Vowels are very straightforward, as there are only 5: A, E, I, O, U. They are always AH, EH, EE, OH, OO, nice and clear (yes, technically there is an "open" and "closed" version of E, but even Italians don't always make the distinction so you'll be understood perfectly always saying "eh").
Consonants (with the exception of "tricky stuff," below) are pretty much the same as in English, with the following differences:
- H is never pronounced. So hotel is "OH-tehl". Sometimes you'll hear Italians overcompensating when they speak English, saying "GHHHoh-tehl"!
- R is rolled (not quite as much as Spanish or Scottish, but not the same as American/English).
- Double consonants have a slight pause. So anno (year) is "ahn-noh" as two distinct syllables while ano (anus) is "ahnoh"...an important distinction when you ask someone Quanti anni ha? (How old are you?).
- advanced notes (you'll be understood if you use the English versions of these consonants):
- S occasionally sounds like a "z" (sonora or "voiced" S), for example when followed by voiced consonants (b, d, g, l, m, n, r, and v) and a few other exceptions like chiesa; TravelMarx has a comprehensive explanation
- Z sounds like the "z" in "pizza" ("ts" sound) most of the time, but also can also be the sonora ("voiced") version (closer to the end of the English word "lads") in words like zero. This is probably the most complicated consonant and even Italians don't always agree, so if you say "TS" when it should be "DS" or vice versa (or even the English Z sound) you'll probably be understood. Wikipedia and Duolingo forums have more examples/explanations.
- T and D are less "aspirated" (no "puff of air" from your mouth) and your tongue touches the teeth, not the upper palate (similar to T and D in Spanish)...this is very subtle so don't worry too much about this
Pronounce every vowel
In general, Italians pronounce every vowel in a word, so the word Euro (like the currency) is pronounced "eh-OO-roh".
Note that sometimes the vowels combine into "diphthongs" which sounds naughty, but it's just what naturally happens when you say the vowels really fast: Ciao could sound like "chee-ah-oh" but if you say it fast it comes out as "chow."
Fun with c/g + i/e
When you combine the consonants C or G with I or E, there are some weird results. In particular, CI, CHI, CE, and CHE are pronounced the opposite of English:
CHI = "kee"
CI = "chee"
CHE = "kay"
CE = "chay"
...so the Navy base at Capodichino is Cah-poh-dee-KEE-noh. The Italian drink cappuccino is cah-poo-CHEE-noh.
GI, GHI, GE, and GHE are also pronounced differently, but it comes more naturally to English speakers:
GHI = "ghee"
GI = "jee" (think Rudy Giuliani)
GHE = "gheh" (think spaghetti)
GE = "jeh" (like San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples and the first name of 1/2 of Neapolitan men)
Toungue twisting consonant combos
The following consonant combinations also look funny at first but aren't too hard to pronounce:
- GLI = like "ll" in million...like Gli Stati Uniti (the United States) [note: this is a little bit harder for most people to get; if you can't do it, just pronounce it like a "y" and you'll probably be understood]
- GN = like "ny" in canyon (or spanish ñ)...like gnocchi (potato dumplings)
- SCI = shee...so the famous Roman General Scipio is "SHEE-peeoh"
- SCE = sheh...so scemo ("idiot") is pronounced "SHEH-moh" (almost like "shame-o")
In general, the penultimate—the second to last—syllable is stressed. For example, arrivederci (goodbye) is "ah-ree-veh-DEHR-chee." However, there are two kinds of exceptions:
- parole tronche - these are words where the last syllable is emphasized. Usually they are written with an accent so you know to stress that syllable: città (city/town), caffè (coffee), così (like this/that), più (more), venerdì (Friday), perché (why)
- parole sdrucciole - these "slippery" words emphasize a syllable before the second-to-last one. Unfortunately, you have to memorize which ones these are. For example, the words facile (easy) and difficile (hard) both stress the ante-penultimate syllable: FAH-chee-leh and dee-FEE-chee-leh.
- some other common parole sdrucciole are numero, camera, subito, zucchero, automatico, telefono, polipo...
- words ending in "ola" or "olo" are often parole sdrucciole: fragola, regola, tavola, isola, miracolo, pericolo, spettacolo, veicolo...
- TravelMarx has a more comprehensive list/explanation