Wednesday, October 4, 2017

People and Place Names in Italian: Correct Pronunciation

RAI DOP: Dizionario Italiano multimediale e multilingue d'ortografia e di pronuncia. Parole e nomi dell'italiano.RAI DOP: Dizionario Italiano multimediale e multilingue d'ortografia e di pronuncia. Parole e nomi dell'italiano.Grande Dizionario Hoepli di Aldo Gabrielli, edizione speciale 150th anniversarioTulio de Maruo grande dizionario Italiano dell'uso
Italian dictionaries consulted for this post: DOP, Hoepli, de Mauro.



I'm obsessed with tonic accents. I admit it. I think it stems from having so much trouble with pronouncing Italian words and knowing where to put the correct stress accent. I've discussed tonic accents in several other posts: Italian Words with Tonic Stress on Third-From-Last Syllable: Le Parole Sdrucciole and Conjugating Italian Verbs and Knowing Where to Put the Tonic Stress. In particular, I get stuck on sdrucciole words, that is, words with an accent on the third-from-last syllable.

In this post, I'll talk about people and place names, which, in my opinion, are not well-documented, at least from the point of view of someone trying to learn the language. It may seem like I'm making a big deal out of this, but after getting chuckled at recently for my pronunciation of Taranto and Cattaneo, I decided to investigate further. For the record, I pronounced Taranto (a city) as Tarànto instead of Tàranto. That got me a chuckle and a quick correction. Then, I pronounced Cattaneo (a surname) as Cattanèo instead of Cattàneo. For that mispronunciation I was laughed at a good bit and called a terrone, or southerner. I was among friends who didn't mean it, but I was still a little annoyed.

What I found interesting in my research for this post is that many of the sources I turned to have no information on how to pronounce people and places names. In the least, after reading this post, you'll walk away with a list of useful Italian dictionary references, with a few that can help you resolve pronunciation.

First, this post lists people and places names with the correct syllable to stress. Then, there is a quick overview of accents and vowels. Finally, the post finishes with a comparison of different references used to find pronunciation information (or not as the case may be). From the analysis of references, I recommend that the best overall site for quickly looking up pronunciation of people and places to be DOP: Dizionario Italiano multimediale e multilingue d'ortografia e di pronuncia.

People and Places List


Here is a list of just a few of the places names I've stumbled over and eventually looked up during my Italian language odyssey. The RAI: Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d'Ortografia e di Pronunzia is the main reference source in terms of accents shown. Note that accents are almost always not used when you see these names written. They are included here only for clarity. See the next section for more information on accents and vowels.

Achìlle, Archimède, Aristòtele, (Alessandro) Barìcco, (Giacomo) Bresàdola, (Michelangelo) Buonarròti, (Primo) Carnèra, (Giacomo) Casanòva, (Andrea) Camillèri, (Carlo) Cattàneo, (Gaio Guilio) Césare, (Marco Tullio) Ciceróne, (Cristoforo) Cólombo, (Niccolò) Copèrnico, (Francesco) Cossìga, Demòcrito, (Luigi) Einàudi, Empèdocle, Epicùro, Èrcole, Èttore, Eurìpide, (Ugo) Fóscolo, (Alcide) de Gàsperi, Artemìsia Gentiléschi, Ippòcrate, (Éttore) Majoràna, (Dacia) Maraìni, Mèdici, (Alberto) Moràvia, (Pietro) Paleòcapa, Pitàgora, Platóne, (Leonardo) Sciàscia, Sòcrate, Zenóne

Abrùzzo, Adamèllo, Alberobèllo, Ancóna, Àquila, Àsolo, Bèrgamo, Bréscia, Brìndisi. Càgliari, Campània, Cervère, Cividàle del Friùli, Cremóna, Cùneo, Dàlmine, Èboli, Edimbùrgo, Éllero (fiume), Èrice, Firènze, Fossàno, Gallìpoli, Gènova, Ìmola, Itàlia. Lombardìa, Lònguelo, Livórno, Màntova, Matèra, Milàno, Milàzzo, Mòdena, Molìse, Mònaco dei Bavièra, Nàpoli, Nèive, Ostùni, Pàdova, Paèstum, Pavìa, Perùgia, Pescàra, Piacènza, Piemónte, Ragùsa, Róma, Rovìgo, Sardégna, Sàssari, Selinùnte, Sicìlia, Siracùsa, Sirmióne, Spoléto, Stupinìgi, Tànaro (fiume), Tàranto, Tèramo, Tévere, Tolomèo, Torìno, Tortóna, Tràpani, Ùdine, Vèneto, Venèzia, Vitèrbo, Voghèra

You might have noticed that many of the people listed are scientists or "ancient" Greeks. The selection indicates what catches my eye. Sorry, no movie stars or soccer players here.

Not included in the lists are people or places that are normally written with an accent, which is easy because it indicates where to put the emphasis. Examples include (Fabrizio) De André, the Italian singer and songwriter, and Carrù, a town in Piedmont. Some other town names with accent marks are: Gambolò, Mondovì, Ortisé, and Santhià.

On the subject of names, one first name that always trips me up is Niccolò and Nicola. Niccolò is written with the accent mark. Nicola is pronounced with tonic stress on O as Nicòla.

Vowels and Accent Marks


This is slight digression, but may be of interest if you are wondering why E and O in the people and place names can have two different accents marks, while A, I, and U have just one mark.
  • There are five written vowels (graphemes) in Italian: A, E, I, O, U. In English, we have the same five and sometimes Y.
  • There are seven pronounced vowels (phonemes) in Italian, because E and O can be open or closed. The seven sounds are represented as /a/, /ɛ/, /e/, /i/, /ɔ/, /o/, and /u/. /ɛ/ and /e/ are E open and closed, respectively. /ɔ/ and /o/ are O open and closed, respectively.
  • Each vocal sound has a location in the mouth where it originates as demonstrated in this vocal diagram for Italian. The vocal diagram for Italian is a triangle, while that for English is shaped like trapezoid
  • The five written vowels have the task of representing the seven pronounced vowels. Most of the time there isn't a problem. When there is, graphic symbols are used to clarify. This is particularly important when distinguishing between two words spelled the same (homographs) but with different pronunciations. A good example is the classic confusion between fruit and fish. Pèsca is fruit and pésca is fishing, where è represents the open sound /ɛ/ and é represents the closed sound /e/. Similarly, you might encounter vòlto, the past participle of volgere, and vólto, face, where ó represents the open sound /ɔ/ and ó represents the closed sound /o/.
Okay, after that quick intro to vowels, you need to keep in mind how accents on vowels are used in designating the accented syllable in a word.
  • In the lists above of people and place names, it worth restating again that accent marks would not normally be used to show where the stress goes. They were added to make the discussion here easier.
  • When an A, I, or U are in the stressed syllable of a word, they appear as à, ì, and ù and they are pronounced as they usually are. It doesn't mean they are "closed" like E or O can be.  Rather, it means the accent mark is just shows stress of the syllable.
  • When and E or O are in the stressed syllable of a word, they can appear as è, é, ò, or ó. In this case, the accent mark shows both the stressed syllable and how the vowel is pronounced, i.e., as open or closed according the mark specified.
  • When E or O are not part of the stressed syllable of a word, they are closed, i.e., /e/ and /o/. So the open sound is only possible when E and O are in the stressed syllable.
If you are a little confused and even stressed out by open and closed vocals, my advice is not to worry about them too much. In my experience, most Italians don't grasp them fully. In fact, one of my favorite language references Grammatica italiana di base, says as much noting that much of the rules of the open and closed E and O originate for the most part from Tuscany. Outside of that region the spoken language diverges quite a bit. What I find more important than open and closed vowel sounds are getting the tonic accent correct.

il Ragazzini, dizionario inglese italiano, italiano inglese di Giuseppe Ragazzini, ZanichelliLo Zingarelli 2008, vocabolario della lingua italiana di Nicola Zingarelli, ZanichelliVocabolario della lingua italiana, Treccani l'enciclopediaVocabolario della lingua italiana, Treccani l'enciclopedia
Italian dictionaries consulted for this post: il Ragazzini, lo Zingarelli, Treccani.

Comparison of References


To test how different dictionary sources might be used to help figure out pronunciation of people and place names, let's use two test words: Taranto, a city in Puglia, and Democrito (Democritus in English), a Greek philosopher. Both words have accent on the third from last syllable, Tàranto and Demòcrito, and were words I looked up to confirm pronunciation. The results of my research reveal that:
  • The RAI DOP reference is the winner by far in terms of being a good source to resolve pronunciation; it's good online and offline (paper copy) for resolving people and place names.
  • An encyclopedia app or web site such as Treccani or Wikipedia, are always a handy backup for resolving people and place names.
  • Pronunciation sites like Forvo are helpful as well.
Key for tables below

listed - Word is listed with pronunciation and accent shown.
listed* - Word is listed but with no indicated pronunciation; there is a sound clip.
not listed - Word doesn't appear at all in the reference.
not listed* - Word doesn't appear, but a derivative or related word is present that could be useful.

Online resources

References I consult most frequently.

Word Word Reference Dizionario Olivetti Corriere della Sera RAI DOP Wiktionary Wikipedia Forvo
Tàranto not listed not listed not listed listed listed* listed* listed*
not listed not listed listed not listed listed* listed*

Physical books

These are references I found in Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, in Bergamo. I had expected paper sources would give better coverage of people and place names, but that wasn't the case.

TreccaniEnc5de Mauro6Il Ragazzini7
Tàrantolistednot listednot listednot listednot listednot listedlisted
Demòcritolistednot listednot listednot listedlistednot listed
not listed

RAI DOP: Dizionario Italiano multimediale e multilingue d'ortografia e di pronuncia. Parole e nomi dell'italiano.
Grande Dizionario Hoepli di Aldo Gabrielli, edizione speciale 150o anniversario
Lo Zingarelli 2008, vocabolario della lingua italiana di Nicola Zingarelli, Zanichelli
Il Vocabolario della lingua italiana, Treccani
Vocabolario della lingua italiana, Treccani l'enciclopedia
Tulio de Maruo grande dizionario Italiano dell'uso
il Ragazzini, dizionario inglese italiano, italiano inglese di Giuseppe Ragazzini, Zanichelli


Here are four apps that I use frequently on my phone.

WordCollins Italiano IngleseDizionario di ItalianoTreccani VocabolarioTreccani l'Enciclopedia
Tàrantonot listednot listednot listedlisted*
Demòcritolistednot listednot listedlisted

Related web pages
  • Accademia della Crusca's list of geographical names and stressed syllable. Not a complete list.
  • Tangentially related, Italian cities whose names come from Latin and etymology of capital cities of provinces.

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