Italian pronunciation for Anglophones
Please note: while the author is an experienced language teacher, these hints and instructions will not guarantee perfect pronunciation. Like diet foods, they will perform no miracles, they can only offer a little help. The article has been written in good humour, so please take it that way.
Well, we learned how to speak correctly, and we mastered the ci and c’è and the chi and che, but every Italian we run into sniggers at our Anglophone accent (all the while saying how charming it is, as if we sounded like Marcello Mastroianni or Sofia Loren speaking English!). Is there any way we can sound more Italian?
Yes, and all it takes is knowing how pronunciation works, what is involved, and why our vowels and consonants don’t resemble Italian ones. Speaking involves the lungs, the epiglottis (a little flap in the throat that vibrates when we make a sound, or rather, it makes the sound for us) and the mouth parts (tongue, teeth, roof, lips) plus facial muscles and nose. The trick is to get them in the right position and you’ll get the right sound. Let’s start with vowels, since there are only five of them, plus they don’t involve changing facial muscles or mouth positions in order to get the basic single sound.
The first thing to bear in mind is English vowels are spoken from the lungs, but Italian vowels are spoken from the throat. This makes our words breathier and deeper, whereas Italian is sharper and higher. Try to push sound from the top of your throat instead of rolling it up from below. You can actually feel where the sound is coming from: put your hand on the lower part of your neck for English, then move it up to just under the chin for Italian.
The next thing to know is most Anglophone vowels on their own end up sounding like diphthongs, which means two sounds instead of just one. When we say Oh, it is a combination of “o” and “u”, so “o-u” is what we get. Italian stops at the “o”, making a sharper, more defined sound. When we say “non lo so”, it doesn’t sound Italian because it actually comes out: known low sow. So first you have to rid yourself of double sounds when Italian calls for one only. Just don’t finish the sound: stop after “o”. Try it. Then apply to all vowels: “a” should not rhyme with “hey”, “i” (see below) is not like the first person singular, “u” is not like “you”, all double sounds.
English vowel sounds also don’t correspond to the written form, but Italian ones do, making it much easier to pronounce correctly. For example, we have two different ways of pronouncing an “i”: as in bit or bite, but Italian has just one, and it more resembles our “long ‘e’”: bee. All you really need to do is practice the Italian single sounds and you’re nearly there.
Now come the consonants. This is where it gets tricky, because you now have to re-arrange your mouth in order to say the word correctly in Italian. Stand in front of a mirror here, because you need to have the various parts in the right place, and you need to see what’s going on.
First on the list is the letter “t”, because it is the one that causes the most difficulty. It shouldn’t. Anglophones form the sound by placing the tip of the tongue on the curved part of the roof of the mouth just behind the upper teeth: do it and you’ll see what I’m talking about. That curve is known as the alveolar ridge, in case you’re interested. Italians place the tip of the tongue directly behind the upper teeth. It makes all the difference, believe me: practice saying “tempo” with your tongue in the two different places and you’ll hear it. For one thing, it sharpens the “e” just a bit, doesn’t it?
Next up is that “r”, which when single is flipped, like our “d”, (say “toro”: it should sound like “todo”—well, sort of) but when double, it’s rolled. Practice that: hold your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth and blow, letting your tongue flutter while you exhale. Takes practice, but you’ll get it. Wrongly pronounced “r”s will not only peg you as a flaming foreigner but can cause communication problems, because your Italian listener might not have any idea what you’re supposed to be saying. Rolling the double “r”s is fun, too, like singing opera in the shower or something.
Ok, moving on, the next problem area is the “l”. English pron has you placing the tip of your tongue on that alveolar ridge and letting the air flow past on either side, epiglottis flapping madly (meaning you’re making a sound, unlike, say, a “p”, which has no sound, just a little puff of silent air). Italians actually let the tip of their tongue peek out from between the upper and lower teeth and touch the upper lip (definitely practice this in front of a mirror). Try it with “bello”: hold the “l” as long as possible so you get the feel of it. Notice what that does to the vowel: it sharpens the “e”, but you don’t have time to get your tongue back in place and close your lips to make the “o” into “ow”. Hopefully we’ve gone from “bellow” to “bello”. Wasn’t that easy?
If you’ve taken lessons, you’ll have been taught about single and double consonants. English has no such thing as a discrepancy between the two, but Italian does, and how! Always hold a double slightly longer than a single, it really is important, because you could be saying another word altogether. Also remember a double “z” is always like “pizza,” never like “buzz.” A single “s” sounds like a “z” but doubled it’s hissed.
Those are the real problem areas: most other consonants are similar to English, but it’s good to know about those oddballs like “sbaglio” and “sforzo”: when the consonant following the “s” is what is known as vocalised, as is “b”, say the “s” more like a “z” and you’ll be ok; if instead it’s silent, as with the “f”, hiss it like “s.”
It’s important to know how vowels and consonants act on each other. You know about ci but did you know about ciabatta? The “i” only serves to soften the “c”, making the end result more like chabatta than cheeabatta. This also goes for names like Gianni (sounds like Johnny rather than Jeeohnny—and the “o” is wrong but the point was the gi, not the rest).
Another bugbear is of course that “gli” business. Probably the best advice is to practice by saying “million” and keep working on it, isolating the “lli” until you can get an approximation of the original.
Well, lightness aside, these fairly simple guidelines should help you sound maybe a wee bit more Italian.