Italiano

Italian syllabication

Syllabication refers to the process of dividing a word into syllables. In phonological terms, a syllable can be defined as the smallest part of a word that can be pronounced as a single, uninterrupted segment of speech when breaking the word into parts.

For example, the Italian word ombelico (navel) consists of four pronunciation units or syllables: om–be–li–co, which means that the segments “om”, “be”, “li” and “co” are pronounced each in a single stroke of voice.

Being able to correctly divide a word into syllables is an important skill that should be developed as soon as possible when learning a new language because it will make easier the process of spelling and reading, particularly of unfamiliar words. Later on it will also allow one to split up words with hyphens when writing formal documents or to give rhythm and depth to sentences when writing poetry.

To divide a word into syllables one first needs to know how it sounds because fundamental to this process is knowing if a vowel is stressed or unstressed. Once one knows how the word sounds, one then needs to know about:

  1. Diphthongs and triphthongs.
  2. Syllabication rules.

It should be noted that a few basic characters from the Italian “International Phonetic Alphabet” (IPA) are used in this document to represent the sound of some letters. They are placed between forward slash brackets: x. While they are not really relevant to the subject, they were used for consistency with the Italian pronunciation guide.

Basic concepts

Before learning about diphthongs one needs to have some understanding of a few basic concepts: vowels, consonants, semivowels and diacritical letters.

Vowels

In phonetic terms, a vowel is defined as the sound produced with an open vocal tract. This means that the sound of a vowel is basically an unobstructed sound created with the vocal cords and expelled in one breath.

The vowels can be classified as open: { a, e, o }, and closed: { i, u } (see: Vowels).

Finally, a vowel can be stressed, when it is pronounced in a more emphatically way, or unstressed, when it is pronounced in a regular way.

Consonants

A consonant is the sound created by using the lips, teeth, tongue, throat or the nasal passage to obstruct a flow of air as it is expelled. This means that to produce a consonant sound one has to interrupt in some way the air flow as it moves out of the mouth.

Semivowels

A semivowel can be defined as the sound between a vowel and a consonant. This means that a semivowel is a vowel that behaves like a consonant (in how its sound is produced). The actual definition is a bit more complex (see: Semivowel), but this one should suffice for now.

In Italian, a semivowel is formed by having in the same syllable an unstressed closed vowel { i, u } followed by an open vowel. This means that the sound of an unstressed (not emphasized) closed vowel will change into that of a semivowel when it is followed by an open vowel in the same syllable. For example:

  • while the stressed { i } in “magia” and the stressed { u } in “paura” have true vowel sounds,
  • the unstressed { i } in “chiave” and the unstressed { u } in “quale” have a semivowel sound because they are both followed by an open vowel.

As a reference, the semivowels { i, u } are represented by the IPA characters j and w, and they sound like the English the consonants { y } and { w } in the words “yet” and “wet”, respectively.

Diacritical letters

A diacritical letter is a silent letter that is used to change the pronunciation of another letter or group of letters or to give a different meaning to a word (see: Italian diacritical letters). In Italian the unstressed { i } becomes diacritical when it appears in the following letter clusters: { cia, cio, ciu; gia, gio, giù; scia, scio, sciu; glia, glie, glio, gliu }.

Diphthongs

A diphthong (meaning two sounds) is a complex vowel sound formed by the fusion of two vowel sounds in one syllable. This means that a diphthong begins with the sound of one vowel and ends with the sound of another vowel, all in the same syllable. Given that not any two vowel letter combination in a word is actually a diphthong, it is important to distinguish between (true) diphthongs, false diphthongs and hiatus.

  • A diphthong is formed by the combination of an open vowel and an unstressed closed vowel in a syllable.
  • A false diphthong is formed by the combination of an unstressed semivowel and an open vowel in a syllable. This combination isn’t really a diphthong, but it has traditionally been defined that way.
  • A hiatus is formed by having two vowel letters together but not belonging to the same syllable. This means that having one vowel letter after another does not necessarily make them a diphthong.

While diphthongs may occur both in stressed or unstressed syllables, it should be noted that even in unstressed syllables a difference can be heard between a regular vowel and an unstressed one, as the latter has a lower tone. This means that:

  • With true diphthongs one hears falling tones or tones that go from regular or stressed vowels to unstressed ones (e.g. Europa, baita). In Italian these are known as descending diphthongs (dittonghi discendenti).
  • With false diphthongs one hears rising tones or tones that go from unstressed vowels to stressed or to regular ones (e.g. chiave, cinque). In Italian these are known as ascending diphthongs (dittonghi ascendenti).

In the tables of this section:

  • Both, semivowels or the concerning unstressed vowels of the syllable are marked in a light blue color (x).
  • Regular or stressed vowels are marked in a red color (x).
  • If any of the letters in question are not in the stressed syllable, then the stressed vowel of the stressed syllable is marked with a light orange color (x).
  • Syllables are separated by a dot.

Diphthongs

A diphthong is formed by the combination of an open vowel { a, e, o } followed by an unstressed closed vowel { i, u }. This type of diphthong is known in Italian as descending.

ai bai.ta hai
ei dei a.rei.co
ɛi co.lei sei
oi noi poi.ché
ɔi e.roi.co poi
au au.la cau.sa
eu Eu.ro.pa reu.ma.ti.co
ɛu feu.do neu.tro

There are few cases, but a diphthong can also be formed by having a stressed closed vowel { u } followed by an unstressed closed vowel { i }.

ui flui.do in.tui.to

False diphthongs

A false diphthong is formed by the combination of an unstressed semivowel { i, u } followed by an open vowel { a, e, o }. This type of diphthong is known in Italian as ascending.

ja chia.ve in.vi.dia
je ca.rie gra.zie
a.lie.no ie.ri
jo am.pio fio.re
chio.do fio.co
wa gua.do qua.le
we cin.que guer.cio
guer.ra quer.cia
wo ac.quo.so e.quo
buo.no quo.ta

A false diphthong can also be formed by the unstressed { i, u } + stressed { i, u } combinations.

ju chiu.so piu.ma
wi gui.da quin.di

Hiatus

A hiatus occurs when the closed vowel directly bears the intonation emphasis, in this case, what would otherwise be a diphthong breaks and the two vowels go into separate syllables. A hiatus is then formed by the combination of a stressed closed vowel { i, u } with any other vowel, even when the stressed syllable is a different one —see for example the word suicida: the stressed syllable is ci, but as the first i is stressed, this creates a hiatus, breaking the ui into two syllables.

  • Vowel followed by a stressed closed vowel. There are only a few valid combinations.
    e.i te.i.na te.i.smo
    u.i su.i.ci.da dru.i.da
    a.u pa.u.ra ba.u.le
         
  • Stressed closed vowel followed by an open vowel.
    i.a far.ma.ci.a mi.a
      ma.gi.a  
    i.u fri.u.la.no li.u.to
      vi.uz.za  
    u.a ca.su.a.li.tà du.a.li.sta
      mu.tu.a a.bi.tu.a.le
    u.e du.e.cen.to te.nu.e
      pu.e.ri.le  
    u.o ar.du.o du.o.de.no
      fa.tu.o mu.tu.o

As some words may have different stress patterns, this change of stress can make a pair of vowels form a diphthong or not. Take for example the different stress patterns of the word diuresi (the hiatus are pronounced first and then the diphthongs). This situation occurs with other words as well.

Hiatus
di.u.re.si
di.u.re.si
i.a.to
di.a.lo.go
vi.ag.gio
Diphthong
diu.re.si
diu.re.si
ia.to
dia.lo.go
viag.gio

Besides the change of stress, a hiatus can also be formed:

  • When both vowels are open { a, e, o }.
    a.e pa.e.se
    a.o a.or.ta
    e.a or.chi.de.a
    e.o fer.re.o
    o.a ca.no.a
    o.e po.e.ta
  • When the letter pair is the result of a compound word (e.g. “anti-” + “acido”).
    anti– an.ti.a.ci.do an.ti.e.lu.si.vo
    bi– bi.a.de.si.vo bi.en.ne
      bi.o.chi.mi.ca bi.o.lo.gi.a
    re– re.a.zio.ne re.i.te.ra.re
    semi– se.mi.a.per.to se.mi.o.scu.ro
    sotto– sot.to.ar.moni.co sot.to.im.pie.go
    tri– tri.a.de tri.e.li.na
    ri– ri.al.za.re ri.o.pe.ra.re
      ri.e.di.fi.ca.re ri.en.tra.re

Triphthongs

Triphthongs

As a triphthong should be formed by the sound of three vowel sounds, it can technically be said that Italian does not have triphthongs. However, the following semivowel + vowel combinations have traditionally been defined as one. In these tables only the stressed syllable is marked.

  • Semivowel { i, u } + open vowel + unstressed closed vowel { i }.
    This combination could also be seen as a diphthong + an unstressed closed vowel { i } sequence.
    ia i cam.biai man.giai pi.gliai ri.schiai
    ie i com.piei miei    
    io i ioi.de ge.nio.ioi.deo mi.lo.ioi.de.o op.pioi.de
    ua i guai guai.na
    ue i quei  
    uo i buoi tuoi
  • Unstressed closed vowel { i } + semivowel + open vowel.
    This combination could also be seen as an unstressed closed vowel { i } + a diphthong sequence.
    i uo a.iuo.le giuo.co o.riuo.lo
    u ia re.li.quia    
    u ie quie.te re.li.quie.re re.quiem

Hiatus

Just as with diphthongs, having a sequence of three or more vowels in a word does not mean there is a triphthong. For example, while the following may appear to be triphthongs, they are not, they are just particular sequences of three or more vowels.

  • Open vowel + diphthong.
    a.iu.to ba.ia feb.bra.io fio.ra.io no.ia
  • Stressed closed vowel + diphthong.
    bu.io fu.io
  • Open vowel + diphthong + open vowel.
    ma.na.iu.o.la
  • Double diphthong.
    ghia.ia ac.qua.io muo.io gio.iel.lo cen.cia.ia
  • Vowel + double diphthong.
    tro.ia.io
  • Triple diphthong.
    cuo.ia.io

Syllabication rules

General comments

  1. In Italian a syllable:
    • Must always contain at least one vowel, but may contain up to three vowels in a row, for example: a–ma–re, re–li–quia.
    • May contain up to three consonants before the vowel(s), for example: casta, bru–sche–ta.
    • May contain one consonant after the vowel(s), for example: caf–fè.

    In other words, a syllable may consist of only one or more vowels, but never of a consonant only, and has the following structure: [3C]V[2V][C], where the square brackets represent optional elements. This means that if as the result of a particular rule a consonant is left alone then it should always be assigned to the previous or to the next vowel. For example, when the double { z } of the word azzimo is split, the first { z } is joined with the previous { a } and the second one with the following { i }. So regarding rules #2 and #3, it doesn’t matter if the referred consonant is actually a single consonant or the result of a split consonant cluster.

  2. A general rule of thumb is that consonants should always be assigned to the vowel or vowels that follow except if that group is not a valid starting word group. Take for example the word restringere. One could start by dividing it like: “re–stri–nge–re,” but since no valid Italian word starts with the consonant cluster { ng }, one needs to split it up and bind the first consonant to the previous vowel. The word ends up being divided like: “re–strin–ge–re”. On the other hand, the consonant cluster { str } remains together because Italian words can start with it: strada, stretta, struscio.
  3. Given that not one of the many pages or documents researched seemed to offer a complete set of rules, most of the ones listed here have been derived from observation and analysis.
  4. There are about 150 valid two-consonant clusters of which a bit more than 100 need to be split; the near remaining 40 are kept together. Given this fact, it made sense to try and define keeping rules (where clusters remain together and start a new syllable), instead of splitting rules (where clusters must be divided into two syllables).
  5. Some of the clusters listed are scarce because they occur mostly in words of foreing origin (e.g. Greek-origin words) or in technical terms (e.g. chemistry, botanics), or tend to appear in a relatively small number of words; they are shown with a colored-background.

Vowel rules

  1. Given their definition, diphthongs and triphthongs are never divided.
    • Descending diphthongs
      airone ai.ro.ne
      areico a.rei.co
      androide an.droi.de
      auguri au.gu.ri
      coreuta co.reu.ta
      centauro cen.tau.ro
    • Ascending diphthongs
      chiave chia.ve
      spiega spie.ga
      fiore fio.re
      quale qua.le
      lingue lin.gue
      buono buo.no

Vowel and consonant rules

  1. A single consonant goes with the following vowel.
    casa ca.sa
    matita ma.ti.ta
    positivo po.si.ti.vo
    subacuto su.ba.cu.to
    mano ma.no
    ruvido ru.vi.do
    telefono te.le.fo.no
    subumano su.bu.ma.no
  2. A single vowel at the beginning of a word and followed by a single consonant splits and forms a syllable by itself.
    amica a.mi.ca
    adesivo a.de.si.vo
    anemico a.ne.mi.co
    odore o.do.re
    inedito i.ne.di.to
    unanime u.na.ni.me

Two consonant rules

  1. The special consonant digraphs { ch, gh, gl, gn, sc } always remain together.
    agoniche a.go.ni.che
    spaghetti spa.ghet.ti
    famiglia fa.mi.glia
    disegnare di.se.gna.re
    asceta a.sce.ta
    chiave chia.ve
    prodighi pro.di.ghi
    poliglota po.li.glo.ta
    signora si.gno.ra
    lasciare la.scia.re
  2. The consonant pairs { ph, th, pn, ps, ts } remain together.

    Most of them come from foreign words (e.g. ph, pn and ps are Greek-origined).

    colophon co.lo.phon
    autoipnosi au.to.i.pno.si
    capsula ca.psu.la
    goethiano go.e.thia.no
       
    tutsi tu.tsi
  3. The consonant { s } followed by any other consonant starts a new syllable: { s } + not { s }.
    presbitero pre.sbi.te.ro
    atmosfera at.mo.sfe.ra
    traslare tra.sla.re
    visnuismo vi.snu.i.smo
    ssqualo squa.lo
    celestiale ce.le.stia.le
    menosdire me.no.sdi.re
    fosgene fo.sge.ne
    carismatico ca.ri.sma.ti.co
    adespoto a.de.spo.to
    disrafico di.sra.fi.co
    trasversale tra.sver.sa.le

    There are exceptions with the clusters { sd, sv } —they seem to happen in prefixed words.

    misdire mis.di.re
    plusvalore plus.va.lo.re
  4. Any consonant except { l, m, n, r } —think of the word luminare—, followed by { l }, starts a new syllable: not { l, m, n, r } + { l }.
    sublimare su.bli.ma.re
    aloflora a.lo.flo.ra
    biatleta bi.a.tle.ta
    ciclico ci.cli.co
    beneplacito be.ne.pla.ci.to
    pavloviano pa-vlo-via-no
  5. Any consonant except { h, l, n, r } followed by { r } starts a new syllable: not { h, l, n, r } + { r }.
    insubre in.su.br.e
    adrenale a.dre.na.le
    segretaria se.gre.ta.ria
    batracio ba.tra.cio
    acrobata a.cro.ba.ta
    africano a.fri.ca.no
    capriccio ca.pric.cio
    sovrano so.vra.no
  6. Otherwise, any other two consonant cluster splits into two syllables.

    The consonant clusters in the first two tables are particular cases selected from the Splitting rules. This means that there might be scarce consonant clusters not listed, like the { qq } combination.

    azzimo az.zi.mo
    ultimo ul.ti.mo
    mangiare man.gia.re
    amigdala a.mig.da.la
    obtecto ob.tec.to
    criptare crip.ta.re
    acquario ac.qua.rio
    ambito am.bi.to
    ardore ar.do.re
    segmento seg.men.to
    studtite stud.ti.te
    azteca az.te.ca
    double consonants and cq
    { m, n, l, r } + other consonant
     
    consonant pairs { gd, gm }
    any consonant but { s } + { t }
     

    obcordato ob.cor.da.to
    abmortale ab.mor.ta.le
    obsoleto ob.so.le.to
    ecbolico ec.bo.li.co
    acmonital ac.mo.ni.tal
    ecpirosi ec.pi.ro.si
    eczema ec.ze.ma
    bridgstico brid.gi.sti.co
    echidna e.chid.na
    adverbale ad.ver.ba.le
    afnio af.nio
    zigzagamento zig.za.ga.men.to
    brahmano brah.ma.no
    mihrab mih.rab
    aritmetica a.rit.me.ti.ca
    mazdachita maz.da.chi.ta
    abdicare ab.di.ca.re
    abnegato ab.ne.ga.to
    obverso ob.ver.so
    ecdemico ec.de.mi.co
    tecnico tec.ni.co
    facsimile fac.si.mi.le
    sudcoreano sud.co.re.a.no
    cadmiare cad.mia.re
    adsorbente ad.sor.ben.te
    afgano af.ga.no
    rugbista rug.bi.sta
    mahdismo mah.di.smo
    prehnite preh.ni.te
    opzionale op.zio.na.le
    etnologo et.no.lo.go
    mazdaico maz.dai.co
    subboreale sub.bo.re.a.le
    subddelegare sub.de.le.ga.re
    sublegato sub.li.ga.to
    subnormale sub.nor.ma.le
    subregione sub.re.gio.ne
    subtotale sub.to.ta.le
    subconscio sub.con.scio
    subfeudo sub.feu.do
    submarino sub.ma.ri.no
    subpolare sub.po.la.re
    subsanare sub.sa.na.re
    subvulcano sub.vul.ca.no

    Only in a few cases when the following consonant is { l, r }, the { b } starts a new syllable.

    sublimare su.bli.ma.re
    subretta su.bret.ta