Northern Italy (and also increasingly in Tuscany) ⟨s⟩ between vowels is always pronounced with /z/ (with some exceptions) whereas in Southern Italy ⟨s⟩ between vowels is always pronounced with /s/.

⟨z⟩ represents a dental affricate consonant; either /dz/ (zanzara /dzanˈdzaːra/) or /ts/ (nazione /natˈtsjoːne/), depending on context, though there are few minimal pairs.

  • It is normally voiceless (/ts/):
    • At the start of a word in which the second syllable starts with a voiceless consonant (zampa /ˈtsampa/, zoccolo /ˈtsɔkkolo/), zufolo /ˈtsuːfolo/);
    • When followed by an ⟨i⟩ which is followed, in turn, by another vowel (e.g. zio /ˈtsiːo/, agenzia /adʒenˈtsiːa/, grazie /ˈɡrattsje/);
      • Exceptions: azienda /adˈdzjɛnda/, all words derived from words obeying other rules (e.g. romanziere /romanˈdzjɛːre/, which is derived from romanzo);
    • After the letter ⟨l⟩ (e.g. alzare /alˈtsaːre/);
    • In words ending in -ezza, -ozza or -uzzo (e.g. grandezza /ɡranˈdettsa/, tinozza /tiˈnɔttsa/, spruzzo /ˈspruttso/);
      • Exceptions: brezza /ˈbreddza/;
    • In the infinitive ending -azzare (e.g. ammazzare /ammatˈtsaːre/);
    • In the suffixes -anza, -enza and -onzolo (e.g. usanza /uˈzantsa/, credenza /kreˈdɛntsa/, ballonzolo /balˈlontsolo/);
  • It is voiced (/dz/):
    • At the start of a word in which the second syllable starts with a voiced consonant (e.g. zebra /ˈdzɛːbra/);
      • Exceptions: zanna /ˈtsanna/, zigano /tsiˈɡaːno/ (derived from the Caucasian term tzigan);
    • At the start of a word when followed by two vowels (e.g. zaino /ˈdzaino/);
      • Exceptions: zio and its derived terms (see above);
    • If it is single (not doubled) and between two single vowels (e.g. azalea /addzaˈlɛːa/);
      • Exceptions: nazismo /natˈtsizmo/ (from the German pronunciation of ⟨z⟩);
    • In the verb suffix -izzare (from Greek -ίζειν; e.g. organizzare /orɡanidˈdzaːre/);

Between vowels and/or semivowels (/j/ and /w/), ⟨z⟩ are pronounced as if doubled (/tts/ or /ddz/, e.g. razzo /ˈraddzo/). This can be the case even if a single ⟨z⟩ is used, specifically in words ending in -zione, -zioni, -zia, -zie, and -zio (e.g. vizio /ˈvittsjo/, polizia /politˈtsiːa/).

Other letters[edit]

In addition to being used to indicate a hard ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩ before front vowels, ⟨h⟩ is also used to distinguish ho, hai, ha, hanno (present indicative of avere, 'to have') from o ('or'), ai ('to the', m. pl.), a ('to'), anno ('year'); since ⟨h⟩ is always silent, there is no difference in the pronunciation of such words. In foreign loanwords, the h is still silent: hovercraft /ˈɔverkraft/.

The letters J (I lunga 'long I'), K (cappa), W (V doppia or doppia V 'double V'), X (ics) and Y (ipsilon or I greca 'Greek I') are used for loanwords only, with few exceptions.

Diacritics[edit]

The acute accent may be used on ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ to represent close-mid vowels when they are stressed in a position other than the default second-to-last syllable. This use of accents is generally mandatory only in the final syllable; elsewhere, accents are generally found only in dictionaries. Since final ⟨o⟩ is hardly ever close-mid, ⟨ó⟩ is very rarely encountered in written Italian (e.g. metró 'subway', from the original French pronunciation of métro with a final-stressed /o/). The grave accent may be used on ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ when they represent open-mid vowels. The accents may also be used to differentiate minimal pairs within Italian (for example pèsca 'peach' vs. pésca 'fishing'), but in practice use of this possibility is limited to didactic texts. In the case of final ⟨i⟩ and ⟨u⟩, both possibilities are encountered. The by far most common option is the grave accent, though this may be due to the rarity of the acute accent to represent stress; the alternative of employing the acute is in practice limited to erudite texts, but can be justified as both vowels are high (as in Catalan); however, since there are no corresponding low (or lax) vowels to contrast with in Italian, both choices are equally acceptable.

The circumflex accent can be used to mark the contraction of two vowels, especially two i's. For example, it can be used to differentiate words like geni ('genes', plural of gene) and genî ('geniuses', plural of genio). This is especially seen in older texts, since two homophones are usually distinguished by the context.

External links[edit]