How to Sound Like an Italian: Pronunciation Guide for Tourists

I am fluent in Italian.

I forget words. I emphasize the wrong syllable. I hate that every object on earth has a gender. And don’t ever ask me what I “would have been doing” because I guarantee you, my answer will take a while and most likely be incomprehensible.

But, I can go entire days without thinking a single English thought, or uttering a single English word. I dream in Italian. I sing in Italian. I laugh at the absurdity that is Italian television. So, I feel I have earned the right to say: I am fluent in Italian.

Language has always been easy for me, so I have never understood when people get panicky about going to a country where they do not know the language. I know there are some people who are just blocked about it – I get the same feeling when someone talks about Algebra – and those people are allowed to be panicky.

But the rest of you? Take one hour – one single hour! – out of your life before going on vacation and learn the basic phrases you’ll need to get by. No one is asking you to be fluent. No one is going to stop you on the street while you are taking a picture of your family in front of a monument and ask you to discuss political theory in the native tongue.

Italian is really the easiest language with which to get used to the idea of communicating with the citizens. For one, it’s a fun language (at least to me). It’s easy to pronounce – there are very few ways to mess it up. And, Italians LOVE IT when you try to speak to them in Italian. LOVE. IT. As long as you’re able to laugh at yourself, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

The key to sounding like an Italian are two things:

  1. Every letter in every word is pronounced.
  2. Each vowel has its own sound, and only that sound. There are no two ways to pronounce a vowel.

Here is how the vowels should be thought of if you normally speak American English (Brits are on their own):

a sounds like the “o” in “cot”

e is like “bed” – but we have the tendency to round that out so to foreign ears it sounds more like “bud” – it’s a brighter “e” in Italian, more like halfway between “bid” and “bed.” Actually, scratch that – it’s more like the “a” in “day” if you didn’t then go on to finish the word

i sounds like the “ee” in “feet”

o as in “go”

u sounds the the “oo” in “boot”

Even when there are two vowels together, their pronunciation does not change; they’re just said a little faster.

The only other major thing you have to know is about c’s and g’s.

  • When c is followed by i or e, it is pronounced as in “church.” All other times, it pronounced as in “cook.” “Chi” sounds like “key” and “che” sounds like “kay.”
  • When g is followed by i or e, it is pronounced as in “Georgia.” All other times, it pronounced as in “goal.” “Ghi” sounds like “Peggy” and “ghe” sounds like “gay.”

Other stuff to know:

  1. gn – listen to yourself when you say, “can you.” That “n-y” is what you’re going for. I’d say think of when you say “gnocchi” or “filet mignon” but I’ve heard these two words butchered enough to not suggest it.
  2. gl– this is a tough one. The closest I can come to is “fall you” – the “ll-y” feeling in your mouth. This letter combo is always with an -ia or an -io after it, so: “fall yonder” or “fall yoke” gives you the sound you’re looking for there.
  3. double letters, like the two “t”s in “spaghetti” – they are held a microsecond longer, like your mouth doesn’t want to let go of the word. Don’t worry about this one, it’s seriously not that big a deal. Just pronounce them and you’ll sound fine – i.e., spah-get-tee, not spah-geddy.
  4. sf – yep, just say ’em both.
  5. r – roll it on out. Come on, roll that r! If you’re genetically incapable of doing so, give it a soft “d” sound as in “pudding”and you should do alright.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you some basic phrases you should know if you want to get by while in Italy!

12 thoughts on “How to Sound Like an Italian: Pronunciation Guide for Tourists

  1. Perfect timing! I just pulled out my Italian phrase books yesterday. Mr. Pants and I are currently planning our next trip to Italy! Weee! We are going to Venice and Rome. I can’t wait for the next post on phrases. Thanks for this one on pronunciation! It was very helpful Ms. Expatria.

  2. Pingback: Italian Pronunciation - It’s All In The Vowels « Miss Expatria

  3. You know, coming from an Italian family with a fluent Italian-speaking sister, I’ve been “intending” to learn the language for as long as I can remember. I’ve bought guides, subscribed to internet things.. But alas, in you I’ve found the voice of reason. I get it; for the first time, I’m willing to spend the time to process the information and *get it*.

    I love your ability to actually *speak* in your writing, give your words a voice and all.

    Thank you for publishing this, my friend. Cheers!

    -alex.

  4. I know this posting refers to basic Italian, but for me, the confusing thing is that Italians DON’T pronounce every letter in every word. They regularly cut off vowels at the end of words which are followed by words that begin with a vowel.

    So “Dopo avere vinto il premio …” (After having won the prize …) can come out as “Dop’aver vint’il premio …”. It can be very confusing if you’re expecting to hear every syllable, as I found when travelling in Italy.

  5. Gerry,

    There are indeed many areas of Italy whose dialects drop vowels like a pigeon drops poop. But, after a while, you learn that for the most part, they really ARE saying the vowels (“dopo avere…”) – they just say them really subtly and quickly. It’s a slight movement of the mouth that gets it all in there, but it’s there.

  6. this was such great info! im not obliged with the italn gelooto, so i thought i would try some one day and good golly mis molly they were good! thanks!

  7. Language is sooo my thing too!! this was a great and helpful post basic but you still really explained everything. Ever considered teaching? I am starting to learn Italian (I father bought me some software for Christmas (last year) and I am just now staring to use it but I wanted a hand with reading and good golly miss molly you were that hand!!! (Taco pants, Jerry Lee Lewis rocks!)

    And to Gerry think about your native tongue the correct way to pronounce everything is not necessarily how peopl speak we slurr things together or abbreviate things to make it faster (also when we speak quickly it just comes out faster). It’s the same in any language They are comfortable with it so they feel free to sway, if you will.

  8. I believe that the losing of the vowel is called elision,it was used in latin poetry and must have passed into Italian. It is where there are two words next to each other the first ending in a vowel and the second starting. You chop off the first word end vowel and connect the words with the second words first vowel. Dopo avere–> Dop’avere. “Odi et amo” I hate and I love.–>>Od’et amo -Cattulus 85

  9. Thanks for the effort you made on this site. It helped me by answering some questions and setting me at ease for my Italy trip in October. I will take your advice and practice some between now and them. Take care from Philadelphia.

  10. So glad i found your lovely site and thoroughly enjoying reading through. Just finished the piece on pronounciation, especially the advice to pronounce every letter in the word. Had started a little Italian online before coming over but things were a bit hectic before leaving so really have fallen back on my tried and fairly true method of getting around a new country when you don’t speak the language.
    1. Learn a polite greeting. Buongirno.
    2 . An apology (mi scusa)
    3. I don’t speak——( insert language here ) Io non parlano italiano.
    4. Do you speak (your mother language)? Lei parla ingles?

    This method seems to work pretty well. Usually by step 3 it is pretty obvious and they are laughing at you.
    It sometimes takes me a while to get the pronunciation going well enough for anyone to understand but after that it goes pretty well. Not perfect I know and no substitute for really understanding on a deeper level but at least a start. Smetimes people do have a little english and seem more inclined to give it ago when they see you having a go with their language, even if you are mangling it!

    Your suggestion on pronunciation is what I have been finding. My tongue and lips are getting a real workout as I navigate my way round those italian words. I am australian however so don’t really open my mouth much when speaking. Other nationalities may not find the change such a work out.
    Thank you for your fun and useful insights.

    • Thanks for your reply! Just a few things:

      1. Learn a polite greeting. Buongirno. Buongiorno.
      2 . An apology (mi scusa) scusi
      3. I don’t speak——( insert language here ) Io non parlano italiano. parlo
      4. Do you speak (your mother language)? Lei parla ingles? inglese

      I learned pronunciation from mimicking Giorgia songs. She’s kind of like the Celine Dion of Italy, but her pronunciation is awesome.

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