Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Accents in Italian

In English we do not have accents unless they are in adopted foreign words, where they make you stop typing blithely along and go searching for the little fellows under "Symbols" for insertion into your otherwise accentless text. To compensate for this blessed delivery from those funny furrin marks, we are fraught with the English spelling system. System, hah!

Anyway, Italians are among those furriners who insist on hanging on to their squiggles even into the 21st century. I shall now proceed to explain said squiggles:

There are two accents in Italian, the grave accent (as in più), which goes up toward the left, and the acute accent (as in perché), which goes up towards the right.

The grave accent is much more common and is the default. Remember that è (he/she/it is) and (yes) have a grave accent.

The main function of the accent is to indicate where the stress goes in pronouncing the word.

Accents are almost always on the last letter. Exceptions are words like brusìo (broo-ZEE-oh), where the accent indicates that the -io is not a diphthong, that it is not pronounced (broo-ZYOH).

The function of the accent is not always to indicate stress. The words è and only have one syllable, so there is no question where the stress should fall. In these cases, the accent distinguishes the word from other, accentless words, here, e (and) and si (the reflexive pronoun).

Do not confuse accents with apostrophes. Words like be' (for bene, well) and po' (poco) do not have accents but apostrophes, because they are truncated (shortened).

Italian surnames sometimes have accents.

Italian use of accents is more limited than its use in, say, French, especially the internal use of the accent i.e. not on the final letter. For you as a non-native speaker, this means you may sometimes be tripped up on where the stress falls on a given word, especially for proper (capitalized) nouns. Example: Piccolomini (stress on -lo), Ricasoli (stress on -ca). Sometimes stress placement is not intuitive even for Italians, so that city signs will have the accent shown e.g. the spa town of Abano will show the accent on the first -a.