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Learn Italian: Easy Look at Vowels

by on Dec.19, 2010, under Travel

For most native English speakers, to learn Italian language pronunciation is a challenge within reach compared to many other languages. Only a small number of consonant sounds do not have direct English equivalents; however, the wide exposure to Italian cuisine, movies, and music has given a number of people at least some familiarity with these different sounds. As for the vowels, they all can be found in English! While there are five written vowel letters “a, e, i, o, u”, there are seven distinct vowel sounds. These other two sounds come from the “open” and “close” pronunciations of the letters “e” and “o”. What is an “open” or “close” vowel sound? Let’s find out by taking a closer look at how to pronounce all the Italian vowels.

First, let’s begin with the vowels that always have the same sound. Whenever you see the vowels “a”, “i”, and “u” between consonants or alone at the beginning/end of a word, you’ll see that the “a” sounds like the “a” in the English word “father” as in gatto (cat), the “i” sounds like the “ee” in the English word “see” as in amico (friend), and the “u” sounds like the “oo” English word “food” as in uno (one). However, when vowels are next to other vowels, they sometimes can combine with their neighbors and form a new sound that is called a diphthong (two vowel sounds combined into one) or triphthong (three vowel sounds combined into one), but to go into more detail is beyond the scope of this article.

Now, let’s take a look at the letters “e” and “o”. Both these letters have what is called an “open” and “close” pronunciation. These terms describe the position of the tongue in the mouth when the vowel sound is made. For an “open” vowel sound, the tongue is placed at the bottom of the mouth creating an open cavity for air to pass through. On the other hand, a “close” vowel sound is made when the tongue is raised close to the roof of the mouth minimizing the amount of air that passes and changing the sound of the vowel.

In Italian, the open “e” sounds like the “e” in the English word “bed” as in bella (pretty). While, the close “e” sounds like the “ai” in the English word “maid” as in mela (apple). There are even some words that differ in meaning solely by the use of a close “e” or open “e”. For example, in Italian pronounce the word pesca with a close “e” and your Italian friend will think you’re talking about a “peach”. If you say pesca with an open “e” it takes on the meaning of “fishing.” Like the letter “e”, the Italian “o” has both open and close pronunciations. The open “o” sounds like the “o” in the English word “hog” as in forza (strength) while the close “o” sounds like the “oe” in the English word “toe” as in signore (sir; gentleman).

So, how do you know when to pronounce an Italian “e” or “o” as an open or close vowel? Usually, in unstressed syllables you’ll only find close vowels such as the “o” in sabato (Saturday) and the “e” in nove (nine). However, in stressed syllables you can come across either the close or open vowel sound. Sometimes accent marks can be placed over the vowels to help you tell the difference in pronunciations. The upward angled mark (acute accent), as in “” or “”, designates an open pronunciation while the falling mark (grave accent), as in “” or “”, signifies a close pronunciation. While you may find these accent marks provided in dictionaries or even in written material when the author is clarifying homographs such as ancra (still) as opposed to ncora (anchor), you’ll generally only find an accent mark on the final syllable if it’s stressed like with perch (why), caff (coffee), and per (but).

Even then, particularly in handwriting, many Italians use the accent mark only as a marker of stress and not to distinguish between the open and close pronunciations. So, you may come across a stroke above the letter that looks neither acute nor grave. Or, you may discover grave accents used for all cases. While these guidelines follow the pronunciation of the Tuscan accent which has become the neutral standard used in dictionaries and in the media, Italy is still a country with many strong regional accents. In some cases, the use of a close or open vowel for a certain word is the exact opposite usage of another region. Or, some regional accents may not make a distinction between an open and close vowel that another would. So,listen for the sounds of the letters “e” and “o” from the accent you’re trying to emulate. Get out there, have fun and talk to people! Ciao!

For more on italian pronunciation audio resources try looking through this Italian pronunciation guide and consider learning on the go with mobile devices like that iPhone which integrate aural and visual stimuli.

Polyglot and world nomad, PT Gardner loves Romance languages and can while away the day with a dictionary. You can find him blogging here.

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