When we listen to Italian for the first time, we are usually impressed with how musical it is. All the sentences seem to have a rhythm flowing through them. The raising and lowering tone of the voice gives it that distinctive feature. We quickly discover that the particular stress on vowels produces Italian musicality. And accents are the backbone of these intonations.
So, in this post, we will discuss the Italian accent marks. They are the marks you write on top of vowels. The purpose of these orthographic signs is to give a syllable prominence.
We do not have accent marks in English. So, when we talk about accents, we usually think about something else. I would not be surprised that some may have landed on this post wanting to read about the regional variations with which Italians talk. So, it is important to clarify from the beginning that this post is not about that.
If you want to listen to a good impersonation of those variations, check out Enrico Brignano in this YouTube video.
Having got that out of the way, let us now talk about the content of this post.
In written Italian, some words have a graphic representation for the intonation. That is what is called an orthographic accent. Orthographic accents are meaningful for those who study Italian as a foreign language. But they also are all-important for native speakers themselves. It is a subject that teachers share with students in elementary school. But despite being taught early on, most Italians struggle with accents. So, the topic may need to picking up to help foreigners and natives alike.
In this post, we will see all the types of orthographic accents that exist in Italian. We hope this helps you demystify this topic. And also enable you to use them with confidence.
Native Italian speakers also struggle with accents!
Maybe some of you do not know that Italians often make mistakes regarding accent marks. So, do not feel alone if you are learning Italian as a second language. But due to its importance, do not underestimate the need to understand how accents work. Using them correctly has a direct impact on communication. So, to have a good command of the language, keep reading this post.
Types of Italian accents
There are two types of accents. These are tonic accents and graphic accents.
In Italian, we put an accent on every word we say. So, the tonic accent is the emphasis given to a specific syllable of a word. That is to say, the main outstanding audible sound sequence.
Try saying out loud several Italian words. Did you spot where the tonic accent falls? In most cases, it’s easy to discover. The emphasis on the tonic syllable is like a guy wearing white in a group of people with dark clothes! He will always stand out!
All words have a tonic accent in Italian. That means there is no word without an accent on one of its syllables. But only some words have a graphic accent.
The graphic accent is the symbol placed over the stressed vowel in written form. It is a visible indication of which is the prominent syllable.
So, here is the main takeaway from this section. In oral communication, every word has a tonic accent. But in writing, only some words have a visible mark for the accent. Thus, words with a graphic accent are a minority compared to those without them.
Which letters can have a graphic accent?
Not all letters can bear Italian accent marks. Only vowels can have a graphic accent. Please check an Italian text. You will see for yourself that consonants do not have accent marks. The only letters with accents are à, è, é, ì, ò, ù.
When do words have a graphic accent?
When you start noticing graphic accents, you may jump to some conclusions. The first one is that when the tonic accent falls on the last syllable, the word has a visible accent mark. For example: perché, caffè, più, già, etc.
But be careful! Not all words in which the tonic accent falls on the last syllable have a graphic accent. Words with one syllable usually do not have a visible accent mark. All simple prepositions (a, da, di, in, in, su, con, per, tra, fra) or words like te, me, no, non, do not have this orthographic mark.
Some words with a tonic accent on the last syllable may substitute the accent with an apostrophe. In these cases, the apostrophe indicates the dropping of a part of the word. Here are some examples: po’ for poco, be’ for bene, va’ for vai, di’ for dici, etc.
The graphic accent can also be of two types:
- You will often bump into the acute accent (´) as in poiché (because). The accent mark goes upwards. It indicates that the stressed E has a closed sound.
- And take heed of the grave accent (`) as in caffè (coffee). The mark goes down and announces that the stressed E has an open sound.
Anyway, as we have already said, all words have a tonic accent. You may not see it represented graphically, but it is always there!
If we want to pronounce Italian words correctly, we must know where the accent falls. And this is not simple, especially when there is no graphic accent. Thus, beginners struggle to identify the tonic accent!
Italian words are subdivided by where the accent falls!
It is common to divide Italian words into groups according to the position on which the stress falls. We would have, therefore, the following subdivisions:
It is the group formed by words with stress on the last syllable. And the prominent syllable has a graphical representation. The other groups do not have the visible accent mark.
When the accent on the last syllable falls on the vowels a, i, o, or u, the accent is always grave: à, ì, ò, ù. When it falls on the vowel e, it could be grave (è) or acute (é).
Here are some examples of acute tronche words:
affinché (so that)
Here are some examples of acute tronche compound words. The words presented here derive from tre (three). But many other compound words also have an accent:
And here are examples of grave tronche words (remember, these have the accent mark going in a different direction):
mangiò (he/she ate)
dormì (he/she slept)
The words with accents on the penultimate syllable are in this group. We mentioned above that visible accent marks are not employed in this group. So, placing the accent symbols is up to you. Accent marks in this group are accepted but not mandatory. So, get used to not seeing the visual emphasis when you read.
Here is a list of examples of piane words:
mattiniero (early riser)
It is easy to predict which words belong to this group. That is, those that have stress fall on the antepenultimate syllable. It is also the third syllable counted from back to front.
Here are some examples of sdrubular words:
Keeping up with our count from back to front, words that have stress in their fourth syllable pertain to the Bisdrucciole group.
Stress falls on the fifth syllable
There are not many words in Italian in which stress falls on the fifth syllable, counted from back to front. But you can still find some.
Here are some examples:
edificano (they edify)
lasciatemelo (leave it to me)
miagolano (they meow)
compramelo (buy it from me)
Are Italian accent marks optional?
We saw that words in the tronche category (stress falls on the last syllable) are the only case in which accents are mandatory. As a reminder, be careful to respect the direction you write the accent. They can be grave (`) or acute (´).
But when the stress falls inside the words, they are usually not accentuated. However, writing the accent can help with the pronunciation in some cases. Even Italians get confused about the pronunciation of long words.
Accents can help us distinguish words!
On some occasions, accents can help us distinguish two words that look the same but have different meanings. So, when an accent is not mandatory, choosing between using it or not is left to the writer. Thus, depending on the degree of ambiguity of the context, an accent can make a difference. Here are examples of words distinguished by the accent:
1st word: lèggere (to read).
2nd word: leggère (light).
Example: Mi piace lèggere storie leggère. (I like to read light stories).
1st word: Prìncipi (plural of prince).
2nd word: princìpi (plural of beginning or principle).
Example: I principi di Danimarca sono giovani con principi morali. (The princes of Denmark are young people with moral principles).
1st word: Capitàno (captain of a ship).
2nd word: càpitano (to succeed).
3rd word: capitanò (directed).
Examples: Il capitàno Maldini capitanò la nave in porto. (Captain Maldini drove the ship to port).
Sono occasioni che càpitano poche volte nella vita. (These are opportunities that come along a few times in a lifetime).
In these cases, the distinction of the words comes from the different positions of the accent.
Does this seem hard? Hold on! Words can also have the accent in the same position and be different. And the only way to distinguish them is by the presence of an acute or grave accent. For example:
– Pèsca (open E, indicates the fruit) and pésca (closed E, indicates that somebody is going fishing).
– Bòtte (open O, indicates the blows) and bótte (closed O, indicates the barrel).
The first thing you may have noticed is the acute accent on the O in bótte. And we explained at the beginning of this post that Os did not have mandatory acute accents. We have put the accented E’s and O’s, but do not fool yourself: in this case, they only serve to make you see the difference. But generally, you will not find the accent marks on these words. Let us remind you that tronche words (stress on the last syllable) are the ones that have the visible symbol.
Even Italians do not pronounce correctly the words presented in the examples above. Native speakers do not always use open or closed E. And with the open or closed O happens the same. In fact, in some Italian regions, there is no distinction between one word and the other. So, the only resource available is interpreting using context, precisely as in the written form.
How to type Italian accent marks on computer?
Now that you know how to use Italian accents, you will want to use them when typing on your computer. But what should you do if these accents are not available with your current keyboard configuration? Do not worry. Check out this next section.
How to type Italian accent marks on a Mac?
Typing accent marks for your Italian texts is simple on a Mac. We will give you two options. Choose the one that suits you best.
Type option and tilde (~) followed by the letter on which you need the accent.
- à = option + tilde (~) / then press the ‘a’ key
- è = option + tilde (~) / then press the ‘e’ key
- é = option + ‘e’ key / then press the ‘e’ key again
- ò = option + tilde (~) / then press the ‘o’ key
- ù = option + tilde (~) / then press the ‘u’ key
- Go to the top left of the screen and click the Apple icon.
- Click System Preferences.
- Select “Keyboard.”
- Select “Input Sources.”
- Go to the bottom left of the screen and click the add button.
- Select “Italian.”
- Click “Add.”
- On the top right corner of your desktop, click on the symbol of the flag of the United States.
- Finally, select the Italian flag.
Your keyboard is now in Italian. However, it also means you have new keys to learn.
- Semicolon key (;) = ò
- Apostrophe key (‘) = à
- Left bracket key ([) = è
- Shift + left bracket key ([) = é
- Backslash key (\) = ù
You can also select “Show Keyboard Viewer” from the flag icon drop-down. That will enable you to see all of the keys.
How to type Italian accent marks on PC?
Windows 10 facilitates typing Italian letters and accent marks. Here are also two options to accomplish it.
- On your desktop, click on “Control Panels.”
- Go to the Clock, Language, Region option.
- Click on “Add a Language.”
- Select “Italian” from the dozens of language options that appear.
- With the NumLock key on, hold down the ALT key and strike the three- or four-digit code sequence on the keypad for the desired characters. For example, to type à, the code would be “ALT + 0224.” There will be different codes for capitalized and lowercase letters.
- Release the ALT key, and the accented letter will appear.
Here we include the four-digit code sequences list you need to type accents in Italian.
Italian Language Character Chart
Italian Accent marks are a cardinal aspect of the language. We do not have to deal with accent marks in English. So, it is easy for us to underestimate these tiny symbols.
However, we hope this post has enabled you to notice how they work. And also shed some light on how to use these orthographic signs.
Italian accent marks can fall on any syllable in the word. So, it is essential to remember where the accent falls to avoid word mispronunciation. Remember, it’s simple! Just look out for where that guy in the white suit is!