Spoken Italian

Vowels. Italian employs seven vowel phonemes: /a/, /e/, /ɛ/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /u/. The sounds of /e/ and /ɛ/ (and also the sounds of /o/ and-/ɔ/) are not reflected often in the written form of Italian. In some accents, the two "e" sounds and the two "o" sounds are pronounced the same. There are, however a few "minimal pairs" in Italian, meaning two words that differ only in a small way phonetically. The common example is "pesca" which means "fishing" with a high close "e" (/ˈpeska/) and "peach" (/ˈpɛska/) with an mid-close "e." Another common minimal pair example is "botte," a word for "barrel" with a high "o" (/ˈbotte/), and for "beatings" with the mid- to low "o" (/ˈbɔtte/)(like the "o" in bottle in English).

The following vowel chart represents the placement of the seven vowels in the mouth:

Italian Vowels

Diphthongs are few. Vowels are pronounced in general as separate phones. The diphthongs involve an unstressed "u" before a stressed "o" ("uo") or an unstressed "i" in combination with a stressed vowel ("iu," "ie," "ai"). Triphthongs are also possible, mainly (but not exclusively) because of grammatical constructions (plurals of words ending in a diphthong, like "miei" or a verb ending that starts with "-ia" and is tacked on to a verb root that ends in "u" as in "continuiamo."

The following table shows the consonants of Italian in IPA format. For aid in the pronunciation of IPA symbols. When symbols are paired, the second one is a voiced version of the first.

Italian Consonants

Double consonants are called "geminate" (like twins), and are simply doubled in the length of time they are pronounced. Not all geminate consonants are indicated by the double letter. This is true for /m/, /p/ & /p/, /f/ & /v/, /n/. /t/ & /d/, /s/ and /r/. The sound /z/ is always single, and the sounds /ʃ/, /ʦ/, /ʣ/, /ʎ/ and /ɲ/ are always of double length, regardless of spelling.

Occasionally foreign words ending in consonants will receive a prosthetic vowel in Italian, since the rhythm of the language is to end each word with a vowel sound, stressed or unstressed (except in cases of elision). This accounts for the characteristic Italian accent in English, which will add an "a," for example, to the word "house" to create "housa." A word like "ping pong" when imported into Italian acquires terminal vowel sounds.

Italian Grammar

Italian has articles, nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs, all of which can change form according to inflection, and also adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections, which are not inflected.

The articles are "il" for masculine and "la" for feminine). An "impure consonant" is considered "ps," "pn," "gn," "sp," "st," "z," or "i" when it is a semi-consonant. Before impure consonants, "il" becomes "lo" as in "lo spagnolo" (the Spanish person or language). Both "il" and "la" are abbreviated to "l’" when coming before a vowel (but not a semi-consonant). The plural of "il" is "i" and the plural of "la" is "le." The masculine plural becomes "gli" in front of vowels and impure consonants, as in "gli spaghetti." Its only irregularity is "gli dei" (the gods) instead of "i dei." The feminine plural is "le", as in "le streghe" (the witches). The indefinite articles are "un" and "una" (abbreviated to "un'" before a vowel). "Un" becomes "uno" before an impure consonant, as in "uno spagnolo."

Nouns are also masculine and feminine, singular and plural. The usual conventions for gender in Romance languages apply. Feminine nouns in the first declension in Latin come into Italian with "a" as the singular ending. Their plural is "e" (derived from the Latin plural "ae.") Masculine and neuter nouns from the second declension came into Italian as masculine nouns ending in "o" with the plurals ending in "i." Third declension masculine nouns in Italian end in "e" (like "cane" (dog)) and pluralize to "i." Feminine third declension nouns generally end in "e" as well (like "parete" (wall)) and pluralize to "i" as well. The "exceptions" relate to first declension masculine nouns (like poeta and agricola), which end in "a" in the singular but pluralize to "i," and the fourth and fifth declension nouns, for example, "manus" and "species." As in other Romance languages, "hand" is feminine with masculine endings. "La mano" becomes "le mani" in the plural. A few fifth declension nouns also can be tricky as special cases. A few formerly third declension neuter nouns acquire an "a" as a plural, even though they appear to be masculine in the singular. The word for "l'uovo" (the egg) is masculine, and pluralized to "le ouva" (the third declension neuter plural (as in Latin "carmina" and "stamina").

Greek origin nouns ending in "a" are masculine, as in "problema / problemi," while those ending in "is" in Greek are feminine, and are rendered as "la crisi / le crisi." A few nouns are of foreign origin or are otherwise irregular. For example, the words for "city," "king," "coffee," and "film" ("città ," "re," "caffè," "film") do not alter in the plural.

Some nouns can be altered to modify meanings. Diminutives can either reduce a noun or make a kind or sympathetic reference to it. Augmentatives make nouns bigger, but may also communicate a negative implication. Diminutives generally are formed by adding "-ino," "-etto," "-ello," and "olo" and its feminine versions. Augmentatives usually add "-one," "-accio", "-astro," and "-ucolo" and their feminine forms. Several are deprecatory.

First person (nominative, accusative, dative, prepositional) are io, mi, mi & me in the singular, and noi, ci, ci & noi in the plural. The familiar second person tu, ti, ti & te in the singular and voi, vi, vi & voi in the plural. Third person (formal address in singular) is Lei, Lo or La (depending on the gender of the person spoken to), Le & Lei. Otherwise, the masculine third person is lui (also egli: esso for objects), lo, gli & lui in the singular. The feminine is lei (ella; esso for objects), la, le & lei in the singular. In the plural it is loro (also esse or essi for objects), li or le in the accusative, loro & loro. "Loro" is capitalized when used as a plural formal form.

Pronouns commencing with "L" are elided before words commencing with a vowel or "h," as is "l'ho mangiato" (I have eaten it). Usually the verb inflection makes the nominative pronoun redundant, and it is often omitted. The "voi" form was sometimes used as an intermediate formality for the second person singular, and still is applied in some regional dialects. Accusative forms sometimes take the prepositional form instead, when emphasis is required. Thus "mi" may become "me" for emphasis, "ti" becomes "te," and so on. The same change occurs in the dative when an accusative pronoun is present, as in "dammelo" ("give it to me"). "Gli" (dative) combines with accusative to make "glielo" and similar compounds, employed equally for feminine and plural pronoun compounds. "Gli" is replacing "loro" as a dative in the third person plural as well, even without compounding the pronoun. For emphasis, a speaker has the option of making the dative into a prepositional phrase (as in "a me" instead of just "mi").

Italian uses a couple of pronoun "particles" unknown to English, but somewhat similar to French usage ("ne" and "en"). They are the "ne" and "ci" words. "Ne" is something like "any" or "of it" as in the expression, "Che ne so io?" ("What do I know?" -- or more colloquially: "How should I know?").In the same way, "ci" means something like "of it" or "of them" as in the expression "Ci sono otto" ("There are eight (of them)"). A related particle, "ce" means "to it" or "to there" according to context.

Adjectives are virtually always regular, agreeing with the nouns they modify in gender and number using the "o" and "i" forms for masculine and the "a" and "e" forms for feminine. Comparatives and superlatives are formed by saying "more" or "the most" before the adjective. "Più" is used for both. For example, "scemo," "più scemo," "il più scemo" (for "dumb-dumber-dumbest"). Gender agreement is required. "migliore" (better, best) and "peggiore" (worse, worst) are irregular comparatives, but their regular forms are also legal. The opposite of "più" is "meno." As a result, "better" can be expressed as "migliore," più buono" (rare) or "meno male" ("less bad"). "Meno male" is common usage. "Cattivo" is the common word for "bad" as in "bad weather." The most superlative is the "-issimo" ending, similar to the "generalíssimo" honorific historically applied to dictators in both Spanish and Italian. An example would be "scemissimo" (absolutely the dumbest). If the stem of the word being intensified ends in "pr" or "br" the suffix changes to "-errimo" instead. The adjective "celebre," meaning renowned, becomes "celebrerrimo" in the absolute superlative. Two irregular forms exist: "ottimo" for intensifying "migliore," and "pessimo" for intensifying "peggiore."

Possessive adjectives and pronouns are handled as follows: "my" as an adjective is "mio" or "mia" depending on the gender of the noun being modified. Its plural forms are "miei" and "mie." The definite article is normally used with the adjective, so that "my house" is "la mia casa" and "my book" is "il mio livro." The indefinite article is sometimes used, as in the context of "one of my . .. . " or "some of my . . . ." The only exception is with members of the family, as in "mio fratello" (my brother), not "il mio fratello." When placed after the noun being modified, the speaker is using emphasis, as in "Mamma mia!" As a possessive pronoun, the adjective drops out, but the article is retained, as in "il mio" or "la mia." The other forms for possessive pronouns and adjectives are: "tuo / tua & tuoi / tue," "suo / sua & suoi / sue," "nostro / nostra & nostril / nostre," "vostro / vostra & vostri / vostre," and "loro" (all four forms).

From Latin, Italian inherited three conjugations of verbs: The infinitive endings are either -are, -ere, or -ire. Some irregular infinitive forms (like tradurre from traducere) (translate) just have to be learned. Italian uses simple tenses (present, imperfect, preterit, future and conditional) and compound tenses. With "stare" and the present participle are formed progressive tenses and with "avere" or "essere" and the past participle are formed the perfect tenses. There is a subjunctive form (congiuntivo) for each indicative form. Imperatives are mainly regular.

Like French, but unlike Spanish and Portuguese, Italian distinguishes between verbs of movement or change of state on the one hand and most other verbs on the other. The first group takes "essere" as its auxiliary verb. The remainder take "avere." The first group includes verbs like "go" and "fall" and "be born." It also includes passive voice and reflexive verbs. Thus, "I have eaten" is "ho mangiato" but "I have gone" is "sono andato." As a consequence of the use of "essere" as an auxiliary verb, the past perfect participle is treated as an adjective, and must agree with the actor in gender and number. Thus, in Spanish, "they (the girls) have departed" would be "han partido." In Italian it would be "sonno partite." "Have they (the boys) gone?" becomes "Sonno andati?" On the other hand, "Have they (the girls) eaten?" is "Hanno mangiato?" With avere the participle is treated as a part of the verb itself and not as an adjective. Nevertheless, in common speech, when referring to oneself (if feminine) or to the (singular) person being addressed (if feminine), it is common to use the feminine form of the perfect participle, even though it should not change from a grammatical point of view.

The formal progressive tenses are not used in Italian as liberally as they are used in English, as the present indicative can handle current action of a continuous nature. This also means the future tense is not needed for something that is about to happen. "I'm going" and "I will go" and "I go" can all be "vado," depending on context. In Italian, as in other Romance languages, the preterit has become increasingly replaced by the present perfect tense, with the exception of newspaper accounts and literary works. Another trend, also observed in Spanish and Portuguese, is the use of the imperfect instead of the conditional in common speech. It is incorrect, and considered lazy, but increasingly prevalent. It is not considered appropriate for written Italian.

The presence of both an imperfect and a preterit form of each helping verb provides Italian with more choices of tenses than in English. There are subtle conceptual distinctions between "had thought" as a pluperfect with some continuation in the past (avveva pensato), and "had thought" as a pluperfect which refers to a specific point of time in the past (ebbi pensato). These tenses are hardly ever used in common speech, and are even unusual to encounter in written Italian. Likewise, the past progressive (with "stare" and the gerund) is falling into desuetude, being replaced by the imperfect.

Italian requires discipline with the "sequence of tenses," as in Latin, so that once a sentence embarks in a specific time period, all subsequent verbs must reflect the same time period. (Or, "If the sentence embarked in a certain time period, all other verbs had to reflect the same time period.")

The regular conjugations follow the standard pattern for Romance languages, using "-o" and "-iamo" for the first person, "-i" and "-iate" for the second, and "-a" or "-e" and "-anno," "-enno," or "-inno" for the third person (in the present tense). The forms will alter slightly if the stem ends in a vowel. The first person present indicative stem and the first person preterit indicative stems are used as the basis for forming the other tenses. Subjunctives are formed by using the "-ire" endings in the case of "-are" verbs, and the "-are" endings in the case of "-ere" and "-ire" verbs. Formal imperatives are formed as the third person subjunctive, and the familiar imperative from the third person indicative, with several irregular imperatives for commonly used verbs. The negative imperative uses the infinitive (as in "non ti dimenticare di . . ." (don't forget . . ).

Obviously, not every instance of special form or change can be encapsulated in a grammatical summary, and by definition, a generality will be inappropriate for certain special cases. This is particularly true with the varied panorama of Italian verbs. A dictionary (online or in paper) with sample conjugations is really the best tool for knowing how the many different verbs and verb forms are constructed. This point is, of course, particularly true of the many irregular verbs in Italian. Quite a few derive their irregularities from the principal parts of their Latin forbearers, so the may be reasonably instinctive to someone familiar with Latin. In most languages the most often used verbs are the irregular ones, and Italian is no exception. They are the verbs for "be" (essere, stare), "have" (avere) and the common modal verbs - those expressing necessity, duty, desire, awareness and ability - (in Italian, "dovere," "potere," "sapere," and "volere"). The most common irregularities occur in the first person present indicative stem, the preterit stem, and the perfect passive participle. That is why the "principal parts" of the verb tell most of the story.

Adverbs are highly regular and formed mainly from adjectives by adding "-mente" to the feminine singular form. "Bene" and "male" are two special cases (for well and poorly). Interrogatives are treated as adjectives or adverbs, according to the situation, and do not change (for example, "dove?" for "where?").

Prepositions are a limited group of nine words: "di" (of), "a" (to or at), "da" (from), "in" (in), "con" (with), "su" (up or on), "per" (through or for), "tra" (between or behind), and "fra" (among). In informal speech, "tra" and "fra" have become interchangeable. Additionaly, many adverbs are also adapted to prepositional functions. For example, "doppo" is an adverb meaning "after," bur can be pressed into prepositional phrases. Examples are "doppo di una lunga attesa" (after a long wait) and "prima di domani" (before tomorrow).

Word Order
Italian, like the other Romance languages, uses a subject-verb-object sentence structure. Questions use the same format with a rising tone at the end and (usually) an interrogative pronoun. Subject pronouns are not used except for emphasis. Subject-verb inversion is reserved for emphatic usage only. Adjective and adverbs usually come after the words they modify. A demonstrative adjective and some "essential quality" adjectives will proceed the noun. (There can be a difference in implication between an "old friend" and a "friend who is old," according to whether it is a "vecchio amico" or un "amico vecchio.") If the direct object or the indirect object of the sentence is a pronoun rather than a noun, it is shifted into position before the verb, including an auxiliary verb. The dative always precedes the accusative. Particles like "ne" and "ci" are considered accusative for this purpose. When the verb is an infinitive or imperative, the pronouns are attached at the end of the verb, as in "lasciacela" (leave it (feminine) to us).