For most native English speakers, to learn Italian language pronunciation is a relatively achievable task 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 recognition of these different sounds. As for the vowel sounds, 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 have a consistent sound. Whenever you see the vowels “a”, “i”, and “u” between consonants or alone at the start/end of a word, you’ll find 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 blend 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 vowels 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 produced. For an “open” vowel sound, the tongue is placed at the bottom of the mouth creating an open space for air to pass through. On the other hand, a “close” vowel sound is produced 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). Some words differ in meaning only by the use of a close “e” or open “e”. For example, in Italian pronounce the word pesca with a close “e” and your listener will think you’re talking about a “peach”. If you say pesca with an open “e” it takes on the meaning of “fishing.” Similar to 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, when do you 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 figure out the pronunciation. The rising mark (acute accent), as in “é” or “ó”, signals an open pronunciation while the falling mark (grave accent), as in “è” or “ò”, 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 ancóra (still) as opposed to áncora (anchor), you’ll typically only find an accent mark on the final syllable if it’s stressed like with perché (why), caffè (coffee), and però (but).
Even then, especially 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 find grave accents used for every case. 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 particular 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,pay particular attention to 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!
About the Author
PT Gardner is romantically involved with Romance languages and can entertain himself for hours by reading a dictionary. Most recently he has contributed to the Italian iPhone app by Greenhorn Media.