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Italian Pronunciation: You say potato, I say patata

(Note: This post was written by Laurel Regan and originally published in a separate blog called “Insalata di Alfabeto”, which was later merged with Alphabet Salad.)

How many times have you dined in an Italian restaurant where you discovered, much to your discomfort and dismay, that all the names of the items on the menu were written in Italian… and you had no idea how to pronounce anything?

What do you do?

  1. Find the most English-sounding item on the menu and order it, not because that’s actually what you want to eat, but because it’s the dish that’s easiest to pronounce.
  2. Wait for the person next to you to order, then say brightly, “I’ll have what she’s having!”
  3. Jab a finger at the dish you’ve chosen and mumble vaguely, “I’ll have that,” hoping the server has the ability to read small print in a dimly-lit restaurant without making a big production of bending over and squinting at the menu.
  4. Pronounce the Italian words phonetically (and loudly) because hey, we live in an English-speaking country and why should we say things differently from how we’re used to, huh?
  5. Order from the menu using the Italian words with confidence, because you have learned a few basic Italian pronunciation guidelines.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could order confidently in Italian?

Despite being half Italian, I am rather ashamed to say that I don’t speak the language. At all. And because of that, I’ve always been rather self-conscious about saying Italian words, as somewhere in the back of my mind I figure that I should know how to pronounce them, so it would be doubly embarrassing if I said them wrong.

But knowing that I am going to visit Italy in the not-so-distant future, I have started to make the effort to get past my fear of embarrassment by learning some Italian pronunciation and then practicing saying the words. I mean, really, what’s the worst that can happen if I try? I might say something wrong and have my pronunciation corrected. I might even elicit a chuckle from seasoned Italians at my Canadian-accented attempts. But guess what? I won’t die. And no one else will die, either! And who knows, but I might actually say the words properly!

Imagine the satisfaction and confidence of being able to communicate effectively in another language, even if it is nothing more complicated than ordering from an Italian menu. Of course, I can’t teach you to speak Italian when I don’t yet know how to do it myself, but I’m excited to share some of the basic pronunciation guidelines I’ve picked up along the way, and invite you to learn along with me.

Handy-Dandy Italian Pronunciation Tricks for English-Speakers

First of all: Remember to practice out loud! Don’t worry if your roommate or family thinks you’ve lost your mind – the only way to properly learn the pronunciation is to say the words out loud rather than just in your head. Trust me on this.

General Pronunciation Guidelines

There will always be exceptions, but in an Italian word the emphasis is normally on the second-to-last syllable.

Example: antipasto (ahn-tee-PAH-stoh) – appetizer

If instead the emphasis in a word is to be placed on the last syllable, the last letter of the word will usually have an accent.

Example: baccalà (bah-kah-LAH) – dried salt cod

With the exception of the letter h (which is always silent), all of the letters in an Italian word are pronounced.

Examples: funghi (fOOn-ghee) – mushrooms;
salmone (sahl-MOH-neh) – salmon

Of course, the Italian r is always rolled!

Example: risotto (ree-ZOHT-toh) – rice dish

Italian Vowels

The Italian vowel a is pronounced similar to the a in the English word ah.

Example: fave (fAH-veh) – broad beans

The Italian vowel e may be pronounced similar to the e in the English word met.

Example: carote (kah-rOH-teh) – carrots

The Italian vowel e, if before a single consonant, may be pronounced similar to the ay in the English word may.

Example: secondo (say-kOHn-doh) – in a restaurant setting, the main course

The Italian vowel i is pronounced similar to the ee in the English word feet.

Example: spinaci (spee-nAH-chee) – spinach

The Italian vowel o is pronounced similar to the o in the English word hotel.

Example: pollo (pOHl-loh) – chicken

The Italian vowel u is pronounced similar to the oo in the English word boot.

Example: lattuga (laht-tOO-gah) – lettuce

Italian Consonants

The letters c and g in an Italian word follow similar rules and, as in English, can be either hard or soft depending on which letters they precede.

When the letter c in an Italian word comes before a, o, u, or any consonant, it’s pronounced similar to an English k.

Examples: calamari (kah-lah-mAH-ree) – squid;
crostata (kroh-stAH-tah) – pie

When the letter c in an Italian word comes before i or e, it’s pronounced similar to an English ch (as in cheddar).

Example: carciofi (kahr-chee-OH-fee) – artichoke

The letters ch are only used before an i or an e in Italian words, and are pronounced similar to an English k.

Example: lumache (loo-mAH-keh) – snails

When the letter g in an Italian word comes before a, o, u, and all consonants except l and n, it’s pronounced similar to an English g (as in go).

Examples: aragosta (ah-rah-gOHs-tah) – lobster;
granchi (grAHn-key) – crabs

When the letter g in an Italian word comes before i and e, it’s pronounced similar to an English j.

Example: fagiano (fah-jee-AH-noh) – pheasant

When the letter g in an Italian word comes before l, it’s pronounced similar to an English lly (as in million or William).

Example: aglio (AH-lyoh) – garlic

When the letter g in an Italian word comes before n, it’s pronounced similar to an English ny (as in onion or canyon).

Example: gnocchi (NYOHK-kee) – small potato dumplings

The letter s in an Italian word is usually pronounced similar to an English s (as in see or sit). Sometimes when the letter s in an Italian word comes between two vowels, it’s pronounced similar to an English z (as in zoo).

Examples: sale (sAH-leh) – salt;
rosa (ROH-zah) – pink

When the letters sc in an Italian word come before i or e, they’re pronounced similar to an English sh.

Examples: prosciutto (proh-SHOOT-toh) – ham;
scelta (SHEHL-tah) – choice

The letter z in an Italian word is usually pronounced similar to an English ts (as in hits) or, when it’s at the beginning of a word, to an English ds (as in beds).

Examples: merluzzo (mayr-lOOt-tsoh) – cod;
zabaglione (dzah-bah-LYOH-neh) – dessert made from eggs, sugar, and Marsala

All Italian consonants except for h and q can be doubled. Double consonants are more prolonged and pronounced with more force than single consonants. An English language example of the pronunciation of a double consonant might be hot tea (i.e., both ts are pronounced) versus the pronunciation of a single consonant in the slang word hottie (i.e., only one t is pronounced).

Example: pancetta (pahn-chAYt-tah) – bacon

There you go! Now I challenge you to practice, practice, practice, then test your newfound knowledge next time you’re in an Italian restaurant. And pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

Photo courtesy morgueFile, photographer clarita

Laurel Storey, CZT – Certified Zentangle Teacher. Writer, reader, tangler, iPhoneographer, cat herder, learner of French and Italian, crocheter, needle felter, on-and-off politics junkie, 80s music trivia freak, ongoing work in progress.