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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, Bettino Craxi, and Juventus, all of which are derived from regional languages). In addition, grave, acute and circumflex accents may be used to modify vowel letters.
|A, a||a [a]||/a/||à|
|B, b||bi [bi]||/b/|
|C, c||ci [tʃi]||/k/ or /tʃ/|
|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 /dʒ/|
|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/ or /ɾ/|
|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/|
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
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:
|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'|
⟨G⟩ is also used to mark that a following ⟨l⟩ or ⟨n⟩ is palatal, i.e. /ʎ/ (only before ⟨i⟩) or /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.
|Before ⟨i e⟩||sch||scherno /ˈskerno/||sc||scerno /ˈʃɛrno/|
|Elsewhere||sc||scalo /ˈskaːlo/||sci||scialo /ˈʃaːlo/|
S and Z
⟨s⟩ represents a dental sibilant consonant, either /s/ or /z/. However, these two phonemes are in complementary distribution everywhere except between two vowels in the same word and, even with such words, there are very few minimal pairs.
- It is voiceless /s/:
- At the start of a word before a vowel (e.g. Sara /ˈsaːra/) or a voiceless consonant (e.g. spuntare /spunˈtaːre/)
- After any consonant (e.g. transitare /transiˈtaːre/)
- Before a voiceless consonant (e.g. raspa /ˈraspa/)
- At the start of the second part of a compound word (e.g. affittasi, disotto, girasole, prosegue, risaputo, unisono, preservare, riservare, reggiseno). These words are formed by adding a prefix to a word beginning with /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 /s/.
- 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/)
- After the letter ⟨l⟩ (e.g. alzare /alˈtsaːre/)
- 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 or ⟨z⟩ (or ⟨zz⟩) itself (e.g. zebra /ˈdzɛːbra/, zuzzurellone /dzuddzurelˈloːne/)
- 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⟩)
⟨zz⟩ is generally voiceless /tts/: pazzo /ˈpattso/, ragazzo /raˈgattso/, pizza /ˈpittsa/, grandezza /ɡranˈdettsa/, etc. (exceptions: razzo /ˈraddzo/, mezzo /ˈmɛddzo/, azzardo /addzarˈdo/, azzurro /adˈdzuro/, brezza /ˈbreddza/). A major exception is the verbal ending -izzare (from Greek -ίζειν), in which it is always pronounced /ddz/ (e.g. organizzare /ɔrɡanidˈdzaːre/), and in derivatives of words that end in it (e.g. analizzo /anaˈliddzo/, a derivative of analizzare).
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 such as hovercraft /ˈɔverkraft/, the h is still silent.
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.
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 this 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.
- Danesi, Marcel (1996). Italian the Easy way.