Italian vowels

Vowels are sounds that we produce when the air coming from our lungs is free to flow out of our mouth without any obstacles.

A E I O U
(Vowel letters in Italian)

birds singing the vowels in italian

How do the Italian vowels work? How many are there? Read on to answer these and other questions in this ultimate guide to the vowels in Italian!


Italian vowels

There are 5 vowel letters (graphemes) in Italian, and 7 vowel sounds (phonemes).

The letters are: A, E, I, O and U. Unlike English, they represent pure sounds. They are not diphthongs.

A, E, I, O, U
A, E, I, O, U

Vowels E and O, however, can be either open or closed.

E, E
Vowel E open and closed

O, O
Vowel O open and closed

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the Italian vowels are represented as follows.

A/a/
E (open)/ɛ/
E (closed)/e/
I/i/
O (open)/ɔ/
O (closed)/o/
U/u/

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Language: English / Italian
Publisher: For Dummies
Pages: 672

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Although the quality of vowels E and O in any word is dictated by pronunciation rules, these rules are almost never followed by native speakers because pronunciation varies greatly from place to place in the country, so there’s really no “wrong” way to pronounce the vowels in Italian.

Only standard Italian, the accent that is used in television, on the radio and movie dubbing, actually follows the rules, but nobody speaks like that in real life because the influence of regional accents is very strong.

Also, there’s no way people can misunderstand you if you pronounce an open E instead of a closed E. Homographs, such as pésca (closed E) and pèsca (open E) are very rare.

Pesca
Fishing

Pesca
Peach

man fishing on a small white boat

If you say pesca with an open E and mean “fishing” instead, which requires a closed E, people will have no problems understanding you by context.

In my regional accent, for example, both “fishing” and “peach” are pronounced as pésca, with a closed E. I’ve never had any problems differentiating between the two, provided that some context is given.


How to tell if a vowel is open or closed?

Open any Italian dictionary, search for a random word. In dictionaries…

  • open vowels are represented with an grave accent (`)
  • closed vowels are represented with an acute accent, (´).

For example, you could read…

Lèggere
To read

Vénti
Twenty

Fòto
Photo

Córto
Short

a pair of green shorts with a print of leaves

Writing vowels in Italian

In writing, you don’t have to add any accent mark over vowels that are stressed in mid-word: you will write leggere, foto, corto.

You can however add the accent mark if you want to differentiate between homographs where no context is given, to avoid all misunderstandings, and you have to add the accent mark to almost all words whose stress is on the last syllable, such as perché or caffè.

Perché
Why, because

Caffè
Coffee

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You’ll notice that the final -e in perché is closed (acute accent) and the -e in caffè is open (grave accent) because this is how the words should be pronounced in standard Italian.

There’s really no difference to how you write accent marks when it comes to handwriting, but when typing words on a computer you’ll have to use the correct mark. Pronouncing perché with an open E is not a mistake, but writing perchè is.

The vowel O that carries the stress in final position is only ever pronounced as an open sound, so it will always be .

Però
But

Comò
Bedside table

big bedside table

All other Italian words carrying the stress on the last syllable are represented with a grave accent, never with an acute accent.

Velocità
Speed

Colibrì
Hummingbird

Zulù
Zulu tribe

Any good text editor will underline spelling mistakes in Italian, but learn how to write these words by heart just to be sure.

And that’s it with the Italian vowels! If you still have any doubts, feel free to leave a comment.


What next?

Now that you’ve seen how the Italian vowels work, you might want to keep learning Italian online with these free Italian resources:

Or you might also want an excellent offline Italian grammar resource to take with you at all times (Amazon).

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