Accents in Italian
Buongiorno. I am studying Italian, and I notice that unlike Spanish, there are few indications of accent. In Spanish, there are very strict rules, and if any word deviates from them, the accent is always marked. In Italian, I do not see this, or perhaps it is that I do not yet understand the rules.
What are the rules for accenting syllables in Italian? Sometimes it seems the penultimate syllable is accented, and other times it is the antepenultimate. (Of course in words like cittá it is marked, but most times I seen little indication.) My guideline has been making the accent similar to the Spanish cognate, but if there is an actual rule I would love to know about it. Thanks!
I agree with what is written in the other comments. I can add that the great majority of the Italian words are "piàne" (stress on the last but one syllable) and very, very few are "bisdrucciole" (stress on the last but-four syllable). The "tronche" (stress on the last syllable) and some monosyllabic words that may have two different meanings (di/dì, si/sì, se/sé...) have a compulsory stress. The right position of the tonic stress is a problem also for many Italians. There are electricians speaking about "circuì ti" (that means got around, tricked) instead of circù iti (circuits), housewives speaking about their utè nsili instead of utensì li (the adjective utè nsile is used only in "màcchina utè nsile=machine tool)...
I guess you mean accent as the stress of a word, not the graphic accent (i.e. the diacritical mark you place on certain vowels).
Generally speaking, although a majority of Italian words carries the stress on the penultimate word, there are words that carry it elsewhere.
Counting syllables from the right (i.e. backwards), Italian words can carry the stress on:
- the last syllable: città, caffè, perché, però, etc.
In this case the last vowel must bear a graphic accent. These are known as parole tronche ('truncated words', as if a part was missing) or, more technically, parole ossitone .
- The penultimate syllable: penna, limone, lampadina, calendario, etc.
These are the most common words and are know as parole piane ('plain words').
- The antepenultimate syllable: seggiola, popolo, telefono etc.
These are know as parole sdrucciole ('slippery words').
Note that piane is itself a 'plain' word, and sdrucciole is itself a 'slippery' word.
- The preantepenultimate syllable (fourth from the end): they are all 3rd plural persons of the present indicative and present subjunctive tenses of long verbs (four or more syllables) belonging to the 1st conjugation:
praticare → praticano = they practice
superare → superano = they overcome
masticare → masticano = they chew
These are known as parole bisdrucciole ('twice slippery words').
- When adding clitic pronouns to the imperative mood of a verb, they bind to the end of the word, so the word is longer, but the stress keeps its original position. In this case you can have stress on the propreantepenultimate syllable (i.e. fifth from the end):
libera = free → liberamelo = free it for me (the stress always falls on the i)
indica = indicate → indicaceli = indicate them to us (again the stress falls on the first i)
dimentica = forget → dimenticatene = forget about it (the stress falls on the first e)
These have no specific name, being partly formed by clitic pronouns.
As a general rule, even in very long words, with six or more syllables, the stress cannot fall any further than on the fifth syllable from the right:
incredibilmente = incredibly (6 syllables) carries the stress on the penultimate one
particolareggiato = detailed (7 syllables) carries the stress on the penultimate one
...and so on.
Graphic accents are very rarely used to indicate the position of stress (except the ones on the last syllable). This can be done to help the reader when a word can be easily mistaken for a similar one with a different stress:
àncora = anchor but ancòra = again
prìncipi = princes but princìpi = principles
Or when a vowel takes two different sounds:
pésca = fishing but pèsca = peach (different accents, the first one is acute, the other is grave)
But in a context of speech one would very rarely mistake the correct meaning.
Only dictionary entries always feature a graphic accent to indicate the stressed vowel (or syllable).
Clearly, one should memorize where the stress falls in each word, although the doubt is usually restricted to the penultimate and the antepenultimate syllables.
Verb inflections usually follow schemes, at least regular verbs do so. Once you know how one tense works for one verb, you can apply the same scheme to others verbs, as well.
Extremely helpful. Mille grazie. How are the grave-accented 'e' and acute-accented 'e' pronounced? I am not sure Duolingo covers this.
You are welcome.
In the international phonetic alphabet the acute-accented 'e' (é ) is /e/, what is referred to as 'close e' (e chiusa ).
The grave-accented 'e' (è ) is /ɛ/ , what is commonly referred to as 'open e' (e aperta ).
According to a general rule, any 'e' that does not carry the stress is pronounced /e/ ('close' sound).
Instead, when an 'e' carries the stress, its sound can be either 'close' or 'open'.
In telefono (telephone) the first 'e' is unstressed ('close' sound), the second one is stressed ('open' sound).
In celeste (pale blue) the first 'e' is unstressed ('close' sound), the second one is stressed ('open' sound), the third one is unstressed ('close' sound).
In vedere (to see) all three have a 'close' sound (the second one carries the stress)
In prendere (to take) the first 'e' is stressed ('open' sound) and the following two are unstressed ('close' sound)
In perché (why / beacuse) both have a 'close' sound (the last one is stressed, and bears an acute accent)
In caffè (coffee) the 'e' carries the stress and sounds 'open' (it bears a grave accent)
è (he/she/it is) carries a grave accent and is pronounced with an 'open' sound
e (and) has no accent and is pronounced with a 'close' sound
Similar rules also concern the pronunciation of the vowel 'o', whose sound can be either 'close' /o/ or 'open' /ɔ/.
When an 'o' is unstressed, it always sounds 'close', /o/.
When an 'o' is stressed, it can have either of the two sounds.
When the stressed 'o' is the last letter of the word ('truncated word') and carries a graphic accent, it always sounds 'open', /ɔ/ (so the accent is always grave).
In orologio (clock, watch) the first 'o' and the second 'o' are unstressed ('close' sound), the third one is stressed (it sounds 'open'), the fourth one is unstressed ('close').
In orgoglio (pride) all three sound 'close' (the second one is stressed)
In tornerò (I'll return) the first 'o' is unstressed ('close'), the second one is stressed and, being the last letter of the word, it sounds 'open' and bears a grave accent.
In proporrò (I'll propose) the first two are unstressed and sound 'close', the last one is stressed and, being the last letter of the word, it sounds 'open' and bears a grave accent.
ho (I have) sounds 'open'
o (or) sounds 'close'
In some cases, pronouncing the stressed vowel with the two types of sound produces different meanings:
esse (the first 'e' has a 'close' sound) = they [feminine]
esse (the first 'e' has an 'open' sound) = S, the letter S
svelto (the 'e' has a 'close' sound) = fast, quick
svelto (the 'e' has an 'open' sound) = uprooted, eradicated
torta (the 'o' has a 'close' sound) = cake
torta (the 'o' has an 'open' sound) = twisted, bent [feminine]
fossi (the 'o' has a 'close' sound) = (that) I were / you were [subjunctive]
fossi (the 'o' has an 'open' sound) = ditches, trenches
I think that, unfortunately, Italian doesn't have such clear-cut rules :/. I'm not a native speaker but I've read that the accent mark must be there if the last syllable is stressed like in "città", "virtù" and "perché". If other syllables are stressed, the accent mark isn't always there. There are some words that have different meanings depending on which syllable is stressed like "àncora"-"anchor" and "ancòra"-"again"; this isn't always represented in writing, though.
Let me know if this is helpful :).
That's exactly right! For example, "anchor" can be written as "àncora" to avoid any possible confusion (ancòra/ancora = again/still/yet, is a far more popular word), but the accent can be omitted, it's not mandatory when the stress is not on the last vowel.
I would add that only a few words use the acute accent ("perché", "benché", "poiché", etc..), the standard accent mark in Italian is the grave accent ("città", "civiltà", "società", etc..), so that's another difference between Spanish and Italian. There are some native speakers who didn't pay attention in school and who always write "perchè", or "poichè", but that's wrong, the accent is important because it indicates the correct pronunciation. For example, "è" means "he/she/it is", while "e" (pronounced "é") means "and".
Ah, but tell me as one who is not a native speaker ,what is the difference between the acute-accented 'e' and the grave-accented 'e' in pronunciation? This seems to be of great importance.
Basically, è is pronounced like the "e" in the word "tell", while é is pronounced like the second "e" in the word "secret". That's why words like "perché" need the accent to go in that direction :)
I agree Italian don't have clear cut rules which makes it a little difficult.
I recently moved to Italy and notice that the accent is either on the first vowel or rolled r, it also follows the down up down pattern in the vocal cords, making the language be big an full. otherwhise yes its a combo of the French and Spanish accents