Tuesday, 14 July 2009

parliamo italiano

The Guardian has now turned its attention to Italian, with free phrasebooks every day this week. As with the Spanish series (blog, 8 July), each booklet contains one page devoted to pronunciation. And as with the Spanish series I want to complain: if you can’t say anything correct and useful, don’t say anything at all.
Don’t get me wrong: most of the stuff in the phrasebooks is correct and useful. But not all of it. I would criticize two things in particular about the Italian pronunciation guide.
[Italian] r is rolled, though not as much as in Spanish

What is the ordinary reader to make of this? If s/he can produce a trill, should s/he use it in Italian? Does “not so much” mean that the number of vibrations in an Italian [r] is lower than in a Spanish [r]? Or that articulations other than a trill are more prevalent than in Spanish? Or what?
Both languages have the contrast between tap and trill in intervocalic position, e.g. Spanish pero vs. perro, Italian caro vs. carro. The only sense I can make of the statement in the phrasebook is the highly technical one that in initial position Spanish r is always trilled, whereas Italian r is quite often a tap [ɾ]. That fact (if it is one) does not really pass the test of usefulness.
Stress is placed usually on the penultimate syllable … but can also be on the preceding one … unless there is an acute accent on a word eg caffè

That claim does not pass the test of correctness. Anyone who remembers a little French from school knows that the Italian accent mark in this word is a grave accent, not an acute one. This sort of elementary error does not inspire confidence in the rest of the phrasebook.
Nor does the sloppy wording of grammatical “help” such as this:


  1. I think the writer's diffuse impression refers to the higher frequency of the Spanish trilled r. But it could just as well have been sparked by the shortness of the vowel in front of even the "simple" r.

  2. Acute! I keep forgetting that word and just calling it "aigu".

  3. I think these phrase books should be accompanied by a mental health warning

  4. I was taught single r in Italian tapped, double r rolled, which reflects the longer paused quality of all double consonants in Italian. It, however, has nothing to do with intelligibility since there are many varied and contrasting regional realisations of r which are not tapped or rolled, but remained doubled. ( eg areas such as Parma and Piemonte with a French r ; Sicily with nearly archaeic interdental fricative r, and ex-President Scalfaro and Gianni Agnelli, both with variations of lip-rounded r.

  5. John Wells writes "Both languages have the contrast between tap and trill in intervocalic position, e.g. Spanish pero vs. perro, Italian caro vs. carro.", and I am reasonably confident that Catalan has a similar distinction. The reason I make this assertion is that some 30 years ago, I addressed Xaro, the Catalan wife of a Canadian friend, and inadvertently extended the duration/trill of the "r" in her name. Her eyes flared, and she asked "Why do you call me Xarro ?". "I'm sorry", I said, "I thought that was your name". "No", she replied, "my name is Xaro : please remember that." To this day I do not know what ?xarro? means in Catalan, but I suspect it is at best an insult and at worst an obscenity ...

  6. David Marjanović15 August 2009 at 17:46

    Both languages have the contrast between tap and trill in intervocalic position, e.g. Spanish pero vs. perro, Italian caro vs. carro.

    I don't understand why the term "tap" is so commonly used in this context – isn't that supposed to denote some kind of short plosive?

    The intervocalic single r of Spanish and (AFAIK less reliably) Italian is a one-contact trill, as far as I can tell: a trill that is so short that only one bubble of air is squeezed through. The rr is a long trill, with four or five contacts in Spanish depending on the speaker. (The amount of contacts in a trill is controlled only by for how long the articulators are held at the right distance, so it should indeed be considered length rather than repetition.)

    Of course, in Spanish, this is the only length contrast in the entire sound system (...while Italian distinguishes consonants by length all over the place...). This makes it unsurprising that phonologists try to interpret /r/ and /rː/ as being distinguished in some other way (...and indeed, they aren't articulated in exactly the same place).

    But I really don't think using the same symbol as for the AE flap is a good idea. It's voiced, alveolar, short, and central (as opposed to lateral), but that's where the similarities end.

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  8. Actually it is supposed that Italian r is always a trill. A single trill when written r and a double trill when written rr. A flap only occurs as an allophone of r.

  9. @Guido y los freaks

    A "single trill" is usually defined as a tap (or sometimes a flap).

  10. In English the Italian/Spanish/Russian-type "single trill" (monovibrante) is termed a tap, not a trill. This blog is written in English, and in English a trill involves multiple contacts. If there is only a single contact, we call it a tap.