Five Sound Changes That Make Italian Make More Sense


Reading time: 10-15 minutes


As I write, it’s the 15th of September, and I have just, with a heavy heart, departed Italy. What a time, and what a place! Among its many delights, it was a particular pleasure to be reminded of how much I love the Italian language. I love to hear it, to see it, to think about it, and even to speak it – or at least attempt to. Italians in my experience aren’t so quick to correct learners’ errors (unlike my beloved Czechs), so I lack feedback.

Much of my enjoyment of Italian comes from my love for Latin; it’s a constant thrill to see how the former emerged from the latter, and how very similar and very different they can be. Latin, I should mention, is the linguistic ancestor of Italian, meaning that it was out of Latin (specifically popular, everyday Latin) that the many Romance languages of Italy gradually emerged; one of these would become modern-day Standard Italian. Knowing one is therefore a huge help for knowing the other. I can usually guess with some confidence what an Italian word will be on the basis of its Latin equivalent.

The two languages are nonetheless very different in their sounds, their vocabulary and their grammar. We have enough historical sources to track how this divergence happened over time. Much of it was ‘regular’, by which I mean that the changes had a wide application and happened in reasonable, natural increments. Language change only rarely occurs through big, deliberate jumps from one way of doing things to another; early medieval Italians didn’t wake up one morning and think ‘I didn’t use definite articles yesterday, but from today I always will‘.

Sound changes are a good example of this. Their regularity is never without exceptions, but the way that sounds shift over time can be captured with neat and learnable descriptive rules. Admittedly, the neater the formulation for the rule, the more jargon and technical symbolism is involved, and I know this can be off-putting for the non-linguist layman. However, I do promise learning these powerful rules will produce results; they can make words feel more familiar and approachable, even usable. So, this is the point of this September blog post: to offer five sound changes that have made Italian what it is today, that I myself really rely on, and that can help us learners and linguists alike to make helpful connections between Italian and other languages. In this post, I’ll highlight some links to English.

(A reminder: letters and words between /slashes/ refer to sounds, following the official symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which you can hear here.)


1: A Cyue about Cyusters

First I’d like to discuss L. Specifically, this concerns the sound /l/, as in English like or lily. This was a sound that Latin also had, as in the names Lūcius and Līvia, and the name of the language itself. Modern-day Italian to a large extent maintains this sound where Latin used it; Lucio is still an Italian name, and Latin is still the lingua latina. There is one huge exception to this, however. The Latin consonant /l/ had a different fate when used in a cluster, immediately after another consonant. An English example of such clusters would be play, glue, flight or of course cluster itself.

Let’s refer to these with the shorthand /Cl/, where “C” stands for an unspecified consonant. Latin has plenty of words that contained the sequence /Cl/, either at the start of or later in a given word. There’s the cluster /fl/ in flamma ‘flame’, flōs ‘flower’ and flūmen ‘river’, and /kl/ in claudere ‘to shut’, clāmāre ‘to shout’ and clārus ‘clear’.

So, what happened to /Cl/ consonant pairs in the development of Italian? The /l/ became the sound /j/, as in English yes. Italian spells this with the letter I.

Let’s see how those Latin examples developed:

LatinStandard Italian
flammafiamma ‘flame’
flōs fiore ‘flower’
flūmen fiume ‘river’
claudere chiudere ‘to close’
clāmāre chiamare ‘to call’
clāruschiaro ‘clear’

Using IPA symbolism, we can simply set out this change like so:

Latin /Cl/ > Italian /Cj/

French meanwhile did not undergo this change as it emerged out from Latin, so its presence is not felt in English words then borrowed from French. For instance, Latin exemplum produced both example in English and esempio in Italian.

With this in mind, I dare say that it will seem more familiar when an Italian shop is chiuso just as an English shop is closed, while Italians introducing themselves with mi chiamo… is one way for them to exclaim, the phrase mi piace corresponds closely to it pleases me, bianco wine is blank in its colour, and an Italian city’s beautiful piazza is just another place.

‘Close the gate’ in Italian, the object of which is related by rather different word journeys to both cancel and chancellor!

2: Doubble Consonnants and Assimilation

A quick glance at written Italian reveals the important feature of pairs of consonants across the language; they’re there in English loanwords like tortellini or latte. Unlike in English, these geminates are always pronounced in Italian, and I personally find it great fun to do so. Making sure to articulate double consonants gives my staccato speech that recognizably Italian flow; they feel to me like mini breaks in the middle of a word, time enough for a quick coffee before moving on to the next syllable.

Italian geminates have several origins. Some go back as far as Latin, such as in the aforementioned fiamma. Many have arisen to compensate for the loss of a consonant. The Latin preposition ad ‘to’ became just a in Italian. As in English, this also works as a prefix at the start of many verbs, such as avvistare ‘to catch sight of’ and ammattire ‘to go mad’. The double consonants in these are in part the legacy of the old /d/ of ad, still producing a vowel-consonant-consonant order. It’s there for example in arrivederci, a compound of a- ‘to’, rivedere ‘to see again’ and ci ‘each other’.

What I want to highlight in particular is that many are instead the result of assimilation. As the name suggests, this is the process of one sound becoming more like another over time. It usually involves two adjacent sounds in a word, and may result in two of the same sound, geminated. Take Latin septem ‘seven’. The cluster /pt/ comprises two not-too-different sounds; /p/ and /t/ are both voiceless and plosive consonants in terms of their phonetic features. With these similarities, it was an easy shift from septem to sette in Italian.

Here are some more Italian words with the double TT.

LatinStandard Italian
ruptus ‘broken’rotto ‘broken’
aptus ‘suitable’atto ‘apt’
optimus ‘best’ottimo ‘great’
subtus ‘below’sotto ‘under’
octō ‘eight’otto ‘eight’
lactem ‘milk’latte ‘milk’
factum ‘deed’fatto ‘fact’
noctem ‘night’notte ‘night’

These of course serve to clarify the links between Italian rotto, notte, latte and fatto with their English relatives rupture, nocturnal, lactate and factual. Assimilation allows us to expect that Italian will also have words like dottore and attore for English doctor and actor.


3: Vowel Mergers and Shifts

Not only did consonants change; the vowels of Latin and Italian show significant differences. A major distinction is that Latin used vowel length (either long or short) as a key feature of its vowel system. In later Latin, this system evidently collapsed. The ten vowels of the classical language, five long and five short, gave way to nine and then seven vowels that were of undetermined length. This involved some merging, as what were once two separate vowels came to be the same.

For example, Latin had the short vowel I and long Ē. In IPA notation, we can assign to these the probable phonetic value of /i/ and /eː/. These later merged, and have mostly become E (/e/) in Italian today, although there are exceptions in certain contexts¹. For instance, vidēre ‘to see’ has turned into vedere in Italian, viridis ‘green’ into verde, plēnus ‘full’ into pieno and mittit ‘she sends’ into mette.

Latin /i , eː/ > Italian /e/

Short U and long О̄ (IPA: /u/ and /oː/) also merged, becoming Italian O (/o/). For example, bocca ‘mouth’, sotto ‘under’, giovane ‘young’, sole ‘sun’ and fiore ‘flower’ share the same vowel in Italian today, but come from bucca, subtus, iuvenis, sōl and flōs in Latin.

Latin /u , oː/ > Italian /o/

To illustrate further, the Latin verb currere ‘to run’ became correre, from which comes the English word corridor. Likewise, English column comes from Latin columna; this predictably became colonna in Italian, because of which the officer in charge of a little column of soldiers provided English with the rank colonel. We can also see more clearly how Italian freddo ‘cold’ is related to English fridge, or dolce ‘sweet’ to dulcet.

A word that even illustrates both of these merger-shifts is dove, Italian for ‘where’. While its first letter and sound possibly come from Latin ‘from’, the Latin word ubi ‘where’ provides the rest of dove. Hence, we can connect the Italian to derived words in English like ubiquitous.


4: A Helping H

Italian, like English, has and makes much use of the letter H. However, the letter is a silent one and Italian lacks the /h/ sound that it stands for in English. H is by no means redundant though; it plays a vital role in making Italian spelling work.

How did this situation come to be? In a nutshell, Latin lost the sound /h/, but the letter endured. It must have died out from vernacular Latin at an early point in time, before the different Romance languages emerged, since none of them inherited and maintained the old sound. We also have some historical evidence for this change, such as Roman graffiti that spells Latin without the letter. Among the interesting non-standard features of the following sentence from Pompeii, the initial verb habeat is lacking the usual H.

abiat Venere Bompeiiana iratam qui hoc laesaerit

‘May the one who damages this make Venus Pompeiana angry’
CIL IV.538

Hence, Italian today has ospedali where English has hospitals, umani for humans and umore for humour.

The loss of /h/ left the letter H free to be repurposed. In Modern Italian, it’s typically used with another consonant to modify how it’s pronounced, counteracting other rules of spelling. Italian is by no means alone in this; H has similar functions in the orthographies of plenty of languages, such as how English uses it to create the digraphs CH, SH and TH.

In Italian, the letter C stands for the consonant /k/ (as in capo ‘head’) or /t͡ʃ/ (as in cento ‘hundred’), depending on the kind of vowel that follows. How though can Italian spell the /k/ pronunciation of C before a vowel that would require the /t͡ʃ/ reading? It adds H, as seen already in chiaro and chiudere, which start with a /k/ sound. If it weren’t there, the spelling would not match the pronunciation. Italian therefore relies on H heavily, and it’s a systematic silent letter.

Florence’s Ponte Vecchio – ‘old bridge’. The letter H in vecchio is crucial for the /k/ pronunciation of C. The word itself goes back to Latin veclus (itself from vetulus ‘elderly’), meaning that we’ve got the change from /kl/ to /kj/ here too.

By the way, this early loss is why the letter H has such a strange name in various alphabets, compared with other letters, such as English aitch and French ache. Once upon a time, its name was in Latin. As /h/ disappeared, the name of H came to sound the same as the name of A. To avoid confusion, a new and distinct one was coined; Italian maintains it today in its name for H, acca. That new name is also the source of English aitch. Quite reasonably in my opinion, a variant haitch has emerged in English since at least the nineteenth century that adds the sound /h/ to the letter that represents it.


5: Broken Vowels

My fifth, final and favourite change in Italian is the phenomenon of vowel ‘breaking’. This is when a single vowel over time splits into two, or into a diphthong. We can see this in the development of the Latin short vowels E and O, although it is limited to specific contexts. It occurred with these vowels when in the syllable that bears the stress of the word, usually the first, and in what we call ‘open’ syllables.

This term needs unpacking; in a nutshell, an open syllable is one in which the vowel is the last sound in the syllable, and no consonant follows it within that syllable. My name, for example, Danny, contains two syllables: Da-nny. Both syllables are open, since both have the simple structure of consonant and a vowel. My surname, Bate, is instead one closed syllable, ending as it does in a consonant.

Now, what happen to Latin E in this context is that it broke. Once pronounced /ɛ/, it became /jɛ/, pronounced like yeah, and written IE in Italian spelling.

Latin /ɛ/ > Italian /jɛ/* in open, stressed syllables

*or /je/

For instance, the name Petrus became Pietro. The verb venit ‘she comes’ is now viene. The vowel in mel, Latin for ‘honey’, also underwent breaking to produce miele, just as pedem ‘foot’ gave Italian piede.

In the same way, the short vowel denoted by the letter O in Latin broke into /wɔ/, pronounced like war and written UO.

Latin /ɔ/ > Italian /wɔ/ in open, stressed syllables

So, focus, meaning ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace’ in Latin, produced fuoco in Italian. Locus ‘place’ and ho ‘man’ have become luogo and uomo. The syllable of cor ‘heart’ broke into cuore. This breaking is why Italians wish each other buongiorno, from Latin bonus ‘good’ and diurnus ‘of the day’. Many grand Italian churches are known simply as the duomo of their city, which goes back to Latin domus, being a ‘house’ of the Church. English gets novelty and innovate from the Latin adjective novus ‘new’; this in Italian became nuovo.

This change can additionally explain why there may be divergences between the vowels of closely related words. The Italian verb for ‘she dies’ is muore, yet the phrase for ‘she is dead’ is è morta. These two words had the same O vowel in Latin, so why the difference now? Remember here the conditions of the change: breaking only occurred in open syllables. While muore (muore) fits the bill, morta (morta) does not. Only the former therefore underwent vowel breaking.

Snapped this picture from a train to illustrate the common word vietato, which means ‘forbidden’. With vowel breaking in mind, we can appreciate the connection to English veto.

So, there you have them: five historical sound changes that I reckon illuminate a little of why Italian is the way it is. They’re nuggets of knowledge that have helped me to understand Italian and in turn produce some speech resembling it on countless occasions. I do hope they may of use and interest for you too.

END.

  1. When I say “context” here, I mean the environment of sounds that the vowel might find itself in in a word. The change of short I and U to Italian E and O is not seen in words in which the vowel stands before the combination of a nasal and a velar consonant, such as the pair /ng/ in lingua ‘tongue’ and fungo ‘mushroom’. These go back to the Latin words lingua and fungus, which had short vowels. It may be though that the shift was indeed applied at first across the board, and that the Italian vowels in this context result from an additional, subsequent change.

References and Further Reading

  • Alkire, T., & Rosen, C. (2010). Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  • Pianigiani, O. (1907). Vocabolario etimologico della lingua italiana di Ottorino Pianigiani; con prefazione di F.L. Pullè. Società editrice Dante Alighieri di Albrighi, Segati. Available online here.
  • Sidney Allen, W. (1965). Vox Latina. Cambridge University Press.

Featured image: Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli, c. 1500, from here.

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