There's a vacancy for a general node on Italian, which I might get to later if no-one beats me to it. For now I want to restrict myself to pronunciation.
The following is a description of standard Italian (which is traditionally the dialect of Dante's Tuscany, not of Rome). Regional dialects may differ: I don't know much about them.
Italian has seven vowel
s. Two of them occur only in stressed
syllables; the other five may occur anywhere. The vowels a i u
are as in father, machine, rule
The letter e is normally the "ay" sound (but pure, not a diphthong) of French été. But in a stressed syllable it may have the "air" sound of mère. Two words can contrast in which they have: so vénti means 'twenty', vènti means 'winds'; pésca means 'fish', pèsca means 'peach'. But the difference is not shown in writing: so these words are actually written venti, pesca regardless of which vowel they have.
Similarly there are two o sounds, one "oh" (French au), used in unstressed syllables and some stressed syllables, and a lower "aw" sound used when stressed. Again the standard spelling does not distinguish these. (Dictionaries also don't show them, because they vary by region.)
Stress is usually on the second-last syllable: esPRESSo, miLANo (= Milan), mussoLIni. Sometimes it is on the third-last, which is not specially marked in writing: NApoli (= Naples), veNEZia (= Venice). When it's on the final syllable it's marked with a grave accent1: virtù, omertà.
Vowels do not change quality depending on stress the way English ones do (baNAna): in Italian all three have the same "ah" quality. But stress affects length and pitch. In an open syllable (one not ending in a consonant), the stressed vowel is long: so NApoli, ROma, toRIno (= Turin) are pronounced NAApoli, RO-Oma, toRIIno.
Moreover, in the usual comic imitation of an Italian accent, the pitch rises on the stress: giuSEPpe. But in fact the pitch drops on the stress: giuSEPpe.
The letters J, W, X, and Y are not used in Italian2
b, d, f, l, m, n, p, t, v as in English.
c has two pronunciations, K as in cat, cot, cut before A, O, U; and CH as in cello, chip before I and E: cività 'city' = chee-vee-TAH.
To get the K sound before I or E they write ch: so chi 'who?' is pronounced KEE.
To get the CH sound before A, O, U they write ci: the i here is not a vowel. So ciabatta (a kind of bread) is chah-BAHT-ta, not chee-ah-BAHT-tah.
g likewise has two pronounciations, GH as in gat, got, gut before A, O, U; and J as in gentle, gin before I and E.
The same conventions as with C reverse the sounds: so ghirlando has the same sound as its meaning 'garland'.
And gia, gio, giu are monosyllables JA, JO, JU. So Giovanni is jo-VAHN-nee, not jee-o-VAHN-nee.
gn is NY as in onion, cañon. gl is usually LY as in million.3
h is silent. (It's also used in the combinations CH, GH above.)
qu is always KW as in English, never K as in French or Spanish.
r is strongly rolled in all positions.
s is usually as in sister. Sometimes between vowels it is a Z sound as in Rosa. No one easy rule can be given for this. It is also a Z before voiced letters such as B, D, G: so sbaglio 'mistake' is ZBAH-lyo.
sci, sce have the SH sound of sheep, shape. Before A, O, U this SH sound is written sci, but the i is not a vowel: so sciagura 'misfortune' is shah-GOO-rah. And sch is used for SK: schiavo 'slave' is SKYAH-vo.
z is usually TS as in pizza. Sometimes it's DZ, as in mezzo 'middle'. There is no simple rule for deciding when.
These are always pronounced double
, held long like the N-N in pen-knife
'year' is AHN-no.
In a stressed syllable, when a liquid such as m n l r is followed by a different consonant, the liquid is doubled in speech though not in writing: so molto 'much' is MOHL-L-to; venti 'twenty' is VAYN-N-tee.
When a stressed vowel in one syllable meets the opening consonant of the next word, the consonant is doubled in speech. If they're joined together as a single word, it's doubled in writing too. So a 'to' + rivederci 'see you again' is pronounced (and in this case written) with strengthened R: arrivederci.4
Minor phonetic points
t d n l
as in French and Spanish, not alveolar
as in English.
p t c are unaspirated.
1. A recent convention in printing is to use the acute accent for final í and ú and for the higher of the two é ó sounds. I believe this innovation is due to the Einaudi publishing house. I don't know how widespread it is.
2. Of course it uses these in foreign or international words borrowed unchanged. Also, j was formerly used as a consonant where i is now used, as in ajuto, aiuto 'help'.
3. Exception: it's G-L in negligenza.
4. Exception: di 'of' isn't followed by doubling.