The Accent

The term "accent " (in Italian, "accento") is used to describe three important and separate aspects of pronunciation:

  1. Greater relevance of a syllable in terms of loudness, pitch, and/or length (a synonym of "stress").
  2. A graphic sign indicating either where the tonic stress falls or the quality of a vowel (a synonym of "accent mark").
  3. A particular mode of pronunciation, inflection, intonation or emphasis characteristic of a group of people or a geographical area (as in "foreign accent" or "regional accent").

With any of these meanings, the term "accent" is used to describe differences in pronunciation that are often significant and may generate doubts or confusions in students of Italian as a Second language.

The first thing to bear in mind is that it is practically impossible to establish a general rule dictating the "exact" pronunciation of each single word. One reason is that in Italy pronunciation varies greatly from region to region, and educated speakers often disagree about the "correct" pronunciation of a word. For a general discussion of this problem, see L'italiano e i dialetti. Italy, unlike France, does not have a national institution overseeing the use of language; however, the pronunciation of so-called "Standard Italian" is described in a number of dictionaries. For example, Italy's national broadcasting company, RAI, publishes a "Dizionario di ortografia e di pronuncia". The work of three eminent Italian linguists, this dictionary is intended to be a practical reference guide for professionals working in the information field.

In Italian, the accent mark has two forms: grave (`) and acute (´). The circumflex accent (^) can be found in poetry and indicates either the contraction of two vowels (as in "ozî", for "ozii") or the elimination of a syllable (as in "tôrre" for "togliere"). For more information on contracted verb form, see La ricerca dell'infinito.

According to Italian spelling rules, the accent mark is required only when the stress falls on the last vowel of words formed by more than one syllable (as in "città, caffè, felicità") and on monosyllabic words that can be confused with a similar term ("né" as opposed to "ne"). See monosillabi accentati.

Even if it is not required, an accent mark may be used to distinguish:

  1. Words with identical spelling and word stress, but different vowel quality (see omografi con vocale aperta o chiusa); and
  2. Words with identical spelling but different word stress (see omografi con accento su sillabe diverse).

It is also allowed if the pronunciation is uncertain or unknown to the reader.

According to spelling rules, the grave accent mark (`) should be used only on open vowels, with the acute accent mark (´) reserved for closed vowels. However, the grave accent is often used even on vowels that, according to Standard Italian, are closed.

Note that foreign words should be written according to the spelling rules of the language of origin.