Written Italian

Officially, the Italian alphabet has 21 letters - the 26 of English, minus J, K, W, X, & Y. These letters appear in Italian writing when used for foreign names and words, but not for the standard Italian lexicon. For example, in the opening scene of Madama Butterfly by Puccini, one Yankee naval officer sings about scoffing at risks ("sprezzando rischi") and rhymes "rischi" with "milk punch o whisky?" In this case, the word "whisky," which contains three of the five rejected letters, took its place in Italian grand opera. Modern Italian has embraced "x" in "extra" and "j" (pronounced like "i") in older spellings of names, like "Jacopo."

"G" is hard except before "i" and "e." Hence the soft "g" sound in "Giovanni." By inserting an "h" the "g" goes hard, as in "Ghibiline." The same thing occurs with "c," which is hard (like a "k") unless it comes before "i" or "e," in which event, an "h" solves the problem. Hence "ci" is pronounced "CHI" and "chi" is pronounced "KEY."

Diacritical marks in Italian are the acute accent and the grave accent. The acute indicates a stressed, front mid-close e-vowel (as "é" in "perché") and the grave is used for a stressed front mid close e-vowel (like "è" in "té"). The grave is also used to move the stress from the default syllable to a different one, as in "carità " (charity).

The normal rule in Italian for stress is to accent the penultimate syllable. If the ultimate syllable is stressed, an accent mark is employed. However, if the stress should be on the antepenultimate syllable (third from the end), Italian does not always mark it for the reader. Much of the time you are just supposed to know whether or not the word is stressed on the antepenultimate (or sometimes even the praeantepenultimate!). For example "dimenticare" (forget) is a normal, penult-stressed word. Its third person plural is "dimenticano." The stress is on the "e" in the praeantepenultimate position. Examples of the antepenultimate are "vongole" (clams) and "ostriche" (oysters) -- each stressed on its initial vowel. When a word can be pronounced either way, and have a distinct meaning (as in the words for "princes" and "principles"), the accent is employed. Compare "prìncipi" with "princìpi."

The letter "h" appears in written Italian, but is never pronounced, even in loanwords, like "hotel." It is used internally to harden "g" and "c" before "i" and "e" and it is used as an initial to distinguish certain forms of the helping verb "avere" (have) -- ("ho," "hai," "ha," "hanno") -- from homophones ("o" (or), "ai" (to the), "a" (to), and "anno" (year)).

The "z" in Italian is the "ds" or "ts" sound (in IPA, /ʣ/ or /ʦ/). "Zanzara" (mosquito) has two of the softer "z" sounds, and "Zíngara" (gypsy) is usually pronounced with the harder initial "z".

Italian has three additional sounds that need to be written in a specific way. They are:

• "GL" -- the /ÊŽ/ phoneme, similar to the "lh" diagraph in Portuguese and the "ll" letter in Castilian Spanish; • "GN" - the /ɲ/ phoeme, similar to the "nh" diagraph in Portuguese and the "ñ" letter in Spanish; and • "SC" - a "sh" sound (IPA /ʃ/).

The "GL" occurs only before the letter "i" and never at the beginning of a word, other than "gli," a personal pronoun and plural article. "GN" occurs more often (as in the pasta dish "gnocchi" and the word "pugno" (fist)). "SC" also appears more broadly (as in "suscitare" (to stir up)).

Beyond these observations of how sounds are written, Italian is transcribed essentially as it is pronounced, given clear enunciation and compliance with the foregoing rules of orthography. Writing phonetically is so natural to Italians that often they find it hard to understand how spoken French and English can depart so radically from the way it is written.