Learning the Musicality of Italian: Part I
How does it sound?
As you know, Italian is a very musical language and has got digraphs (two letters making a single sound) which pronunciation might be difficult to figure out. What are the most critical ones and how can you get them right? Well, here is how to learn the correct pronunciation and never get confused again!
While the English H at the beginning of a word is usually pronounced, in Italian is exactly the opposite as it is always silent. So, if you need to say “ho fame” (I’m hungry) you actually have to say “O fame”. To remember this, just think about the initial “h” as a “hop” that will make you skip its sound, as the letter wasn’t even there. On the other hand, the Italian “h” can be so strong to change the sound of another letter, like the “c” and the “g”. Yes, I know what you are thinking right now: that happens in English too. But again, in Italian the outcome is different.
In English, “ch” is mainly a soft sound as the “h” softens the “c” like in the word “chips”. But the Italian “h” strengthens the “c”, making it sound like a “k”. When you answer the phone and you say “chi è?” (=who’s speaking?), “chi” is pronounced exactly the same as the word “key”. But when you say “ciao” (=hello/bye) to your interlocutor, then “ci” sounds like [chee] in the word “cheese”.
You might have always wondered why you keep getting mixed up with words like “che” as in “che bello!”(=how beautiful) and “c’è” as in “c’è il sole”(=it’s sunny). Once again, the answer relies in the magical power of the “h” that makes the “c” sound like a “k”. So, “c”+ “h” + “e”/ “i”= hard sound. But the same formula without the “h” gives a soft sound. Remember: no “h”, no magic!
The same rule is valid for the letter “g”: the “h” makes its sound hard as in the Italian word “ghetto”, which sounds exactly as the English version, “ghetto”. But if you check out the word “gelato”(=ice-cream), you will notice that now the “g” is soft and sounds like the English “j”. Now have a look at the word “ghiro”(=dormouse): the “g” must be pronounced like the “g” in the English word “gear”. On the contrary, the same word without the “h” has got a soft “g”: “giro” as in “andare in giro”(=to walk around).
So, next time you will see a “h” at the beginning or in the middle of a word, you will know exactly what to do. Right?
The digraph “sc” can be tricky and behave differently from English, but you will probably not be surprised at this point. Now we know that a “c” can be soff or hard depending on what is the following letter. But if you have a soft “c” preceded by a “s” (“sc”), its sound will be different again: in that case, “sc” will sound exactly as the English “sh”. Let’s have a look at the word “scelta”(=choice): do you think “sc” is a soft or hard sound here? Now, if your answer is “hard”, you’d better to go back and read the previous passage again. If your answer is “soft”, well done! You really got the gist of what we are talking about. In the word “scelta” the digraph “sc” is soft because it has a soft “c” and it sounds like the English “sh” in the word “shed”. Besides, there is no “h” in this word. So, according to what we have learned, the “c” in “scelta” cannot be hard and, as a consequence, the digraph “sc” is soft. See how everything is connected? Isn’t it amazing?
Of course, if you have a hard “c” as in the word “scherma”(= fencing), the above rule does not apply. In this case, you simply pronounce the “s” and the hard “c” that will sound as the English “sk” in the word “sceptical”.
Let’s make another example with the word “sciroppo”(=syrup): read it loudly and guess if “sc” is a soft or hard sound. You should not have any doubt at this point. If you have any, just ask yourself: “Do I see any “h” in this word?” How would you read the word “schizzo”(= sketch) instead?
Be careful: the rule is valid for the vowels “e” and “i” only! What does it mean? It means that in words containing “sc” plus any other vowel, this sound will be hard anyway. There is no need for the “h” in that case. Just check these words out: “scuola” (=school); “scala” (=staircase/ladder); “sconto” (=discount). Figure out their pronunciation and keep practicing the sounds and words you have learned in this article. Start pronouncing them right once for all!
Italian & English Language Tutor on eCoaches. Experience in teaching Italian to English or other languages speakers, for both personal and professional purposes. Tailored lessons to make you reach your objectives smartly. You’ll improve your fluency, pronunciation, oral comprehension through effective activities such as role plays, descriptions and many others!