December 17, 2009 | Italian

Challenges in Italian Pronunciation

You'd think English loan words would make other languages easier to learn.

Italian has borrowed numerous words from English—for example, il computer, il leader, and il nylon. Initially, as a native English speaker trying to learn Italian, I thought this seemed like a great thing, but it is actually kind of a pain.

Here’s why. Italian is a phonetic language, very regular and reliable in how the combinations of letters you see on a printed page are pronounced. An Italian dictionary (this was true for Russian, too) can give you a simple page of pronunciation guidelines at the front and then, other than providing information on syllable stress, leave you to your own devices in figuring out how to pronounce each listed word.

English dictionaries, on the other hand, have to give you pronunciation guidelines for each individual word. Each word! Imagine—especially as a non-native speaker—trying to navigate the pronunciation of tough, through, though, thought, and trough without that help!

Going back to the English borrowings in Italian: unfortunately, these borrowed words don’t fit too well with the otherwise entirely reliable and standardized Italian spelling and pronunciation patterns. Take il nylon, for example; the letter y isn’t even part of the Italian alphabet, so as of right now, I don’t know how to pronounce it. Also, are all the vowels in il computer pronounced like Italian vowels, or have Italians preserved the y sound English speakers make after the letter p? In other words, is that middle syllable pyoo (English style) or is it poo (Italian style)? My dictionary won’t tell me.

Café Margot, Scene of the Studying

I spent some time studying Italian at Café Margot today. I learned some real-estate vocabulary—for instance, fare il mutuo (to get a mortgage), sfrattare (to evict), and la rata del condominio (condo fees).

Here they are in one bilingual Manhattan real-estate sentence: Fare il mutuo is painfully difficult now, and sfrattare is always hard in New York, as evidenced by the years-long trouble my own building is having in evicting a couple who are not paying la rata del condominio on multiple apartments.

For real.

An elderly man in Café Margot overheard me telling an acquaintance about this language project and announced he had a joke for me. I did not have high hopes, but I indulged him.

A Picture I Just Happen to Like of a Family Cat (and Having No Meaningful Connection to the Story)

Here it is:

A mother mouse and her babies encounter a big cat. The cat says, “Meoooowww.”

The mother mouse says, “Woof woof.” The cat runs away.

The mama mouse turns to her babies and says, “See, that shows the importance of learning a second language!”

I like it.

Comments (1)

Daniel K • Posted on Thu, March 26, 2015 - 8:33 am EST

Hi Ellen,

I’m reading through your blog again for inspiration and I noticed this post. Did you eventually find answers to these questions? Just incase, despite it being over 5 years late, here is my two cents:

I can confirm that, in the north at least (I’m from Turin) we pronounce it as “il compyooter”. Indeed most of the words imported from English are generally pronounced as is, albeit with a strong Italian accent. Maybe try and picture Super Mario saying these words in the future to get a better idea of their pronunciation!

One thing that sounds a little off to me is “la rata del condominio”, “spese condominiali” sounds much better to my ears.

Kudos to the elderly man for a surprisingly funny joke, too!

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