Italian Pronunciation
a Primer for Singers

Vowels
Consonants
References

The goal of this little guide is to help those with little or no knowledge of Italian pronunciation avoid some of the errors most commonly made by American English speakers. If you've sung much Italian, you probably know most or all of what's in here.

Italian spelling is largely phonetic; that is, with only a few exceptions a single letter or cluster of letters represents the same sound, and each sound occurring in the language has only a single written representation. Even so, a short, informal guide like this one can't cover the subject in any depth, and no written material can substitute for repeatedly and attentively listening to good spoken and sung Italian.

Vowels

There are only 7 Italian vowel sounds (one each for a, i and u; two each for e and o) compared to 15 or so in English, but the most striking differences between Italian and English vowels are

One-sound vowels a, i, u

Italian a is very open. For many American English speakers, it is similar to the short o in hot or to the first a in papa. It should never sound like uh or aw.

i and u are easier because they make sounds which regularly occur in just about everyone's English. Italian i makes a long e sound, as in the word steep. Italian u makes the sound of oo in boot.

Two-sound vowels e, o

Each has a so-called "open" and "closed" sound. Although there are some rules about which sound to use, there is plenty they don't cover. There is often no way to know which sound to use in a particular word if you haven't heard it spoken correctly. It's much too complicated a subject to embark on here, but there is one simple rule for the spoken language: Italian unstressed e and o are always closed. It's not always the case for sung Italian, however.

Open e makes a sound similar to English short e, as in bet; the Italian sound is maybe a bit more open (mouth taller). Long e makes a sound like the a in chaotic. It's not the same as the much more common (in English) vowel sound in way since this slides from the sound we're looking for into ee.

Open o is like the vowel in awe if you say it without any hint of diphthong. Closed o, like closed e, rarely occurs in English without sliding into something else. It's the first vowel sound in go, before it turns into oo.

Diphthongs

Diphthongs (always written with 2 vowels) are frequent in Italian. Sometimes i is pronounced like y in yard (e.g. in the word pietà) rather than having its normal value, and similarly u may make a sound like English w (guarda). The rules for when this happens are too complicated to go into here. Other than these cases, each vowel in a diphthong has its usual sound, though in a stressed syllable one is longer than the other (no easy rule to determine which should be the long one), and the two sounds are distinct, with no slide from one into the other.

Consonants

This section mentions all consonants which have more than one sound and some additional consonants whose Italian sound is enough unlike English that an English pronunciation will stand out unpleasantly in an Italian word.

Double consonants

Double consonants in Italian should take noticeably longer to say than the corresponding single consonants. Usally (unless the setting of text to music makes it impossible) the same is true in sung Italian. It's obvious how to do this for a consonant like s or n but even stopped consonants, like the double tt in tutto can and should be make longer. Just hold the position of your mouth when the consonant is formed (in the case of t this would be with your tongue up against your teeth) for a bit, then release.

Hard and soft: interactions among c, g, sc, h, and i

As in English, c and g may be hard or soft. Each is hard when followed by a (different) consonant or by one of the vowels a, o or u and is soft when followed by e or i. The hard sounds are similar to English: g as in good, c as in car. Soft g is also similar to English, like the g in general. However Italian soft c is like English ch in chess. But there are some additional wrinkles:

Here are examples of practically everything that can happen to a c. g is similar.

Italian letters soundexample word
c followed by o, a or uhard ccosì
c followed by consonants other than c hard cclemenza
c followed by i or esoft ccittà
c followed by hhard cPinocchio
c followed by i and additional vowelsoft c, silent i pagliaccio

r

Italian r is either trilled or flipped, which is just a very short version of a trill. Double r is generally trilled, if the musical setting allows for it. Exactly when a single r should be trilled (and for how long) and when flipped is beyond the scope of this guide, but a good rule of thumb for single r is flip if between two vowels (e.g. in "fiori"), trill in other positions (initial, preceding another consonant, following another consonant, or at the end of the word), e.g. in "ritorna", "nostro" and "cor". An American r-sound is never appropriate; better to just leave the sound out altogether.

t and d

t and d are less harsh than their English equivalents. The t is not aspirated; that is, you shouldn't be able to feel a strong puff of air in front of your mouth when you say it, as you can with the English version. The difference seems subtle to many English speakers, but not to Italians. To get a more Italian sound for both letters, your tongue should just touch the back of your teeth, not your gums, and it should be somewhat relaxed, not tense and pointed, at the front.

s and z

s and z each can make two sounds: one voiced and the other unvoiced.

Italian sound English word example
unvoiced smouse
voiced sdozen
unvoiced zpizza
voiced zlike English ds in pads

There is no way to tell just from the spelling of a word containing z whether the z is voiced or not. s is generally voiced if it (single, not double) occurs between two vowels, or if it precedes a voiced consonant (as in the word sdegno). The main thing to start with is to just be aware that there are two possible sounds for these letters and listen carefully to an accurate pronunciation of new words containing them.

gn and gl

The Italian sounds represented by these spellings don't exist in English. Italian gn makes a sound approximately like the ny in the English word canyon, but not exactly. To come closer to the Italian sound, the tip of your tongue should touch the back of your bottom teeth.

Similarly, Italian gl makes a sound sort of like the sounds in the middle of the word "million", but not quite the same. To come closer to the correct Italian sound, the tip of the tongue should touch the back of the bottom teeth.

Both of these sounds are pronounced as if doubled.

References

There are plenty of books on Italian diction for singers but inevitably the author will not pronounce English exactly as you do -- no one does -- so examples can be misleading. David Adams, who wrote A Handbook of Diction for Singers (Oxford University Press, 1999) must have a pronunciation similar to mine because the examples were always consistent with what I've heard in good spoken Italian. Also he does a good job of explaining how to produce sounds which are uncommon or absent in English.


Please send corrections or questions concerning this guide to jrb@stanford.edu

4 September, 2004 (first draft)
3 April, 2010 (last update)