September 22, 2004

Italian: to vowel or not to vowel

On Monday, Stacy Albin had an article in the NYT under the headline "You say Prosciutto, I say Pro-SHOOT, and Purists Cringe". I can tell you that linguists cringe too, though for different reasons. As Steve at Language Hat put it, "this being the Times, my hopes were not particularly high, and they were not fulfilled". Steve explains that "the article nods in the direction of actual linguistics ('In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common') but basically wallows in the lowest sort of purist chauvinism ('As for the linguistically challenged, who mangle 'prosciutto'...').

Since Stefano Taschini had emailed me recently on another topic, I asked him about this article, and he responded as follows:

I think that the standard reference is the monumental

Gerhard Rohlfs, "Historische Grammatik der italienischen Sprache und ihrer Mundarten"; (3 vols.) Bern: Francke 1949-54.

translated in Italian as

Gerhard Rohlfs, "Grammatica storica della lingua italiana e dei suoi dialetti"; (3 vols.) Torino: Einaudi 1966-69.

Volume 1 is dedicated to phonetics.

A good on-line reference is Princìpi e metodi di dialettologia italiana, which requires a free registration for full access.

If you just want to have a feeling for the several dialects, at you can find poems in many dialects with translations in Italian and English (some also with audio.) The site has also an interesting collection of resources. And I cannot but recommend the site dedicated to and written in the dialect of my hometown: .

Back to the NYT article, which I also saw mentioned on the phonoloblog, I have a couple of comments about it.

1. Gallo-italic dialects (Lombardo, Piemontese, Emiliano, and, in particular, Bolognese), have a rather different phonology from standard Italian. In these dialects many words end in a consonant but they cannot be seen as an apocope of an Italian word. The "fasul" [fa'zu:l], common to Gallo-italic dialects, Veneto and Friulano, is not immediately reconducted to the Italian "fagioli" [fa'ʤɔli] (Pasta e fagioli is a typical northern dish). Similarly, the Bolognese [par'sot] is not an apocope of "prosciutto" [pro'ʃut:o].

2. In neither northern nor central Italian dialects you can find the schwa. In the dialects of central and northern Italy, as well in the standard language, non-stressed vowel sounds are clearly pronounced and the rhythm is syllable based.

3. Leaving Rome and heading south or east, you find a tendency of shortening non-stressed vowels and reducing them to schwas. E.g., the word repeated in the refrain of the Neapolitan song Funicolì Funicolà (almost a trademark for many Italian-Americans, I believe) is [jam:ə], often transcribed as "iammo", closer to the Latin "eamus" (conj. of eo,is, if I correctly remember) than the Italian "andiamo". In some places, such as parts of Abruzzi and Puglie, this leads to the unvoicing of final vowels and ultimately to their disappearance. In these areas you also hear the tendency to follow a stress-based rhythm.

4. Sicilian, phonetically characterized by the presence of retroflexed consonants, not only keeps all the vowel sounds clear and loud but introduces an epenthetic [i] in some consonantic groups. This epenthesis often shows up even when Sicilians speak Italian, with terms like "psicologia" pronounced as [pisicolo'ʤia].

5. Schooling, internal migrations and sixty years of exposure to radio, TV, and movies, have made it such that, virtually, the entire Italian population can speak and understand the standard language, albeit with regional variations and dialect influences. However, using dialect forms in a conversation held in Italian is frowned upon and generally regarded as a "mistake".

6. The misconception that in standard Italian every letter is pronounced (repeated in the NYT article) is probably responsible for the typical English pronunciation of the name Giovanni as [ʤio'va:ni] instead of [ʤo'van:i]. The first i is not pronounced on its own, but simply forms with the preceding g a symbol pronounced [ʤ]. Even in Italy, you occasionally hear school children use the hypercorrected form [ʃi'enʦa]* instead of ['ʃenʦa] for the word "scienza" (science). In this case the "i" is completely mute: were the word spelled as "scenza"* the pronunciation would not change.

In some future equivalent of Albin's article, when NYT writers have the same excellent linguistic education as everyone else, "pro-SHOOT" will be rendered in IPA (I think with the medial palatal fricative voiced, at least if the pronunciations that I hear in the Italian Market in South Philly are representative), and the relevant variations of pronunciation, cheese-making and meat preservation will all be described in accurate and mouth-watering detail.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 22, 2004 09:01 PM