If you’re learning Italian, it’s obviously essential to know the alphabet but it can also be very helpful for traveling in Italy and aiding with some pesky pronunciation.
Did you know the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) considers Italian to be one of the easiest languages to learn? While verbs might be a little tricky to get a grip on at first (if you’ve never learned a Romance or Latin-based language) the Italian language is phonetic – if you can say it, you can spell it, and if you can spell it, you can pronounce it!
It can be useful to know the alphabet while traveling in Italy in a number of situations.
- You want someone to spell the name of a town when you’re getting directions
- You need to spell your name over the phone while making a dinner or hotel reservation
- You’re giving a parking attendant your license plate number
By the end of this post, you’ll know:
- How many letters are in the Italian alphabet (hint: it’s not 26!)
- How to pronounce all of the letters you’ll see during your time in Italy
- Some foreign words that are used in the Italian alphabet
- The Italian phonetic alphabet, which is used for spelling
- Adorable Italian alphabet songs (that you can sing to yourself)
- How Italians write their letters
- A few of the regional differences in pronunciations of Italian letters
How Many Letters are in the Italian Alphabet?
The Italian alphabet has 21 letters:
5 vowels: A-E-I-O-U
16 consonants: B-C-D-F-G-H-L-M-N-P-Q-R-S-T-V-Z
The 5 ‘missing’ letters are J-K-W-X-Y
Though of course, you’ll still see these letters used – in foreign language words (like English!), acronyms, company names and car license plates.
Italian Alphabet Pronunciation
How to Pronounce the Letters of the Italian Alphabet
|LETTER||ITALIAN LETTER NAME||PHONETIC TRANSCRIPTION||PRONOUNCED IN A WORD LIKE…|
|C||ci||chee||cheek or car|
|G||gi||gee||jeep or goat|
|H||acca||AHK-kah||This letter is silent!|
|R||erre||ER-reh||ring This letter is always rolled!|
How to Pronounce the Foreign Language Letters
|LETTER||ITALIAN LETTER NAME||PHONETIC TRANSCRIPTION||PRONOUNCED IN A WORD LIKE…|
|J||i lunga||ee LOON-gah||yes, jeep|
|W||vu doppia/doppia vu||voo DOHP-pee-ah||van|
Double Consonants in Italian
Double consonants are always stressed, as they change the meaning of a word. This can be quite tricky for an English speaker.
Pappa – baby food (or a mushy tomato Tuscan dish like ‘pappa al pomodoro’)
Papa – the Pope
Caro – dear
Carro – cart
Note – notes
Notte – night
Penne – a type of pasta (or ‘pens,’ as in writing utensils)
Pene – penis
Anno – year
Ano – anus
You see why you don’t want to get them confused!
Some Italian Pronunciation Rules
How to Pronounce ‘H’ in Italian
The letter ‘H’ is silent so while you’ll see it in the word ‘hotel’ it’ll never be sounded. For example, ‘Otel Duomo for Hotel Duomo).
It’s the same with the verb avere (to have):
- I have – Io ho (pronounced EE-oh oh)
- They have – Loro hanno (pronounced LOH-roh AHN-noh)
Basically, you just omit the ‘h’ and move to the next letter. This is why Italian speakers often drop their ‘Hs’ when speaking English. In Italian it’s written but not pronounced (a bit like how you probably say ‘erbs’ for herbs!)
How to Pronounce ‘S’ in Italian
The letter ‘S’ is generally pronounced as in English (like in sing). For example, sessanta (seh-SAHN-tah) – sixty.
When it occurs between two vowels it is pronounced like /z/
- Casa – house (pronounced CAH-zah)
- Cosa – thing (pronounced COH-zah)
Compare cassa (cash register) with a normal double /s/ sound to casa (house).
I once heard a tourist thinking he’d been offered something ‘on the house’ when he’d actually been told to go and pay at the cash register!
How to Pronounce ‘Z’ in Italian
The letter ‘Z’ is pronounced like /dz/ at the start of a word.
For example, zio (uncle) or zebra (it’s the same word in Italian!)
But it’s pronounced /ts/ when doubled or in the middle of a word.
For example, pizza – (PEET-sah)
How to Pronounce ‘C’ and ‘G’ in Italian
The letters ‘C’ and ‘G’can be pronounced both hard and soft.
Soft – when followed by the vowels I and E:
- gemma – gem (and also a girl’s name!) is pronounced with the /j/ sound like in ‘gin’ (JEM-mah)
- gente – people (pronounced JEN-teh)
- cento – the number 100 is pronounced with the /ch/ sound (CHEN-toh)
- ceci – chickpeas/garbanzo beans (CHEH-chee)
Hard – ‘C’ and ‘G’ are pronounced with a hard /k/ sound (like “car”) and /g/ sound (like in “golf”) when they are followed by the vowels A, O, and U, and by consonants:
- cane – dog (pronounced CAH-neh)
- credo – belief (pronounced KREH-doh)
- gatto – cat (GAHT-toh)
- grandine – hailstones (GRAHN-dee-neh)
When followed by the letter ‘H’ both ‘G’ and ‘C’ have hard sounds
- chiesa – church (pronounced kee-EH-sah)
- chimica – chemistry (pronounced KEE-mee-kah)
- ghetto – same meaning in Italian and pronounced in the same way as in English
- Ghemme – a town in Piedmont and with a wine of the same name (pronounced GHEHM-meh)
Italian Alphabet Songs
Just like in English, there are some cute alphabet songs to help kids learn:
Foreign Words in Italian
There are lots of foreign words with the 5 ‘missing’ letters (J-K-W-X -Y) that are commonly used in Italian:
- Jolly (the name given to the Joker in a pack of cards)
- Juventus (the Serie A soccer team in Torino, pronounced yoo-VEHN-toos)
- Karate (pronounced kah-rah-TEH)
- Taxi (pronounced TAHK-see)
Some common English or US products/actors/names may have exactly the same spelling but be pronounced a bit differently in Italian
- Magnum – the ice cream brand becomes ‘MAH-nyoom’
- Harry Potter – the character becomes ‘Erry Potter (with every ‘r’ rolled!)
- Tom Cruise – poor Tom is destined to have his name mispronounced forever as every letter is sounded in Italian, so no ‘cruz’ but ‘croo – ee – zz’
- IKEA – Italians love going to ‘ee-KAY-ah’
- Ray-Ban – These popular sunglasses become ‘rye banz’
- X-box – of course it’s an ‘eeks bohks’ in Italian!
- Gatorade – the sports drink is ‘gah-toh-RAH-deh’ in Italian
Handwritten Letters in Italian
How Italians write upper and lowercase letters:
Italian Phonetic Alphabet
If you’ve been in the armed forces (or you’re a pilot) you may have learned to spell phonetically; for example, ‘Apha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…etc.’ Most of us can probably get as far as that, although many of us will eventually give up and end up saying ‘m as in mouse.’ And by the way, does anyone even ‘Foxtrot’ anymore?
If you meet an Italian carabiniere (or pilot) they’ll also be familiar with this, but there’s a much more common way to spell things phonetically that involve the names of Italian towns.
It’s been super-useful when spelling my name over the phone.
I am Candice: “Como, Ancona, Napoli, Domodossola, Imola, Como, Empoli.” Otherwise, my name ends up spelled as ‘Kendis’).
Here is the list, although people like to make their own variations (especially depending on whether they’re from the North or the South of Italy):
A – Ancona
B – Bologna
C – Como (or Cremona or Cagliari)
D – Domodossola
E – Empoli
F – Firenze
G – Genova
H – hotel (we don’t have a city beginning with ‘h’!)
I – Imola
L – Livorno
M – Milano
N – Napoli
O – Otranto (or Orvieto)
P – Parma (or Palermo or Pisa)
R – Roma
S – Savona (or Salerno or Siena)
T – Torino
U – Udine
V – Venezia
For the letters J, K, Q, W, X, Y, Z, the Italian name of the letter is used. So, for example, ‘X’ is ics, pronounced ‘eeks.’
Italian Dialects and Pronunciations
There are some classic differences in pronunciation that can immediately identify where someone’s from in bella Italia. A few examples include:
The letter ‘c’ in Tuscany tends to be aspirated to sound like an ‘h’. So you the classic phrase used to make fun of this peculiarity – ‘Una Coca-Cola con una cannuccia corta’ (a Coca-Cola with a really short straw) becomes ‘una Hoha-Hola hon una hannuccia horta’. Italian singer-songwriter Lorenzo Baglioni recently used the phrase as the title of his song about racism (where a boy called Yetunde raised in Florence by foreign parents begins to notice the difference in others’ attitudes to him).
In the Campania region of Italy (home to Naples, Salerno, and the Amalfi Coast) you’ll notice things like double consonants pronounced where there should only be one, e.g. sabbato instead of sabato (Saturday) or cuggino instead of cugino (cousin). Shortening of words is also very common – professò instead of professore (professor/teacher) or Salvatò instead of Salvatore.
Someone from the northern region of Emilia-Romagna might substitute an ‘s’ for a ‘z’ when pronouncing words, so you’ll hear assione instead of azione (action) or piassa instead of piazza (square).
I hope this helps you feel a little bit more confident in using the alphabet during your travels in Italy!
Be sure to check out our 200+ Essential Travel Tips for Italy!
At what age do Italian children learn the alphabet?
While mandatory schooling begins at 6, many Italian children will certainly have learned the alphabet at their asilo (nursery school/pre-school) or with help from their parents.
What are the 21 letters in the Italian alphabet?
The 21 letters in the Italian alphabet are the 5 vowels: A-E-I-O-U and 16 consonants: B-C-D-F-G-H-L-M-N-P-Q-R-S-T-V-Z.
What are the 5 foreign letters in the Italian alphabet?
The 5 foreign letters are J-K-W-X-Y.