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Italian orthography is very regular and has an almost one-to-one correspondence between letters or sequences of letters and sounds, that is, it is almost a phonemic orthography. The main exceptions are that stress placement and vowel quality (for ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩) are not notated, ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ may be voiced or not, ⟨i⟩ and ⟨u⟩ may represent vowels or semivowels, and a silent ⟨h⟩ is used in a very few cases.
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 appear only in loanwords (e.g., 'jeans'), foreign names, and in a handful of native words—such as the names Jesolo, Bettino Craxi, and Walter, which all derive from regional languages. In addition, grave, acute and circumflex accents may modify vowel letters.
|A, a||a [ˈa]||/a/||à|
|B, b||bi [ˈbi]||/b/|
|C, c||ci [ˈtʃi]||/k/ or /tʃ/|
|D, d||di [ˈdi]||/d/|
|E, e||e [ˈe]||/e/ or /ɛ/||è, é|
|F, f||effe [ˈɛffe]||/f/|
|G, g||gi [ˈdʒi]||/ɡ/ or /dʒ/|
|H, h||acca [ˈakka]||∅ silent|
|I, i||i [ˈi]||/i/ or /j/||ì, í, [î]|
|L, l||elle [ˈɛlle]||/l/|
|M, m||emme [ˈɛmme]||/m/|
|N, n||enne [ˈɛnne]||/n/|
|O, o||o [ˈɔ]||/o/ or /ɔ/||ò, ó|
|P, p||pi [ˈpi]||/p/|
|Q, q||cu [ˈku]||/k/|
|R, r||erre [ˈɛrre]||/r/|
|S, s||esse [ˈɛsse]||/s/ or /z/|
|T, t||ti [ˈti]||/t/|
|U, u||u [ˈu]||/u/ or /w/||ù, ú|
|V, v||vi [ˈvi], vu [ˈvu]||/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 all others have 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 those sounds). There is typically no orthographic distinction between the open and close sounds represented, though accent marks are used in certain instances (see below). There are some minimal pairs, called heteronyms, where the same spelling is used for distinct words with distinct vowel sounds. In unstressed syllables, only the close variants occur.
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). An ⟨i⟩ may indicate that a preceding ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩ is 'soft' (dolce).
C and G
The letters ⟨c⟩ and ⟨g⟩ represent the plosives /k/ and /ɡ/ before ⟨r⟩ and before the vowels ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨u⟩. They represent the affricates /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ respectively when they precede a front vowel (⟨i⟩ or ⟨e⟩).
The letter ⟨i⟩ can also function within digraphs (two letters representing one sound) ⟨ci⟩ and ⟨gi⟩ to indicate "soft" (affricate) /tʃ/ or /dʒ/ before another vowel. In these instances, the vowel following the digraph is stressed, and ⟨i⟩ represents no vowel sound: ciò (/tʃɔ/), giù (/dʒu/). An item such as Cia 'CIA', pronounced /ˈtʃia/ with /i/ stressed, contains no digraph.
For words of more than one syllable, stress position must be known in order to distinguish between digraph ⟨ci⟩ or ⟨gi⟩ containing no actual phonological vowel /i/ and sequences of affricate and stressed /i/. For example, the words camicia "shirt" and farmacia "pharmacy" share the spelling ⟨-cia⟩, but contrast in that only the first ⟨i⟩ is stressed in camicia, thus ⟨-cia⟩ represents /tʃa/ with no /i/ sound (likewise, pino grigio ends in /dʒo/ and the names Gianna and Gianni contain only two actual vowels: /ˈdʒanna/, /ˈdʒanni/). In farmacia /i/ is stressed, so that ⟨ci⟩ is not a digraph, but represents two of the three constituents of /ˈtʃia/.
When the "hard" (plosive) pronunciation /k/ or /ɡ/ occurs before a front vowel ⟨i⟩ or ⟨e⟩, digraphs ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨gh⟩ are used, so that ⟨che⟩ represents /ke/ or /kɛ/ and ⟨chi⟩ represents /ki/ or /kj/. The same principle applies to ⟨gh⟩: ⟨ghe⟩ and ⟨ghi⟩ represent /ɡe/ or /ɡɛ/ and /ɡi/ or /ɡj/.
In the evolution from Latin to Italian, the postalveolar affricates /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ were contextual variants of the velar consonants /k/ and /ɡ/. They eventually came to be full phonemes, and orthographic adjustments were introduced to distinguish them. The phonemicity of the affricates can be demonstrated with minimal pairs:
|Before ⟨i⟩, ⟨e⟩||ch||china /ˈkina/ 'India ink'||c||Cina /ˈtʃina/ 'China'|
|gh||ghiro /ˈɡiro/ 'dormouse'||g||giro /ˈdʒiro/ 'lap', 'tour'|
|Elsewhere||c||caramella /karaˈmɛlla/ 'candy'||ci||ciaramella /tʃaraˈmɛlla/ 'shawm'|
|g||gallo /ˈɡallo/ 'rooster'||gi||giallo /ˈdʒallo/ 'yellow'|
⟨g⟩ joins with ⟨l⟩ to form a digraph representing palatal /ʎ/ before ⟨i⟩), and with ⟨n⟩ to represent /ɲ/ with any vowel following. Between vowels these are pronounced phonetically long, as in /ˈaʎʎo/ aglio 'garlic', /ˈoɲɲi/ ogni 'each'. By way of exception, ⟨gl⟩ before ⟨i⟩ represents /ɡl/ in many words derived from Greek, such as glicine 'wisteria'. ⟨gl⟩ before vowels other than ⟨i⟩ represents straightforward /ɡl/.
The digraph ⟨sc⟩ is used before ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩ to represent /ʃ/; before other vowels, ⟨sci⟩ is used for /ʃ/. 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 /ˈskalo/||sci||scialo /ˈʃalo/|
C and Q
Normally /kw/ is represented by ⟨qu⟩, but it is represented by ⟨cu⟩ for etymological reasons in some words, such as cuoco, cuoio, cuore, scuola and scuotere. These words all contain a /kwɔ/ sequence derived from an original /kɔ/ which was subsequently diphthongized.
S and Z
⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ are ambiguous to voicing.
⟨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.
- The voiceless /s/ occurs:
- At the start of a word before a vowel (e.g. Sara /ˈsara/) or a voiceless consonant (e.g. spuntare /spunˈtare/)
- After any consonant (e.g. transitare /transiˈtare/)
- 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/
- The voiced /z/ occurs before voiced consonants (e.g. sbranare /zbraˈnare/).
- 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/ 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 /ˈtsufolo/)
- When followed by an ⟨i⟩ which is followed, in turn, by another vowel (e.g. zio /ˈtsio/, agenzia /adʒenˈtsia/, grazie /ˈɡratsje/)
- After the letter ⟨l⟩ (e.g. alzare /alˈtsare/)
- 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 /ˈdzɛbra/, zuzzurellone /dzuddzurelˈlone/)
- 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 /adzaˈlɛa/)
- Exceptions: nazismo /naˈtsizmo/ (from the German pronunciation of ⟨z⟩)
⟨zz⟩ is generally voiceless /tts/: pazzo /ˈpattso/, ragazzo /raˈɡattso/, pizza /ˈpittsa/, grandezza /ɡranˈdettsa/, etc. (exceptions: razzo /ˈraddzo/, mezzo /ˈmɛddzo/, azzardo /adˈdzardo/, azzurro /adˈdzurro/, brezza /ˈbreddza/). A major exception is the verbal ending -izzare (from Greek -ίζειν), in which it is always pronounced /ddz/ (e.g. organizzare /ɔrɡanidˈdzare/), and derived words (e.g. analizzo /anaˈliddzo/, a derivative of analizzare).
In addition to being used to indicate a hard ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩ before front vowels (see above), ⟨h⟩ is 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. It is also used in han, the apocopic form of hanno. The letter ⟨h⟩ is also used in some interjections, where it always comes immediately after the first vowel in the word (e.g. eh, boh, ahi, ahimè), as well as in some loanwords (e.g. hovercraft).
J, K, W, X and Y
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 only in loanwords, proper names and archaisms, with few exceptions.
The acute accent (´) may be used on ⟨é⟩ and ⟨ó⟩ 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 to indicate stress on a word-final vowel; 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 (`) is found on ⟨à⟩, ⟨è⟩, ⟨ì⟩, ⟨ò⟩, ⟨ù⟩. It may be used on ⟨è⟩ and ⟨ò⟩ 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 ⟨ì⟩ and ⟨ù⟩, both possibilities are encountered. By far the most common option is the grave accent, ⟨ì⟩ and ⟨ù⟩, though this may be due to the rarity of the acute accent to represent stress; the alternative of employing the acute, ⟨í⟩ and ⟨ú⟩, 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 a double, final ⟨ii⟩ may become ⟨î⟩. 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. Current use prefers, with exceptions, a single ⟨i⟩ instead of a double ⟨ii⟩ or a ⟨î⟩ with circumflex.
Monosyllabic words generally lack an accent (e.g. ho, me). The accent is written, however, if there is an ⟨i⟩ or a ⟨u⟩ preceding another vowel (più, può). This applies even if the ⟨i⟩ is "silent", i.e. part of the digraphs ⟨ci⟩ or ⟨gi⟩ representing /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ (ciò, giù). It does not apply, however, if the word begins with ⟨qu⟩ (qua, qui). Many monosyllabic words are spelled with an accent in order to avoid ambiguity with other words (e.g. là versus la). This is known as accento distintivo and also occurs in other Romance languages (e.g. the Spanish tilde diacrítica).
- "Italian Extraction Guide – Section A: Italian Handwriting" (PDF). script.byu.edu.
The letters J, K, W, X, and Y appear in the Italian alphabet, but are used mainly in foreign words adopted into the Italian vocabulary.
- Danesi, Marcel (1996). Italian the Easy way.