Monday 25 October 2010

de’ Medici

The spelling-to-pronunciation rules for Italian are reasonably straightforward once you have learnt them. Apart from the e–ɛ and o–ɔ contrasts, which some Italians ignore anyway, the only important thing the spelling doesn’t tell you is where the word stress goes.

The default is for it to fall on the penultimate syllable (‘parole piane’: caro ˈkaːɾo, fanciullo fanˈtʃullo, dottore dotˈtoːɾe, incominciare iŋkominˈtʃaːɾe). But in a minority of words it falls elsewhere. Final stress is always shown by a written accent mark (‘parole tronche’: città tʃitˈta, caffè kafˈfɛ). The big trap for the foreigner is words with antepenultimate stress (‘parole sdrucciole’: povero ˈpɔːveɾo, scatola ˈskaːtola, vicolo ˈviːkolo).

It is very easy to be caught out ordering “feˈɡaːto” from the menu in an Italian restaurant, instead of the correct ˈfeːɡato (fegato, ‘liver’). You may remember the earthquake at L’Aquila (blog, 13 April 2009) and the difficulty we had getting that name correctly stressed.

So I had some sympathy when a friend of mine recently came back from a weekend break in Florence. He was enthusing about the art and architecture he had seen and about the influence of the … meˈdɪtʃi family there. But no, in Italian the (de’) Medici have antepenultimate stress, ˈmɛːditʃi.

Actually I am in no position to crow, because I see from my Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d’Ortografia e di Pronunzia (blog, 19 July) that the stressed vowel in Medici is open-mid rather than the close-mid that I wrongly put in LPD as the Italian pronunciation.

This name does though raise a point of principle. My friend is by no means alone in giving this word penultimate stress. On the contrary, even though we may agree that the correct anglicization is ˈmedɪtʃi, nevertheless meˈdiːtʃi and the like are very commonly heard from English speakers. Was I right to include them as secondary variants in LPD? Or ought a pronunciation dictionary to shun such incorrect forms? It’s the old question of description vs prescription. While I prefer to go for accurate description, at least I try to prioritize the correct form.

As we all know, there are cases like Beijing in which the ‘incorrect’ -ˈʒɪŋ is much more prevalent in English than the -ˈdʒɪŋ that corresponds to the pronunciation in the original Chinese.


  1. I wonder where you stand on the pronunciation of 'Colombia'. There seems to be a growing trend for people to use the LOT vowel in the stressed syllable in imitation of Spanish speakers. But then shouldn't they use the same vowel in the first syllable, if they are trying to be so 'authentic'?

  2. Why did you transcribe caro, dottore and povero with an alveolar tap? I thought the Italian r was always an alveolar trill, unlike the Spanish one.

  3. Isn't it also a question about having an English variant for an Italian name? Countries and cities, but also kings, queens, popes, and other historical figures have established English (and, I guess, French, German, Russian, ...) pronunciations besides pronunciation in the original language. If your queen is called [eˈliːzabɛt] in German, and the last leader of the USSR is commonly referred to as [ˈɡɔrbatʃɔf], I suppose that the Medici can afford an English name of their own. BTW, in German they're called [ˈmeːditʃi] (and we could do the more Italian-like [ɛː], but we won't).

  4. Italian orthography also doesn't show the distinction between /s/ and /z/ (both 's') and between /ts/ and /dz/ (both 'z').

  5. Paul: vowel reduction is a quite different issue from word stress. OK, if you want to speak proper Italian and Spanish you have to learn to avoid it, but it's OK as part of the anglicization of foreign names.

    Phil: sorry, you thought wrong. Single Italian r is usually a tap.

  6. The way you dealt with Beijing was to warn against -ˈʒɪŋ. Why don't you warn against meˈdiːtʃi? And perhaps even against [ˈɡɔrbətʃɒf], where you don't "try to prioritize the correct form"? (You do give the Russian pronunciation, but is the English version gɔːbaˈtʃɒf so rare? Or krʊˈʃtʃɒf/xrʊˈʃtʃɒf, which you also don't prioritize?) It seems here you have been thinking along the lines of brotwart's idea of accepting the English variant. Where countries and cities, kings, queens, popes, and other historical figures do have established English spellings and pronunciations, I would enthusiastically agree that we should use them.

    Or where will it all end? People may succeed in pronouncing Mumbai for Bombay, but they mispronounce Myanmar for Burma (the LPD sound file has ˈmaɪənmɑː for BrE, which is certainly not among the transcriptions), and persist in saying Bay Zhing, which is such a parody of Beijing that it is no less incomprehensible to a Chinese without any English than Peking was or is (partly their own fault, of course, for adopting such a quirky romanization, than which even the Wade-Giles ‘Peiching’ would have produced more recognizable results). And Bay Zhing doesn’t even conform to English phonology. The Japanese will have none of it, and still call Peking Pekin (pronouncing it [pekin], of course) or if they are really hard cases, Hokkyô, which is the Japanese pronunciation of the name in Chinese characters!

    Next they will have us writing Moskva and pronouncing that unrecognizably, and the Italians trying to pronounce it any way at all, and insisting we say Napoli etc., as the Republic of Ireland will be insisting everyone calls Dublin Baile Átha Cliath, for which LPD's ˌblɑː ˈklɪə ˌblɔː- ǁ -ˈkliː ə ˌblɔː would be pretty optimistic, and I'm not sure about Irish [bɫɑː ˈkliə] for that entry either.

    Of course Paris will be statutorily French in pronunciation for us, and in spelling as well for the Dutch, but their Parijs will survive in South Africa's Parys, which of course will have to keep its Afrikaans pronunciation.

    This fetish for slavishly following the names and spellings many countries are now giving themselves has simply brought about a Babel in which nobody knows what where or who is being talked about, including the people who promulgate the names.

  7. Not long ago, there was a bit of an outcry when Radio Four put out a programme on that family's role in the Renaissance with Bethany Hughes consistently saying mɛ'diːtʃi — or, perhaps, mɪ'di:tʃi. This wan't someone speaking off the cuff: Bethany had been to Florence and spoken to Italians, some of which we heard. And clearly there was a prepared script. My conclusion was that the producer had decided that ˈmɛːditʃi was too foreign — even for Radio Four.

  8. The various musical groups that use the name I Musici are regularly called ˌiːmuˈziːtʃi on Classic FM. In a way it's surprising, given that we are used to penultimate -ic- in Latin-derived words throwing the stress back to the antepenult.

  9. John Wells said:

    > I see from my Dizionario italiano multimediale e
    > multilingue d’Ortografia e di Pronunzia (blog,
    > 19 July)

    Just a hint: when you want to refer to your earlier blog entries, you can give direct links. Just scroll to the bottom of the entry to where it says 'Posted by John Wells at' and the posting time that follows has a hyperlink associated with it that you (and others) can use to link back to that post. In this case it's

  10. Steve - I know, and sometimes I do this. In this case it was just laziness that I didn't.

  11. People may succeed in pronouncing Mumbai for Bombay ...

    Do they though? It seems to me that people have little idea how Marathi is pronounced (and why should they?) and almost always say mʊm'beɪ or mʊm'baɪ instead of mumbəiː.

  12. Steve, some of these musical groups that use the name I Musici are regularly called ˌiːmuˈziːtʃi also call themselves that. You have reminded me of a recent report that the British Medici String Quartet, having long resisted all efforts to get them to call themselves ˈmeidɪtʃi instead of mɪˈdiːtʃi, had finally caved in and started doing so. I do find it hard to believe, but I'm sure I can't have imagined it. So there is hope even for Radio Four, David.

  13. Ian,
    I didn't say they do succeed in pronouncing Mumbai for Bombay, never mind competently, but "Why should they?" is precisely the question. My standards are not as high as yours, and I think mʊm'baɪ is about as much as we can expect, but once you start expecting this sort of thing at all, chaos will rule.

    I mentioned Mumbai as less ridiculous in this respect, as I thought most people probably can make a stab at the "English version". But you have drawn my attention to the awful likelihood that British NSs with a smattering of Marathi from their Marathi-speaking family will use the Marathi pronunciation in English, as monoglot English-speaking Pakistanis pronounce Pakistan and Afghanistan in a pastiche North West Frontier accent. If even a native Hannoveraner were to tell us he was from [haˈnoːfɐ], that would not be nearly as ridiculous: it's as if he were to tell us he was from Deutschland.

    I was contrasting Mumbai with Myanmar, which is a celebrated absurdity which might as well be pronounced as in the strange LPD sound file for BrE [ˈmaɪənmɑː] as any other way represented in the transcriptions which accompany it. None of them resemble what was presumably intended by the Burmese, especially not the rhotic AmE ones.

  14. I am not sure about the TORCH vowel in [ˈpɔːveɾo]. While accepting that it may be the 'approved' pronunciation I would suggest that [ˈpɔveɾo] and [ˈpəʊveɾo] are both more common, (at least in the Milan area where I learnt my Italian some years ago). I have no statistics to back this assertion, however.

  15. Simon, I can tell you that [ˈpəʊveɾo] is not Italian: the diphthong [əʊ] is not to be found in any variety of Italian. [ˈpɔveɾo], on the other hand, is the Standard pronunciation.

    NB: The length mark John uses in [ˈpɔːveɾo] is there only to indicate that the [ɔ] sound is longer because it's stressed, although I have to admit that most phonologists in Italy tend to omit it because the length of vowel sounds is not meaningful in Italian.

  16. Mallamb

    ... British NSs with a smattering of Marathi from their Marathi-speaking family ...

    That sounds like me. I just say Bombay. I'd feel ridiculous trying to pronounce Mumbai in English as in Marathi. Yet I don't know what is the right way to anglicise it. It's not like Paris or Hanover where there is an accepted way to pronounce it in English. Mumbai just looks like a transliteration of a Marathi word pronounced in a way that doesn't come naturally to a native English speaker. Any of the alternatives feels uncomfortably like a failed attempt at faux authenticity.

  17. @ John Wells (first comment): Actually in (some) Mexican Spanish (which is the type I learned being an American) some vowel reduction is acceptable. For example pesos, pesas, and peces can all be pronounced the same as [ˈp˭e̞səs] and pastas, pastes, and pastos may also be pronounced the same [ˈp˭asts]. I'm not sure if this is due to American (English) influence or what. Also /s/ debuccalization doesn't take place as you can see from that last transcription.

    Also, I believe that in the Romanesco accent of Italian, the alveolar trill (or geminate /r/; whatever you want to call it) doesn't exist. It is replaced with an alveolar tap [ɾ]. That's the opposite of what I was talking about, but oh well.

  18. If I'm being so precise with diacritics, then I suppose [p˭ästs] would have been better.

  19. The length mark in [ˈpɔːveɾo] is there for the sake of phonetic accuracy, I believe; it should be there if you want to show how the word is actually pronounced, even though vowel length is predictable (i.e. non-contrastive) in Modern Italian. (Stressed vowels are long in open syllables and short in closed ones, so /ˈpɔveɾo/ (or /ˈpɔvero/) should be the right phonemic transcription as far as the stressed vowel is concerned, but I really don't know how to treat the unstressed ɛ/e and ɔ/o neutralisations phonemically.)
    "əʊ" is definitely not an option (except in Anglicised Italian words, and then, I suppose, it's the result of applying English spelling-to-sound rules, rather than a systematic substitute for It. close-mid /o/).

    As far as I know, a single "R" can be either a tap or a (short) trill, but I too think you hear taps more often (and sometimes it's rather hard to tell which one you hear in fast speech).

  20. If I hadn't had this thread kicking around in my head, I wouldn't have noticed Jeremy Paxman correctly stressing arte povera on TV tonight. It's not usually that lack of error/mistake that one notices.

    I assume that it's the English word poverty that keeps us straight.

  21. @Phil: I think it's pretty indisputable that standard Italian includes an alveolar tap. I've seen a number of (convoluted) rules regarding the distribution of the tap and the trill:

    - Luciano Canepari says that /r/ is [r] when it is within a stressed syllable, and [ɾ] elsewhere.

    - The opera site transcribes /r/ as [ɾ] when between two vowels, and [r] elsewhere.

    Based on the Italian speech that I've heard (which, admittedly, isn't a great deal), it seems extremely common to use [ɾ] in most or all positions. I once heard a recording of a standard Italian speaker pronouncing the word "Roma", in isolation, as ['ɾo:ma].

  22. On Italian r, Wikipedia says "The trill /r/ is sometimes reduced to a single vibration when single, but it remains potentially a trill, not a flap [ɾ]." However, I don't know if other sources agree with this, and I'm not sure if I can produce/hear the difference myself.

    Since no one has mentioned it yet, I will add that in French, the name is usually pronounced [medisis], especially when referring to the Italo-French Catherine de' Medici (Catherine de Médicis).

  23. @ Lazar: You mean in most positions where it's spelled with a single r, correct?

  24. Alex, I have to agree that [ˈpəʊveɾo] is not Italian, but the vowel I heard is not /ɔ:/ either. I see from the literature that many Italians confuse /ɔ/ and /o/, and I think, from memory after many years away, that the vowel I heard in that position is the latter.

  25. Actually there is a rule of thumb to predict whether the accent is on the penultimate or the antepenultimate. if the penultimate syllable is closed (like in copèrto) then the accent is on the penultimate syllable. If the syllable is open then the accent is on the antepenultimate, like in pòvero. There are a few exceptions to this last rule (I can name cerìno, panìno, but they are all diminutives). But I can name just one exception for the first one (pòlizza) and a few toponyms.

  26. Ian,
    Oh dear, I of course didn't mean you, as I take it you are not of Marathi-speaking origin yourself. But of course you do have a Marathi-speaking family, so it may well have read as if I was being beastly. I think you got the message though. To try to pronounce Mumbai in English as in Marathi, and perhaps even to feel less ridiculous doing so, you would need the ethnicity as well as the family.

    Yes, Mumbai does look like and is a transliteration of a Marathi word pronounced in a way that doesn't come naturally to a native English speaker, and like most of these revamped toponyms it does feel uncomfortably like a failed attempt at faux authenticity however you pronounce it!

    You seem to have implied mʊmˈbaɪ is not the right way to anglicise it, but it is not just me, but no less a person than John Wells who says that it is acceptable, or gives ˌmʊmˈbaɪ for it in LPD, at any rate. Not sure why he gives it a subsidiary stress mark – it never sounds to me much like two phonotagms or anything that would justify that. He doesn't give the original Marathi pronunciation either, I suppose because he doesn't think it's different enough.

  27. mallamb wrote:

    > Steve, some of these musical groups that use
    > the name I Musici are regularly called
    > ˌiːmuˈziːtʃi also call themselves that. You
    > have reminded me of a recent report that the
    > British Medici String Quartet, having long
    > resisted all efforts to get them to call
    > themselves ˈmeidɪtʃi instead of mɪˈdiːtʃi, had
    > finally caved in and started doing so.

    True, I hadn't thought of that! Still, it wouldn't apply to this lot. Going back to Classic FM, I Musici de Montréal normally comes out as iːmuˈziːʧidəˌmɒntriˈɔːl: heaven knows what they call themselves - if they're French-speaking probably imuziˈʧidmɔ̃reˈal.

  28. @Massimo: I think there are loads of words where the penultimate syllable is both open and stressed. All verbs in -are and -ire, verbal endings like -ete, -ei, -emo, adjectives in -ese, -oso, -ele (crudele etc.), -eno, avere, sedere...

  29. In my accent the tap and the trill are more-or-less in free variation, with the tap more frequent in syllable onsets and the trill in codas. But Canepari (with his usual excess precision) claims that /r/ is always a tap in unstressed syllables and always a trill in stressed ones.

  30. Mallamb

    Yes, of course, I'm a native English speaker, familiar with Marathi only through marriage and game but not particularly proficient. I struggle to make many of the distinctions unfamiliar to an English ear but even to me mumbəiː and mʊmˈbaɪ sound different. I get your message - I don't think I was disagreeing. I wasn't suggesting any of the versions you hear in English are "right" or "wrong", just that none sound like you'd hear it said in the city itself - which was what I took you to be pointing out for Myanmar. Thanks though, for pointing me to a distinguished authority on accepted English pronunciation. I shall now feel safer to use the word in English.

  31. Steve, you're right. I didn't express myself correctly. Most italian words are indeed plane (accent on the penultimate syllable).

  32. @ John Cowan: That was hilarious. Thank you.


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