Italian Alphabet with Pronunciation

by Riccardo Cava  and  Jakub Marian

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The Italian alphabet has 21 letters (when not counting letters with diacritical marks), out of which 5 are vowels and 16 consonants. As you probably know, the standard English alphabet has 26 letters. The 5 letters missing in Italian are J, K, W, X, and Y, which only appear in loanwords.

Unlike English, Italian has a very phonetic orthography (most letters have a fixed pronunciation). Although some letters change their pronunciation in certain contexts (e.g. “g” is pronounced as in “go” before “a”, “o”, and “u”, and as in “gel” before “e” and “i”), the rules are completely regular and relatively easy to remember.

The following list contains the letters with pronunciation. The word in brackets is the Italian name of the given letter; just like English letters have names different from the sounds their represent (“hi” is not pronounced “aitch-eye”), Italian letters also have distinct names:

A [a]: Is pronounced like “a” in “father”.

B [bi]: Is pronounced like “b” in “bucket”.

C [ci]: The pronunciation of “c” depends on the letter that follows it:

  • When the following letter is “e” or “i”, it is pronounced as “ch” in “chair”. This pronunciation is called C dolce, “Sweet C”. The word dolce (DOL-che, as in dolphin and check) is itself an example of this pronunciation. Note that when “ci” is followed by another vowel, the “i” is silent, e.g. ciao (CHA-o, as in cha-cha and on) “hello”.
  • It is silent in “sci” and “sce”. We will learn how to pronounce “sci” and “sce” later.
  • In all other cases, it is pronounced like “k” in “key”. This pronunciation is called C dura, “Hard C”. For example capo (KAH-po, as in car and pot), “head”

D [di]: Like “d” in “do”.

E [e]: Like “e” in “bet” or in “hey”. The former is called la è aperta (“open E”), and the latter la é chiusa (“closed E”). The two sounds are very similar and native speakers of Italian sometimes confuse them too. It is best to get used to the differences through listening.

F [effe]: Like “f” in fast”.

G [gi]: It has 4 different pronunciations:

  • When is followed by “e” or “i”, you have to pronounce it like “j” in “jump”. This pronunciation is called G dolce (“sweet G”), e.g. gelato (ge-LAH-to, as in gel, lava, and top), “ice cream”. Note that when “gi” is followed by another vowel, the “i” is silent, e.g. gioco (JO-ko, as in John and cop), “toy, game”.
  • When it is followed by “n”, it is pronounced like the Spanish “ñ”, which is a sound that does not exist in English. To pronounce it, try to say “y” as in “yes”, but lift your tongue in such a way that it touches the upper palate. It is like saying “n”, but with the fleshy part of the tongue instead of the tip. Example: gnocchi.
  • When it is followed by “li + a vowel”, it is pronounced like a very soft “y” as in “yield”, e.g. aglio (EYE-yo, “yo” as in “yogurt”) “garlic”. However, “gli + a consonant” is pronounced as separate letters, e.g. negligenza (neg-lee-JEN-zah) “negligence”.
  • In all other cases, you must pronounce it like “g” in “go”. This pronunciation is called G dura (hard G), e.g. gabbia (GAB-byah) “cage”.

H [acca]: The letter “h” is silent in Italian, and it is only used to modify the pronunciation of “c” and “g” to invoke the hard pronunciation before “e” and “i” (so “chi” sounds like “ki” in “kitten”, “che” like “ke” in “kelp”, “ghi” like “gi” in “give”, and “ghe” like “ge” in “get”). It is also used at the beginning of several forms of the verb “to have”, e.g. ho (“I have”) and ha (he/she/it has), and in some loanwords.

I [i]: Like “i” in “marine” or “ee” in “see”. However, it is silent when it follows “sc”, “gl”, “g”, or “c” + a vowel, for example ascia (AH-sha) “Axe”, maglietta (mah-YET-tah) “T-shirt”, gioco (JO-ko, as in John and cop) “toy, game”, and ciao (CHA-o, as in cha-cha and on) “hello”. When “sc”, “gl”, “g”, and “c” are followed by “i” and a consonant, the “i” is not silent, e.g. scimmia (SHEEM-myah) “monkey”, glicine (GLEE-chee-neh) “wisteria”, giraffa (GEE-rahf-fah) “giraffe”, and cibo (CHEE-baw) “food”.

L [elle]: Like “l” in “like”. Remember that it is silent in “gli + a vowel”.

M [emme]: Like “m” in “mad”.

N [enne]: Like “n” in “no”. Remember that “gn” is pronounced differently.

O [o]: Like “a” in “all”. Just like the letter E, it has two pronunciations, one called aperta (“open”) and one called chiusa (“closed”), but the difference is very subtle. We will discuss the differences in another article.

P [pi]: Like “p” in “park”.

Q [qu]: Like “k” in “key”. It is always followed by “u” and another vowel. The word “Soqquadro” is the only exception, in which “Q” is followed by a consonant.

R [erre]: A rolled “R”, like in Spanish or in Scottish English. If you pronounce it like the usual English “R”, you will be understood, but perceived as having a foreign accent.

S [esse]: “S” has three possible pronunciations:

  • It is pronounced like “s” in “set” when
    • it is at the beginning of a word and followed by a vowel, e.g. saltare (sal-TAH-re, “re” as in red), “to jump”,
    • it is followed by “c” (but not “ci” or “ce”), “f”, “p”, “q”, “s”, or “t”, e.g. squadra (SKWAD-rah), “team”,
    • it follows a consonant, e.g. polso (PAWL-so, “so” as in sock), “wrist”. This is because then it usually belongs to a separate syllable, but there are als a few words where it is pronounced like in “desert”, e.g. transatlantico (tranz-aht-LAHN-tee-ko), “transatlantic”.
    This kind of pronunciation is called S sorda (“deaf S”, “unvoiced S”).
  • It is pronounced like “s” in “desert” (or “z” in “zealot”) when
    • it is followed by “b”, “d”, “g”, “l”, “m”, “n”, “r” or “v”, e.g. sbarrare (zbar-RAH-re, “re” as in red), “to block”,
    • it is between two vowels in Italian spoken in the north of Italy. In the south of Italy, people say “s” as in “set” even between two vowels.
    This kind of pronunciation is called “S sonora” (“sonorous S”, “voiced S”).
  • When it is followed by “ci” or “ce”, it is pronounced like “sh” in “shy”, e.g. scienza (SHEN-tsah), “science”.

T [ti]: Like “t” in “table”.

U [u]: Like “oo” in “food” or like “w” in “well” before a vowel, e.g. questo (KWES-taw), “this”.

V [vi]: Like “v” in “view”.

Z [zeta]: This is the most difficult letter in the whole Italian alphabet. It has two pronunciations, one called sonora (“sonorous”, “voiced”), which sounds like “z” in “amazing”, and the other called sorda (“deaf”, “unvoiced”), which is pronounced like “ts” in “tsunami” or “zz” in the English pronunciation of “pizza”. However, unlike “S”, the rules are very complicated and there are lots of irregular words. We will discuss this topic in another post.

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