Double letters in Italian

by Riccardo Cava  and  Jakub Marian

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It is very common to find double consonants in Italian. They have a different pronunciation than single consonants and usually change the meaning of the word (just like “but” and “butt” don’t mean the same in English).

To understand the differences in pronunciation, we must divide the letters of the Italian alphabet into two groups. The first group consists of what linguists call plosives. Plosives are produced by a short interruption of the flow of air from the vocal cords followed by a sudden burst of air (such as when you say “P”), which distinguishes them from other types (e.g. “M”, which redirects the flow of air through the nose but does not stop it).

Double plosives

The following letters are plosives in Italian (including both possible pronunciations of the letters C and G; you can read more about the pronunciation of single letters in our article about the Italian alphabet):

B, C, D, G, P, Q, T, Z

When a plosive is doubled, the stop in it is pronounced significantly longer, and when it is finally released, it sounds stronger than it normally would. For example, otto (meaning “eight”) is pronounced as follows:

  1. Say “o” as in “dog”,
  2. Put your tongue into the same position as when you normally say “t” (as in ”top”), but leave it there for about the same time the “aw” sound lasts in the English word “law”,
  3. Release the tongue to finish saying “t”, but put more emphasis on it than you normally would,
  4. Say the same “o” as at the beginning.

An important principle to remember is that when “e” or “i” follows “cc” or “gg”, it changes the pronunciation of both preceding letters. For example, raggio (“ray”) is pronounced “raj-jo” (“j” as in ”jet”), not “rag-jo”.

Note: The only Italian word with a double Q is soqquadro (“disorder, mess”), but the letter combination “cq” is pronounced the same as “qq”, e.g. acqua (“water”), pronounced ack-kwa.

Double non-plosives

The rest of Italian consonants (those that do not interrupt the flow of air from your vocal cords) are simply pronounced longer when doubled. For instance, the Italian “double M” is pronounced the same as “mm” in the English word “hmm”.

The following consonants in Italian are not plosives:

F, L, M, N, R, S, V

For example, the name Emma is pronounced as “eh-mm-ah”, where “mm” is pronounced as in “hmm”, esse (“those”) is pronounced as “eh-ss-eh” (“ss” pronounced like the sound of a hissing snake), and so on.

Other double letters

You will never find double A, U, or H in Italian. Other vowels, that is, E, I, and O, are occasionally doubled, and when that happens, they are simply pronounced like one long vowel, usually with rising intonation during the second half, as in cooperare (“cooperate”) with “caw-aw” at the beginning, with the second “aw” pronounced a bit higher and stronger, veemenza (“vehemence”), pronounced with a long “eh-eh” (which does not exist in English), and zii (“uncles”) pronounced as “zee”.

Meaning of Italian words changed by double letters

It is quite rare for two English words to differ only in a double consonant, but the same cannot be said about Italian words. There are many words in Italian of the “but–butt” type, so you must always pay attention to the correct spelling (and hence the correct pronunciation). Here are a few examples:

capello (hair) cappello (hat)
caro (dear or expensive) carro (wagon or chariot)
coro (choir) corro (I run)
nona (ninth) nonna (grandmother)
oso (I dare) osso (bone)
pala (shovel) palla (ball)
rosa (pink)rossa (red)
sono (I am or they are) sonno (sleep)
tori bulls torri (towers)

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