[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J20, 1996/1 pp19-23]
[See also Thorstad: Italian vs English literacy.
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]
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Italian spelling, and how it treats English loanwords.

Christopher Upward and Virginia Pulcini.

Virginia Pulcini researches and teaches English at the University of Turin, Italy, and is author of 'The English language in Italy' (English Today 40, October 1994, pp49-52). Chris Upward is Editor-in-Chief of the Simplified Spelling Society.


This paper first outlines the spelling principles of Italian, which is known for the regularity of its sound-symbol correspondences. It then describes how Italian has borrowed many words from English, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, and in the process of integrating and assimilating such loanwords it has sometimes modified their spelling according to its own orthographic rules. Finally, this process of modification is examined as a form of regularization of the incongruities of English spelling.

1. Introduction.

The phonetic (or better, phonemic) basis of Italian spelling, as opposed to the strong etymological element in the French or English orthographies, has been held up as an example of coherence and simplicity. The Italian-American linguist Mario Pei commented on its effect for the native-speaking learner as follows (Pei 1968):
You are taught the alphabet, then you are given sequences of spoken and written syllables.... There are a few confusing moments when you are taught to insert an H after C, G, SC, and an I after the same consonants, to show certain sounds before front or back vowels. Beyond that, your ear is a guide to your spelling if you speak standard Italian... The word spell does not exist in the Italian vocabulary, which is a clue to the entire situation.
Pei then recounted his dismay on meeting written English, which he described as "one of the world's most awesome messes".

There is in fact some pardonable exaggeration here. Italian does have the verb compitare, to 'spell out', but it is rarely used, since educated Italians would feel embarrassed to ask for the spelling of a word, as that would be perceived as a sign of ignorance. In extreme cases, eg surnames, Italians might ask for clarification of certain details, for example "Do you write Cerutti with one T or two?"

The contrast with English was starkly demonstrated by Gwenllian Thorstad's recent comparative study of literacy acquisition in the two languages (Thorstad 1991). This showed English children making over four times as many misreadings and nearly eight times as many misspellings in their mother tongue as equivalent Italian children in theirs.

2. Evolution of Italian orthography.

To assist readers' understanding of Italian spelling, we will briefly outline its basic rules. In fact, although Italian is certainly far simpler than English from an orthographic point of view, even this 'highly regular' language has some inconsistencies.

The codification of Italian orthography goes back to the 16th century (the Cinquecento). It was achieved through the joint work of grammarians and printers who produced a set of stable rules, subsequently recorded in the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612) and its following editions. The reference model was the educated Florentine dialect, which emerged as a standard in the 'Trecento' (14th century) because it was used by the outstanding writers of that period (Dante, Petrarch [anglicized from Italian Petrarca], Boccaccio) and because of the political and economic prestige of Florence. This codification marked a historical break with Latin and established the precedence of the 'phonetic' principle over the 'etymological' one.

Since the 'Cinquecento' orthographic reform, the spelling system of Italian has undergone some further adjustments, but its basic phonetic principle has been maintained, with minor divergences between graphemes and phonemes. An important innovation which became established only from the end of the 17th century was the differentiation between the vowel U and the consonant V. Some Latin digraphs were adapted (MN>NN, CS>SS, CT>TT, PT>TT), as for instance with Latin columna, pronounced /koˈlonna/ in Italian and therefore written colonna (=English column), and similarly Latin dīxĭt, now pronounced /disse/ and written disse (=said); Latin ŏttō, now pronounced /otto/ and written ɔtto (=eight); and Latin scrīptŭm, now pronounced /skritto/ and written scritto (=written). The letters K, X, Y, which existed in Latin though rarely used, were gradually abandoned, as were the digraphs CH, PH, TH, which Latin had used to transliterate the Greek letters chi, phi, theta (χ, φ, θ). Since Italian pronounced them no differently from C, F, T, the latter became the standard modern spellings, as in caos (formerly chaos), filosofia (formerly philosophia) and teatro (formerly theatro). Likewise with J, used in Latin merely as a variant (allograph) on I: though maintained throughout the 17th and 18th centuries for the semivowel value /j/ (=English Y), it was then gradually abandoned. Today J is still used in some words such as Jugoslavia, Jole (alternatively Iugoslavia, Iole) and in foreign words. [1]

3. Regularities and irregularities in Italian spelling.

The relationship between the alphabet and the phonemic system of contemporary Italian is shown in the following table (from Maraschio, 1993):

LetterPhonemeLetter Phoneme
B/b/O/o, ɔ/
C/k, ʧ/P/p/
E/e, ɛ/R/r/
F/f/S/s, z/
G/g, ʤ/T/t/
Hsee belowU/u, w/
I/ɪ, j/V/v/
L/l/z/ts, dz/

As shown above, certain pairs of phonemes (/e, ə/, /o, ɔ/, /ɪ, j/, /u, w/, /s, z/, /ts, dz/) are homographic, that is, they are identically spelt. Conversely, certain other phonemes (/k, g, ʧ, ʤ, ʃ, ɲ, ʎ/) are heterographic, that is, they may be spelt in more than one way. For instance, /k/ is spelt C in casa /ˈkaza/ (=house), but Q in qui /kwi/ (=here); /g/ is spelt G in gatto /gatto/ (=cat), but GH in ghiro /ˈgiro/(=dormouse); /ʧ/ is spelt C in cera /ˈʧera/ (=wax), but CI in ciao /ˈʧao/ (=hello, goodbye); /ʤ/ is spelt G in gelo /ʤəlo/ (=cold [n.]), but GI in giusto /ʤusto/ (=right [adj.]); /ʃ/ is spelt SC in scemo /ˈʃemo/ (=stupid), but SCI in sciarpa /ʃarpa/ (=scarf); /ɲ/ is always spelt GN as in gnomo /ˈɲɔmo/ (=gnome) but the digraph GN may exceptionally be pronounced as separate sounds as in the German loanword gneiss /ˈgnɛɪs/; and /ʎ/ is spelt GL in gli (=the [m.pl.]), but GLI in glielo (=[eg, give] it to him/her), though in a loanword like anglicano /angliˈkano/ the two letters may again have separate values.

These incongruities of Italian spelling are a cause of some difficulty for Italians, and errors are typical of low levels of education. The main spelling problems encountered by Italians are the following:
These difficulties are of some significance, when one remembers that a census in 1981 found that 62% of Italians were 'semi-educated' (Maraschio, 1993: p142).

4. Dialect and standardization.

Finally, there is a further problem which undermines sound-symbol correspondences in Italian. The relative stability and uniformity of the written norm is not matched by a homogeneous spoken norm, which is in fact marked by strong regional variation, even among educated speakers. As the Italian linguist Canepari (1983) pointed out, the Florentine model on which Standard Italian was based failed to extend to the rest of the peninsula because of the strong presence of competing dialects. At present there is no standard pronunciation of Italian equivalent to RP in Standard British English, but instead many regional standards whose pronunciation is strongly influenced by dialects. The strongest unifying force, beside the mass media, is the homogeneous orthography, and, as linguists have repeatedly pointed out, the recommended pronunciation for foreign learners is the one based on the spelling. The allophonic contrasts between {e, ɛ}, {o, ɔ}, and {s, z} are etymologically motivated (eg, pesca /ˈpeska/ [=peach] from Latin pĕrsicum, contrasting with pesca /ˈpɛska/ [=fishing] from Latin piscarī), being used in Tuscany (the Florentine region), but nowhere else in Italy.

The tendency to unify regional pronunciations on the basis of a regular spelling system in Italian may be seen as the exact opposite of the historical development of English, where the unified pronunciation model of RP was established against a historical, non-phonetic orthography, which does not provide a pronunciation model encouraging convergence of regional accents.

At present Italian is undergoing a process of rapid transformation and innovation. Dialects are gradually losing ground to Standard Italian, owing to increasing literacy and mass communication. A strong influence is exerted by English, especially through lexical borrowing in many areas of international contact: in the language of newspapers, in advertising and in the microlanguages of science and technology. Consequently, graphemes and letter-strings have been (re-)introduced which were previously hardly used in Italian. The letters J, K, W, X, Y, which had been gradually lost over the centuries, are now used in words of foreign derivation. For instance, the letter J has acquired the English sound-value /ʤ/ even in Latin words such as junior (/ˈʤu:niə / instead of /ˈjunjor/). The number of words beginning with H has increased, as well as typically English consonant clusters such as TH (thriller), SH (shampoo), RTN (partner), NGST (gangster). The grapheme Y has become fashionable in Christian names such as Tony and Mery (spelt with e [e] according to its pronunciation). The grapheme K is often used in advertising because its unfamiliarity attracts attention, and often in politics (eg, okkupazione studentesca [=student occupation], Amerikano) to produce an alien effect.

5. Two-way influences.

English and Italian have long exercised strong influences on each other. An early wave of influence by Italian on English can be traced back to the Renaissance (especially from the mid-15th century), when the artistic golden age in Italy (in music, poetry, the visual arts) had a huge impact on styles, techniques and fashions throughout western Europe. The accompanying vocabulary has in many cases gained a permanent place in the English language, an excellent account being given in the Oxford Companion to the English Language (OCELang).

Apart from Italian words which have reached English via French and which therefore tend to be spelt as in French (eg, caprice, ultimately from Italian capriccio), most Italian loans in English have retained their original spelling. Although Italian spelling is highly regular in its own terms, some of its characteristic sound-symbol correspondences are not otherwise native to English, and have therefore added a further layer to the irregularities of English spelling. Characteristically Italian are the values of C in cello /ʧ/, CH in Chianti /k/, SC in crescendo /ʃ/, SCH in scherzo /sk/, Z in mezzo-soprano /tz/(in Italian actually /ddz/), GH in spaghetti /g/, GI in Giotto /ʤ/, GL in serraglio /ʎ/, GN in lasagne /ɲ/, and final E in minestrone /e/ (the latter not rhyming in Italian with final I in macaroni). Only occasionally has English distorted the Italian spelling, as in macaroni from earlier Italian maccaroni (modern maccheroni) and seraglio from Italian serraglio.

6. Assimilation of English loanwords.

The influx of English words into Italian began in the 18th century, usually through the mediation of French, but only in the second half of the 20th century has this phenomenon had a massive impact on the Italian language and Italian culture (Pulcini, 1994). The attitude of Italian linguists to foreign words has been generally 'tolerant'. [2] In this respect, Italian has been judged a 'democratic language', open to neological borrowing from other languages, as opposed to 'introvert languages' like German, French and Spanish, which are more inclined to try and resist.

As regards the spelling of English loans, a number of patterns are evident.

6.1. Word unchanged.

Whereas in the past English loanwords tended to be adapted in pronunciation and form according to the rules of Italian (eg, cartone animato from animated cartoon), today their original form tends to be retained. Sometimes their spelling is relatively unproblematic (eg stop, trend), but sometimes they incorporate sound-spelling correspondences that do not conform to Italian patterns (eg budget, deadline, show). As mentioned above, graphemes that were not part of the Italian alphabet are coming back into use, and complex consonant clusters and syllables ending in a consonant are new to the phonotactic patterning of Italian.

6.2. Graphic assimilation.

Graphic assimilation, ie, respelling according to Italian rules, of unadapted loanwords is not particularly noticeable. It is generally motivated by the pronunciation of graphemes in a particular position in the word, or by hypercorrection: Y assumes the [i] or [ai] sound value (eg,bike is respelt byke in Italian and nylon is sometimes respelt nailon); K changes to C or CH depending on the following vowel (go-kart becomes go-cart); CK and CH are confused, both having the velar value /k/ in Italian (eg, back may be italianized as bach). J and Y are confused (jersey>yersey; New York>New Jork); W is replaced by V (Walter>Valter) or, by hypercorrection, vice versa (voodoo>woodoo; volt>wolt - although the word derives from the Italian name Alessandro Volta). However, apart from isolated examples (goal>gol, roastbeef>rosbif/rosbiffe - but also roastbeef), graphic assimilation is rare and typical of uneducated spellings.

6.3. Morphological assimilation.

In many other instances there is morphological assimilation, with an Italian suffix added to the English form to accord with normal Italian word-structures. This process is facilitated by the equivalence of Italian/English suffixes such as -ATION/-AZIONE (eg, standardization>standardizza-zione), -ism/-ismo (eg, tourism>turismo). Otherwise, a noun may acquire an O (eg, dollaro), or an E (eg alligatore), and similarly with adjectives, as with shakespeariano (also Italianized as scespiriano), manageriale. Verbs on the other hand typically add -ARE, so giving flirtare, standardizzare, etc. Further examples listed by Klajn are: acro (<acre), ancestrale, atollo, behaviorismo, bluffare, boxare, crossare, darwinismo (also darvinismo), dragare, filmare, flanella, gallone, ione (<ion), malto (<malt), mocassino, mormone, quizzare, romantico, scalpare, standardizzare, stressare, truismo, vaselina. The form toboga is unusual, in that the Italianate ending is achieved not by adding a suffix, but by removing the final n of toboggan.

6.4. Transmission through French.

Another category, typically of older loans, reached Italian through French, sometimes in the Middle Ages, but continuing into the 20th century. In these cases the spelling may reflect the French rather than the modern English form. Among the oldest are battello <OldF batel <OldE bat (=boat), and est, ovest, nord, sud (=east, west, north, south). Some place names also reflect transmission through French: Galles (also French, =Wales), Irlanda (French Irlande =Ireland), Londra (French Londres, =London), Tamigi (French Tamise, =Thames). Others antedating the 20th century include: frac, redingote (old anglicisms in French [<frock-coat, riding-coat] which were later passed on to Italian as frac, redingote/redingotto), lingotto (French lingot, =ingot), frammassone (French franc-maçon, =freemason), milordo, also milord (French milord, =my lord), nababbo (French nabab, =nabob), pinguino (French pingouin, =penguin), vagone (French wagon =wag[g]on), sportivo (French sportif =sporting), deragliare (French dérailler, =derail), tatuare (French tatouer, =tattoo). In many cases it is hard to tell the provenance of words because of the historical links between these languages (eg, photography/photographie/ fotografia). Cinema, hotel, premier, routine derive from French, although they are fully naturalized in English. Traces of French mediation are evident in the spelling of some modern Italian anglicisms: boxe, stripteaseuse. Some loans occur in Italian with both French and English spelling: shock/choc (alongside the verb which may be fully Italianized as scioccare or semi-Italianized as shoccare), comfort/confort, cashmere/cachemire, pony/poney, rally/rallye, rum/rhum.

6.5. Italianizing English consonants.

Among consonants, adaptation is particularly seen with velars and palatals. For instance, a complication arises with the letter G. Before the front vowels E and I it has a soft, palatized value in Italian, /ʤ/, as often in English too (thus in both Italian generale and English general). If the hard velar value of G needs to be indicated before front vowels, English sometimes writes GU, which in Italian is pronounced /gw/. Italian by contrast writes GH to show the hard value before front vowels (as in spaghetti), and has accordingly converted the old English currency unit guinea to ghinea; on the other hand the geographical term is spelt Guinea in both languages, but is pronounced /gwɪˈnea/ in Italian. Similarly, since the fronted A of English gang is represented by Italian E, the same GH is used in ghenga.

The fact that H is always silent in Italian has led to uncertainty over (h)andicappare. English pariah loses final Hin Italian. The letter J only appears in modern loans in Italian (eg jazz, jeep, jeans from English, where it is pronounced as in English, and jodel, Jugoslavia where it is pronounced, as in German, like English Y); older English J loans are by contrast Italianized to GI, as in giungla<jungle,giuria<jury, pigiama<pyjamas/ pajamas, or to I in the case of iuta<jute. The letter K is not natively used in Italian and is respelt as C in bistecca <beefsteak, folclore < folklore, quacchero < Quaker, risciò < rickshaw (also ricsiò, ricsò), scioccare/shoccare < shock (though this may equally be derived from French choquer).

Although the sounds of English CH (/ʧ/), SH (/ʃ/) are normal Italian phonemes, they are spelt (as explained in §2 above) with just C or SC before the front vowels E, I, while before back vowels A, O, U an I is inserted to give CI, SCI. English loans are seen thus respelt in cip<chip (poker), linciare<lynch, ponce<punch (alcoholic),scellino<shilling, sceriffo<sheriff, scialle<shawl, scioccare<shock.

Consonant doubling before the verbal suffix -ARE is seen in stoppare, but there is uncertainty as to whether to double B in drib(b)lare<dribble (soccer). English W is Italianized as V in tranvia<tram(way). Greco-Latin PH is regularly rendered as F in Italian (eg filosofia), and the pseudo-Greek English literary term euphuism therefore becomes Italian eufuismo.

6.6. Italianizing English vowels.

The Italian vowel system is far simpler than the English, there being essentially just five values for the five letters A, E, I, O, U, though (as explained in §4 above) some varieties of Italian distinguish two values of E, pronounced as [e, ɛ], and two values of o, pronounced as [o, ɔ]; these distinctions are however not functional (cf the possible distinction between two values of A in English lass/grass). English vowel spellings using a single vowel letter can be absorbed fairly unproblematically into Italian, if with pronunciation sometimes adapted, as when the long /ai/ value for I in English ion is reduced to a mere I-glide in Italian ione.

On the other hand, the English vowel digraphs, which have been described as representing the heart of English spelling irregularity, are more often found unacceptable, and may be Italianized as in the following words (some of the examples are archaic or rare, but are given here to illustrate the general respelling procedures): the long AI digraph of drain is phoneticized as E in the verb drenare; the long EA, EE digraphs of leader, meeting, beefsteak/roastbeef, speech have been phoneticized to I in lider, bistecca/rosbif, mitingo (though modern Italian normally has leader, meeting); the long vowel of nylon may be phoneticized as AI in nailon, though nylon is also used unchanged; the long oa of ferryboat, goal is phoneticized as O in Italian ferribot, gol; and the long OE/OO/OU of taboo, tattoo, zoom, brougham, tourism are phoneticized as U in tabù, tatuare, zumare, brum, turismo. The letter Y is not native to Italian (though it is seen in foreign loans such as yacht, yogurt), and its value is rendered by I as a semi-vowel in iarda<yard, as a full vowel in linciare<lynch, and as a part of a diphthong in boicottare.

7. Loanwords as a general problem.

The spelling of loanwords is a perennial problem for all languages. One difficulty is that, insofar as the phonology of different languages differs, the borrowing language may have no obvious way to spell alien sounds, hence for example the varied attempts at spelling the Russian consonant o at the end of English borsch, borshch, borsht, borstch, bortch. Another difficulty is that, even when different languages do share roughly the same sounds, they may use different spelling conventions to represent them. The borrowing language may decide to keep the foreign spellings, and let people pronounce the words as best they can; or it may decide to change the foreign spellings to accord with native spelling conventions. Speakers may then have a better chance of achieving something like the foreign pronunciation, but the visible, internationally compatible forms of the words may be lost.

Languages like Swedish, Turkish and Welsh tend to adopt the latter procedure, systematically adapting foreign spellings. Modern English and French tend to leave foreign spellings unchanged, while German sometimes adapts and sometimes does not. It is notable that in medieval times English was much more likely to adapt foreign spellings to represent English pronunciation, but, with the influx of Greek and Latin vocabulary from the 15th century onward, respect for the classical, foreign spellings has usually been paramount in more recent times. We perhaps see a similar shift of procedures in Italian, inasmuch as many of the adapted English forms (eg banconota<banknote, contraddanza<country dance) clearly belong to an earlier age, while contemporary (especially American) loans seem to undergo fewer changes.

How should we judge the relative wisdom of the two approaches? On the one hand, adapting foreign spellings, so preserving a coherent set of sound-symbol correspondences for domestic use, makes literacy acquisition easier for native-speaking learners. But on the other hand, international communication and learning by foreign students are made harder when spellings vary apparently arbitrarily from one language to the next. This dilemma is further aggravated when a major source of foreign loans in many languages is English, whose spelling is notorious for its unpredictable sound-symbol correspondences. Not merely are they unpredictable within English, but they are often also unpredictable vis-à-vis other languages. For example, the present variation in consonant doubling between English and French (eg English abbreviation, apartment, French abréviation, appartement) presents additional traps for learners of both languages. The consonant gemination (ie doubling consonant letters to reflect lengthened pronunciation) so characteristic of Italian and the often rather arbitrary consonant doubling of English produce a number of Anglo-Italian anomalies, as seen in accomodare/accommodate, appartamento/apartment, comodità/ commodity, comunicazione/communication, milione/million, repubblica/republic, but we are here typically looking at separate developments from Latin, not Anglo-Italian loanwords. We noted in §5 above how English simplifies Italian CC, RR in macaroni, seraglio.

8. Italian versus English.

The two sides of this dilemma are epitomized by Italian in its relations with English. It seems particularly unfortunate that a language like Italian, whose writing system is known for its general coherence, should allow its qualities to be undermined by the growing import of unadapted English spellings. At the same time, by not adapting English loanwords, Italian speakers benefit from improved access to the world language, English. Conversely, in its own terms Italian enjoys a highly predictable writing system, but in an international context the distinctive features (listed in §2 above) which make some Italian loanwords anomalous in English are idiosyncratic internationally too; indeed they create problems for the spelling of loanwards in Italian whatever language they derive from, and for Italian loanwords in all other languages.

A key example is the spelling of the phoneme conventionally rendered as SH in English. Latin had no such sound, and the Roman alphabet therefore had no letter designed unambiguously to represent it. Since they lacked any procedure for co-ordinating the evolving sound-symbol correspondences of their writing systems, the different languages that adopted the Roman alphabet developed different spelling devices to represent the sound if it occurred in their phonologies. Thus Old English, like Italian, first tried SC. In Italian SC first appeared around the 6th-8th centuries, while in English SC was first used around that time to represent /sk/. However, in English this sound subsequently developed into /ʃ/ with the spelling SC then coming to represent that value. Middle English found SC ambiguous (it could suggest either /sk/ or /ʃ/) and added H for the latter value to give SCH (so creating the SCH trigraph now used for /ʃ/ by German), until modern English finally dropped the C and standardized on its internationally unique digraph SH. Meanwhile, the sound rendered by CH in modern English and Spanish and in Old French, was deaffricated in French, so that modern French now uses the digraph CH for the sound today spelt SH in English. In one respect, today's Italian SC digraph is in practice the most complex of all, because it requires a following I if the next vowel is A, O or U - at least English SH, German SCH and French CH are immutable, regardless of the following vowel. But in another respect English may be regarded as having the most complex sound-symbol correspondences, in that they vary according to the derivation of the words concerned, as between shell, chef, schist, sugar, crescendo (not to mention ration, passion, fashion, etc, etc).

9. Ideas for a long-term solution.

What solutions to this dilemma of orthographic cross-infection between languages can we envisage? Clearly, a most helpful single step would be the regularization of English spelling, so that its words could be borrowed by other languages with less damage to their own orthographies. Most proposed spelling reforms for English have not considered such a criterion in their design, but we may note that, although the Cut Spelling (CS, Upward, 1996) proposal was not initially designed for compatibility with other languages, it has subsequently been found to display such compatibility to a surprising degree [3]. Thus the CS simplification of doubled consonants generally aligns with Spanish and Portuguese, and its replacement of 'Greek' PH by F and removal of redundant H, as from chaos, honest, accords with Italian caos, onesto (and often with Spanish and the languages of Scandinavia).


[1] A short but clear introduction to the historical development and structures of the Italian language is given by A L Lepsky & G Lepsky (1977).

[2] Klajn (1977) found 2150 anglicisms in various sources (dictionaries, old and new written and spoken texts), whereas the more recent study by De Mauro (1993) on word frequency in contemporary spoken Italian gives 1049 English words. The actual proportion of anglicisms in Italian is between 0.2% and 1.4% of the global lexicon, figures which are not especially meaningful. A much higher proportion of English words has been registered in the lexis of special fields (eg, 30% in the terminology of the shoe trade).

[3] as described in detail in: Upward, C (JSSS 1998/2) 'Overcoming Orthographic Frontiers'.


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