Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Two Sounds of the Letter S in the Italian Language



The letter S has two sounds in Italian. At first, when you study Italian, you don’t really notice it, but then after awhile you catch yourself pausing to stop and think about it. In short, S in Italian can sound like S in English or like Z in English. And as you would expect there are rules guiding pronunciation, and there are exceptions to those rules.

S as S


Italian words where the letter S is pronounced like an English S include:

sano, scatola, squardrare, disfare, rispetto, cassa, sasso, rosso, grosso, passo, pasto, abside, facsimile, falso, penso, Pepsi, orso, gas, borsa, denso, falso, sera, sale, cisterna, sfogliare, soggetto

This sound is referred to technically as a voiceless alveolar fricative (fricativa alveolare sorda in Italian) which indicates where the sound is made in the mouth. Fricatives are types of consonant sounds produced by forcing air through narrow channel. In this case, with the tip or blade of the tongue against the gum line just behind the teeth. The sound is denoted as /s/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

S as Z


Italian words where the letter S is pronounced like (or close to) an English Z include:

chiesa, casa, sgabello, sbaglio, sbavare, presentare, asma, scherzoso, tesi, crisi, battesimo, trentesimo, bisogno, esame, isola, slogan, smalto, snello, alpinismo, risvolto, esempio

This sound is referred to technically as a voiced alveolar fricative (fricative alveolare sonora in Italian). This sound is produced by “channeling air flow along a groove in the back of the tongue up to the place of articulation, at which point it is focused against the sharp edge of the nearly clenched teeth, causing high-frequency turbulence.” This sound is denoted as /z/ in the IPA.

A word showing both S sounds is scherzoso meaning "playful or humorous", which has - in order - one /s/ sound, one /ts/ sound (a true Z), and one/z/ sound. In IPA notation the pronunciation is /sker'tsozo/.

The Rules


These rules are a combination of rules given in the reference Grammatica italiana di base by Trifone and Palerma and those listed on the Italian Wikipedia page S sorda.

Pronounced /s/

  • Words that start with an S followed by a vowel. 
    • Examples: sera, sale, signora, soggetto, sei.
  • Words where the letter S is followed by unvoiced consonant. 
    • Examples: scatola, squadrare, disfare, rispetto, stentato, spendere
    • Unvoiced consonants are /k/ (hard c or q), /f/, /p/, and /t/. 
  • Words where the letter S is preceded by any consonant. 
    • Examples: abside, facsimile, falso, penso, transitivo, Pepsi, orso
  • Words that end in S.
    • Examples: gas, ultras, iris.
    • But not always, note pronunciation of relais.
  • Words with SS. 
    • Examples: grosso, rosso, passo, fisso, commesso, asso.

Pronounced /z/

  • Words where the letter S is followed by a voiced consonant.
    • Examples: sbadigliare, sdoganare, sgrossare, alpinismo, snello, risvolto, slogan, sgabello
    • Voiced consonants are /b/, /d/, /g/ (or /dz/), /l/, /m/, /n/, and /v/ 
  • Technical words that end in -asi, -esi, -isi, or -osi.
    • Examples: protesi, tesi, crisi, sclerosi, enclisi
  • Words ending in -esimo and -esima.
    • Examples: battesimo, umanesimo, trentesimo, cresima, quaresima
  • Words where S is preceded and followed by a vowel (S between two vowels) are likely pronounced as /z/ but not always.
    • Examples: bisogno, esame, isola, chiesa, sole
    • For examples of exceptions, see below.

Exceptions – pronounced /s/ not /z/

  • Some enclitic (joined) words. 
    • Examples: affittasi, dicesi, qualsiasi, vendesi
    • Tangential note:  affittasi appartamento is equivalent to appartamento è affittato
  • Words that are formed from another word with a prefix added, or are otherwise composed.
    • Examples: antisovietico, dinosauro, presidente, risultare, presentire
    • Interesting case: ti presento – "I'll introduce you" – is pronounced with /z/ for the first person singular conjugation of the verb presentare. Compare tgat with  presento un pericolo – "I foresee danger" – pronounced with /s/ for the first person singular conjugation of the verb presentire, a verb composed of the prefix pre and the verb sentire.
  • Words that have an alternate version with a doubled S. 
    • Examples: musulmano (mussulmano), Albisola (Albissola
  • The endings of some irregular verbs conjugated in the passato remoto and in their past participles.
    • Examples: rendere (resi, rese, resero), scendere (scesi, scese, scesero), nascondere (nascosi, nascose, nascosero). 
  • Some common words and their derivatives that have an S preceded and followed by a vowel (S between two vowels) that are either always pronounced as /s/ or can be /s/ or /z/ depending on where the speaker is from. 
    • The sources consulted (given above) plus https://www.dizionario-italiano.it don’t always agree. Below, we’ll use the dizionario-italiano.it as our arbiter here. 
    • Derivatives of words in this category are subject to the same pronunciation.
      • Examples: socchiusi, sorriso, risotto 
    • As a rule of thumb, the words that can be either pronounced with /s/ or /z/ tend toward /z/ in northern Italy. (Don’t ask an Italian where northern Italy starts. Various answers we’ve heard are the Po River, Florence, and Rome.)

Friday, January 4, 2019

Three Short Winter Hikes in Madonna di Campiglio


Mondifra Basso and AltoView east of the Brenta Dolomites from Malga Ritorto.
Left: View of Mondifrà Basso and Alto on the way to Malga Vagliana. Right: View east of the Brenta Dolomites from Malga Ritorto.

Hike: Malga Ritorto and Rifugio Nambino Rifugio Montagnoli Hike Malga Mondifrà and Malga Vagliana Hike
Routes for three walks. Left: Malga Ritorto and Rifugio Nambino, Center: Rifugio Montagnoli. Right: Malga Mondifrà and Malga Vagliana.

Madonna di Campiglio is a small town in the province of Trento that is situated between the Brenta Dolomites to the east and the Adamello-Presanella Alps to the west. The town is at 1522 m and is well known for the choice of summer and winter activities that are possible just walking out from the center of town.

We were there for a holiday over New Year’s which entailed lots of fireworks – and we mean a lot. The biggest display was on the night of the 1st just after the famous fiaccolata, a torchlight parade on skies where skiers with torches descend the slopes into town in a slow and serpentine fashion. Of course, it takes place at night for maximum effect.

During our stay we skied for four days and walked for three days. In terms of the slopes, we recorded about 213 km of ski movement (skiing and ski lifts) in about 20 hours on the slopes over the 4 days. In terms of walking, we hadn’t planned to do any walking and didn’t have microspikes/crampons or walking poles. For poles, we substituted ski poles. For traction, we just went slow and avoided icy spots though we fell a few times.

Each hike we started approximately at the base of the Pradalago lift, which is in the northern part of the town. Make sure to stop in the tourist office and pick up the Winter Walking Trails map (photos below), which will be a big help selecting a hike. A couple of times, we did cross a ski run or walked on the edge.


Name: Hike 1 - Malga Ritorto and Rifugio Nambino
Length: 13 km
Duration: 5 hours
Elevation: 247 m elevation gain
Location: Madonna di Campiglio (TN)
Type: loop, center of Madonna di Campiglio to Malga Ritorto to Rifugio Nambino and back to center.

Name: Hike 2 - Rifugio Montagnoli
Length: 4 km
Duration: 2 hours
Elevation: 284 m elevation gain
Location: Madonna di Campiglio (TN)
Type: loop

Name: Hike 3 - Malga Mondifrà and Malga Vagliana
Length: 10 km
Duration: 3 hours
Elevation: 309 m elevation gain
Location: Madonna di Campiglio (TN)
Type: loop, center of Madonna di Campiglio to Malga Mondifrà to Malga Vagliana and back to center

The 2019 fiaccolata of Madonna di Campiglio.Fireworks after the fiaccolata.View from the Grotte Ski Run just above Madonna di Campiglio.
Left: The 2019 fiaccolata of Madonna di Campiglio. Center: Fireworks after the fiaccolata. Right: View from the Grotte Ski Run just above Madonna di Campiglio.

Brochure for Rifugio Lago Nambino.Brochure for Rifugio Lago Nambino.
Brochure for Rifugio Lago Nambino.

Winter Hiking Trails Map (Escursioni sulla neve) for Madonna di Campiglio. Front Cover.Winter Hiking Trails Map (Escursioni sulla neve) for Madonna di Campiglio. Example of hike description.
Winter Hiking Trails Map (Escursioni sulla neve) for Madonna di Campiglio. Left: Front Cover. Right: Example of hike description to Lago di Nambino.

Recorded tracks for Hike 2 - Rifugio Montagnoli.Recorded tracks for Hike 3 - Malga Mondifrà and Malga Vagliana.Detail of center part of Winter Hiking Trails Map.
Left: Recorded tracks for Hike 2 - Rifugio Montagnoli. Center: Recorded tracks for Hike 3 - Malga Mondifrà and Malga Vagliana. Right: Detail of center part of Winter Hiking Trails Map.


Winter hiking trails map for Madonna di Campiglio.Winter hiking trails descriptions for Madonna di Campiglio.
Left: Winter hiking trails map for Madonna di Campiglio. Right: Winter hiking trails descriptions for Madonna di Campiglio. 


Left: Panorama in Malga Ritoro. Right: Below Malga Ritorto in a forest clearing.

View east from Rifugio Malga Ritorto with a man filming. Rifugio Malga Ritorto.
Left: View east from Rifugio Malga Ritorto with a man filming. Right: Rifugio Malga Ritorto.

The bridge a località Fortini.Pretending to ski on the Fortini ski run.
Left: The bridge a località Fortini. Right: Pretending to ski on the Fortini ski run.