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.
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.
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.
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.