This document contains information and tips on learning the Italian language for English speakers. These are notes that I have constructed for myself and therefore they contain associations to American English. This is not a complete guide, but I’ve discovered that if one can learn a few basics components of the Italian language, one can converse in simple ways with native Italians. These basic components include the alphabet, pronunciation, personal pronouns, interrogative and demonstrative pronouns, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. Additionally, learning verb conjugation patterns is necessary to learn Italian. With regards to nouns, knowing commonly used ones like numbers, days of the week, months, and colors is useful. For all other nouns, one should obtain a good, portable dictionary. I recommend Langenscheidt Pocket Dictionary Italian.
Verb conjugation for most verbs follow just a few regular patterns. So, once you know pronunciation and the verb conjugation patterns, have learned the pronouns and articles and a minimal vocabulary, you can stumble your way through Italy speaking Italian. You will initially be speaking a less than graceful Italian, but you will be understood and Italians are generally patient and appreciate your interest in trying to learn their language.
The Italian alphabet contains most of the letters of the English alphabet and no others. The table below contains a list of the letters native to Italian along with how they are said by Italians. These names for the letters are written with Italian letters and therefore the pronunciation of them.
Notice that the letters j, k, w, x, and y are not part of the Italian alphabet (some disagree on this point). Eventually, these foreign letters may be accepted by everyone as a permanent part of the Italian alphabet. Although they're not officially part of it, they are used for foreign words like jazz and kayak. Foreign words are usually not respelled to use only Italian letters, nor are vowels added to the ends. Also, they rarely are modified to suit Italian pronunciation and they are by default masculine nouns (e.g., il computer).
The nice aspect of Italian is that pronunciation is very uniform. Certain letter combinations call for different pronunciations, or form a single sound. Only the letter ‘h’ is silent. Otherwise, all letters are pronounced and always pronounced the same.
Unlike English in which each vowel is pronounced multiple ways, vowels are pronounced only one way in Italian. The only exceptions are the different ways of pronouncing the letters e and i based on region and other personal factors of the speaker. Even for these exceptions, the accented pronunciation is consistent. The only non-speaker exception is the pronunciation of the letter i. It’s sometimes pronounced like the letter y in the English word yes. This only occurs in a few words like ieri (yesterday); it’s pronounced yer-ee. Otherwise, the pronunciation of Italian vowels are pretty straightforward and similar to at least one common pronunciation of their counter parts in English. One exception to this comparison is the letter i: it’s pronounced like a hard e in English. Below are the vowels with a simple pronunciation of each sound using English letters, and an English word illustrating a close equivalent.
The consonants are pronounced either the same or close to the same as they are in English. There are some significant exceptions: The r is rolled like a Scottish pronunciation of the same letter. The h is always silent, but it influences the pronunciation of the letter that precedes it in a word. In some regions of Italy the z is pronounced similar to the English ts pairing or the German z. In most regions, though, it’s the same as an English z. The s and the g are pronounced differently based on the letters that are in immediate proximity to them. These patterns and their pronunciations are shown below.
|Combination||Subsequent Letters||English Equivalents||Example in English|
|ch||e or i||k sound||cat|
|c||e or i||ch sound||church|
|ci||a, o, or u||ch sound||church|
|s||between two vowels||z sound||s|
|sc||a, o, or u||sk sound||sky|
|sch||e or i||sk sound||sky|
|sc||e or i||sh sound||show|
|sci||a, o, or u||sh sound||show|
|gh||e or i||g sound||good|
|g||e or i||j sound||jump|
|gi||a, o, or u||j sound||jump|
|» gli «||unique sound||million + machine|
Notice that in these patterns that if a combination is given in the first column, it is totally replaced with the sound suggested in the third column. For example, the name Giovanni (John) is often mispronounced as 'Gee-o-van-nee' by Americans. Instead, it should be pronounced, 'Jo-van-nee'. The gi becomes the j sound only, not jee.
With regards to pronouncing words, unless a word is written with an accent mark on the last syllable, the second to last syllable is almost always accented. For example, the word for girl in Italian is ragazza, pronounced ra-GAZ-za. The word for why is perché, pronounced per-KAY. When a word contains a double consonant (e.g., penna) both letters are pronounced. Quite often in such cases, there is another word spelled the same, but only contains one of the consonant and with a different way. For example, penna is the word for pen. Pena is the work for pain. To understand how slight pronunciation shifts can handle a difference, imagine a Japanese person saying pain when he means to say pen. It's easy to confuse the pronunciations.
A noun is a word representing a person, animal, place, thing, event, concept, emotion, or state. Names of people and places beginning with a capital letter are called proper names. All other nouns are called common nouns. A noun can have a gender (male or female), a number (single or plural), and a function in a sentence (e.g., subject or object). In Italian, unlike English or German, there is not a neutral form--no pronoun it.
While in English we only have the articles the and a (with only one modification), in Italian these two types of articles are modified based the gender and quantity of the noun with which they're associated. And like a being changed to an based on whether the noun with which its associated starts with a vowel or vowel sound, so are all Italian articles are modified.
Generally, you can guess at whether a noun is masculine or feminine based on its last letter: nouns ending in the letter o are usually masculine; those ending in a are typically feminine. But, this isn't always correct (e.g., la foto is feminine). Plus, some nouns don't end in a vowel and many end in e, which can be masculine or feminine. To be sure, you have to use a dictionary. It's safe to guess in the beginning with a good degree of accuracy and then memorize the gender of each in time.
|Singular||Plural||noun begins with...|
|lo||gli||z, s + cons., ps|
|Singular||Plural||noun begins with...||la||le||consonant||l'||le||vowel|
|uno||z, s + cons., ps|
Pronouns are words used to substitue nouns.
Personal pronouns (e.g., you, he) are basic to any conversation. Their form changes depending on whether they are the subject of a sentence (e.g., I) or the object (e.g., me). The personal pronouns are listed below and grouped by case.
A pronoun is written or said in the subjective form if it is the subject of a sentence. In the example that follows, the first person singular pronoun (e.g., I) is in the subjective form: I slept late. The table below shows the form of each personal pronoun. In Italian, there isn't a neuter pronoun, the word it. All words have a gender. There is, however, a formal version of you: it's Loro and it's the only personal pronoun spelled with a capital letter--the first person pronoun isn't spelled with a capital letter as in English. Loro is somewhat the equivalent of Sir and Madam (of course, those are basically titles and not pronouns), but it's not gender specific except that the gender of the person being discussed will affect the gender form of other words in a given sentence. Don't confuse Loro with the word for they--that's loro with all lower-case letters. It's pronounced the same, but has a different meaning and effects the form of other words in a given sentence differently. Incidentally, to distinguish the formal you in this document, I show it as You, capitalized.
|lui/lei, Loro||he, she||loro, Lei||they|
A noun which is a direct object is one that receives the action indicated in the verb directly. You can tell if a noun or pronoun is a direct object if there is not a preposition between the verb and noun. The noun must also be able to answer a question of what or who. For example, the following sentence contains a first person pronoun (i.e., me) in which it is the direct object: 'David gave me the book.' So, to whom was the book given? David; David is the direct object.
For the objective case, the formal plural version of the third person pronoun has been eliminated. Instead, the informal forms are used.
|mi||to me||ci||to us|
|ti||to you||vi||to y'all|
|gli/le, Le||to him/to her||loro||to them|
An individual object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb inderectly. Typically, it is preceded by the preposition to or for. For example, the following sentence contains a first person pronoun (i.e., me) in which it is the indirect object: 'David gave the book to me.' Applying this table, the example above translates to 'David dato il libro a mi.'
A reflexive personal pronoun is objective case pronoun which refers to the same person represented as the subject, as well. For instance, in the sentence 'I hurt myself', the person represented by the pronoun I (the subject) is the same person represented by the pronoun myself (the object). If instead of myself, me was used, it would still be the objective case. But, in the form myself it is the reflexive.
In italian, the reflexive pronoun is usually placed immediately before the verb. For example, to say I love you, you would say [Io] ti amo. Notice the Io (or I) is optional and usually only used for emphasis. Also, the verb amore (to love) is conjugate for the subject (i.e., Io) not the object (ti). A word-for-word translation would be I you love. Below are the various reflexive personal pronouns and their English equivalent.
|si, Si||himself/herself||si, Si||themselves|
Don't confuse si with sí. The former is the word for himelf; the latter is for yes in Italian. Unlike English, in Italian the reflexive pronoun is required. For instance, I washed is the same as I washed myself. The reflexive pronoun myself is assumed.
A possessive pronoun replaces a pronoun and indicates who possesses the noun it replaces. For instance, instead of saying This is my drink, you can say, This is mine. In this example, mine is a pronoun for drink and makes the possessive adjective my unnecessary. In Italian, the possessive pronoun must agree in gender and number with its antecedent, with the pronoun it replaces.
A demonstrative pronoun is used to replace a noun which was just mentioned in the current sentence or the one before it. In Italian, you would use the masculine or the feminine form depending on the noun that they are replacing, or if they acting as a demonstrative adjective, the noun they are describing. For example, Quele libri hai comprato? Comprato questi. (Which books did you buy? I bought these.) The follow is an example showing a demonostrative adjective: Quele libri hai comprato? Comprato solo questo. (Which books did you buy? I bought only this one.) Notice that the response is singular in this case since it represents the one to which the speaker is pointing.
|this||these||questo||questa||questi||» queste «|
|that||those||quello, quel||quella||» quegli, quei «||quelle|
An interrogative pronoun is used to replace a noun and to ask a question in so doing. These are important pronouns to learn, of course, for getting around Italy.
When constructing a sentence with the words come, dove, or quale followed by é (i.e., is), you drop the letter e of the interrogative prounoun, and in all but quale you replace it with an apostrophe. For example, to say, Where is the train?, you would say or write, Dov' é il treno?
A possessive adjective is used to indicate who possesses or owns the noun it modifies. In Italian, which adjective to use differs depending on the gender and number of the noun, not the possessor.
The table below is a matrix requiring four factors for determining which possessive adjective to use. First, you would determine which person possesses (i.e., first, second, or third) and whether the person possessing is singular or plural. This will narrow the choices down to four possibilities. From the four associated with the person that possessess, you would then determine whether the noun representing the things possessed is singular or plural. The choices are then reduced to two (masculine/feminine). Finally, you look to the noun (not the pronoun) to see if it's masculine or feminine--the first choice of each pair below is the masculine, the second is the feminine.
|il mio/la mia||i miei/le mie||il nostro/la nostra||i nostri/le nostre|
|il tuo/la tua||i tuoi/le tue||il vostro/le vostra||i vostri/le vostre|
|il suo/la sua||i suoi/le sue||il loro/la loro||i loro/le lore|
|il Suo/la Sua||i Suoi/le Sue||il Loro/la Loro||i Loro/le Lore|
To say her book, you would use il suo libro because it's a third person singular pronoun possessing a singular masculine noun, even though the book belongs to a female. To say, her pens (pen is la penna), you would say le sue penne. Notice that unlike English the article is almost always used and it precedes the possessive pronoun.
Conjunctions are words that connect two phrases or clauses together. The form of a conjunction doesn't change in Italian--it isn't modified for gender or quantity.
|ma, peró||but, however|
|davanti a||in front of|
|vicino a||close to|
|lontano da||far from|
Verbs are words indicating action (e.g, work, read). The base or infinitive form of a verb in English is immediately preceded by the word to (e.g., to work, to read). In Italian, the infinitive form is one word: a stem with a suffix (lavorare, leggere). Latin is the same way. Because English is significantly based on Latin, to insert a word between the to and the verb is disconcerting. For example, the phrase to slowly read in English is just as wrong as legg-lentamente-ere in Italian. It's just more evident to an untrained eye and ear. This is known as splitting the infinitive.
In an Italian dictionary, verbs are given in the infinitive form (e.g., to sing). You then can to conjugate the verb for a particular noun or pronoun with which it's to be used. For instance, in English the verb to have for third person masculine singular pronoun (i.e., he) would be conjugated to has. Regular Italian verbs in the infinitive form end in three forms: -are, -ere, and -ire. These endings are dropped when conjugated and replaced with a different ending depending on the personal pronoun. Since the conjugation of the verbs are almost always different for each personal pronoun, the personal pronouns are usually not spoken, particularly at the start of a sentence. For example, instead of saying I am from the United States, you would say, Am from United States. The I is understood and assumed. If you want to be emphatic, though, you would say the I. In the beginning, you may find it easier to use the personal pronouns, but eventually you should to stop using them since Italian listeners will think you're being emphatic and pushy in your manner of speaking.
The present tense is used to indicate an action occuring now. This can not only include a simple action (e.g., I hear the baby), but also a continuous action (e.g., He cries when he's hungry), or a truth (e.g., Babies usually cry when they're hungry). In English, the present tense can be labeled in three ways, the simple present (e.g., reads), the present progressive (e.g., is reading), and the present emphatic (e.g., does read). In Italian, all three of these forms of the present tense can be handled by il presente dell'indicativo tense (legge). There is an equivalent to the English present progressive tense in Italian, but it's slightly different.
Below are examples of each of the three regular verb forms.
|cantare = to sing|
|canto = I sing||cantiamo = we sing|
|canti = you sing||cantate = y'all sing|
|canta = he/she, You sings||cantano = they, You sing|
All of the verb conjugation examples that follow are displayed in the same order in relation to the personal pronouns and case. Therefore, I've left out the English translations and you will have to deduce which form is for which personal pronoun.
|leggere = to read|
This verb ending has two conjugation patterns. The first one below is the most common pattern. The second one is used for some verbs ending in -ire. These are still considered regular verbs. You will have to memorize which use this pattern. Fortunatley, there aren't many that do.
|dormire = to sleep|
|» finire « = to finish|
There are a few verbs that do not follow regular patterns. These are called irregular verbs. This occurs in English with the verb to be, which is modified to am, are, is, depending on the personal pronoun. These conjugations must be memorized. You can avoid most of these verbs in the beginning, but some are critical verbs to basic conversation. Below is a list of necessary ones. You may notice that the plural forms of an irregular verb are similar to the regular patterns, but you can't always count on that. The Verbix web site is a good on-line resource for verb conjugation. On that site you will see the conjugation of verbs for more tenses and cases than I've included here.
|essere = to be|
|sono = I am||siamo = we are|
|sei = you are||siete = y'all are|
|é = he/she, Lei is||sono = they are|
|avere = to have|
Remember, the h is not pronounced in Italian. So to say I have at the start of a sentence in Italian, you would say just 'O', which is the same as the word for or.
|andare = to go|
|» fare « = to make, to do|
The verb fare is basically the Italian equivalent of to do in English, although it has many other meanings. Be aware, you cannot replace do with a forms of fare. If you think about do, it's kind of a filler word and odd. Fare is like this. For example, to say, 'I shave every morning,' you would say, 'Ogni mattina mi faccio la barba.' That literally translates to 'Every morning me do the beard.'
|dare = to give|
The simple past tense is used to describe an action in the past. For instance, I eat in English is changed to I ate. The verb eat and ate are the same words, but of a different tense. In Italian, the auxiliary verbs essere (to be) and avere (to have) are used immediately before the past participle of the main verb (e.g., I have eaten). The past participle is conjugated fairly simply, regardless of the personal pronoun to which it relates. There are three patterns based on the verb suffix:
|Infinitive suffix||Simple Past Suffix|
The passato prossimo actually handles three tenses in English: the simple past, present perfect, and past emphatic. For example, I ate, I have eaten, and I did eat. All three of these examples can be said one way in Italian: Ho mangiato.
|cantare||Ho cantato.||I [have] sung. or I say|
|ottenere||Hanno ottenuto||They [have] got.|
|dormire||Abbiamo dormito.||We [have] slept.|
Again, the personal pronoun is typically not included and the past participle is the same for all personal pronouns. Which personal pronoun is assumed based on the conjugation of the auxiliary verbs (i.e., essere and avere). As a result, this tense is easy to learn once you know these three patterns and have memorized the conjugation of the two auxillary verbs. Knowing which auxillary verb to use, though, requires memorization.
|Intransitive Verbs||Usually avere|
A transitive verb is a verb that takes the direct object. An intransitive verb does not. Since most intransivie verbs use the auxiliary verb avere, when you don't have a dictionary handy and are in doubt, use avere. The table below contains a list of common verbs which use the auxiliary verb essere when conjugated for the passato prossimo tense. When essere is used, the final letter of the main verb is altered for the gender and quantity of the subject.
|andare||to go||venire||to come|
|arrivare||to arrive||partire||to leave|
|entrare||to enter||uscire||to exit|
|morire||to die||nascere||to be born|
|essere||to be||pacere||to seem|
|avvenire||to happen||piacere||to like|
|dipendere||to depend||restare||to remain|
|dispiacere||to be sorry||riuscire||to succeed|
|diventare||to become||stare||to stay, to feel|
L'imperfetto dell'indicativo is for indicating an action in the past, but with no reference to its completion (e.g., I was reading during lunch). In English, you would change the verb to a gerund (e.g., read becomes reading) or a progressive tense of the verb, and provide an auxiliary verb (e.g., was is added) with it. In Italian, it's simpler. The personal pronoun is usually dropped and there is no auxilary verb required, but there is a verb pattern for each verb suffix and each is modified based on the personal pronoun and number. The tables below show the patterns for each suffix:
|-are Verb Suffix|
|-ere Verb Suffix|
|-ire Verb Suffix|
The examples below apply the tables above:
|dormire||dormivo||I was sleeping...|
|arrivare||arrivano||They were arriving...|
|prendere||prendevi||You were taking...|
In English, to indicate the future tense of a verb, the dictionary form of the verb is preceded with the auxiliary verb will or shall (e.g., I shall tell him.). Note, shall is only used with the first person pronouns, singular and plural, and in the U.S. only when speaking formally, elegantly, or perhaps more emphatically. In the U.S., the verb to be with the gerund going can be used with the infinitive form of the main verb to indicate future tense, as well (e.g., I am going to tell him.).
In Italian, though, an auxiliary verb isn't used. Instead the suffix of the infinitive form of the verb is changed; there is a different ending for each personal pronoun. Below are the two regular patterns employed, based on the three infinitive verb suffixes:
|-are and -ere Verb Suffixes|
|-ire Verb Suffix|
These patterns are fairly strictly followed. However, for some verbs, adjustments will need to be made to the root of the verb. Verb roots which end with the letters c or g will require an h be inserted between the root and the new suffix to maintain the same hard sounds. For example, the verb cercare (to search) when conjugated for the first person singular pronoun is not cercerò, but cercherò. Without the addition of the letter h, the verb would be pronounced, chair-chair-Oh. This is confusing since the present simple tense form of the verb is cerco, which is pronounced chair-ko. By adding the h before the -erò ending (since che is prounounced kay), the verb (cercherò) is then pronounced chair-kare-Oh.
This same intrusion of an h is required for when the new suffix will follow a g. For example, pagare (to pay) changed to future tense first person singular became pagherò. without the h added the g would be pronounced as j. Instead, gh is prnounced j as in all of conjugations of the verb. If these parameter changes aren't clear, you may want to reread the pronunciation section at the beginning of this document.
Another pattern exception for pronunciation requires the elimination of a letter. If the infinitive form of a verb ends in -ciare or -giare, the letter i is eliminated when the verb is conjugated for the simple future tense. This is done because it's no longer needed to attain the respective ch or j sound. So for the simple future tense the verb mangiare (for the first person singular), instead of mangierò (i.e., man-j-er-Oh), it's mangerò (i.e., man-jer-Oh). You see, the gi combination is the same as ge, so the i is no longer need to form the j sound before the suffix. If it's not removed, you would get a confusing result and an additional sylable.
The same patterns used for the simple future tense are also used to indicate probability or opinion in the present tense, without giving a qualifier. For example, to say, It will probably snow tomorrow in Italian, you would simply say, Sarà evicherà domani.I am not sure when you use essere and when avere. I suspect the same logic for deciding which auxiliary verb to use with simple past tense applies, but I don't know.
The future perfect tense is used to indicate an action that will be completed in the future. This is not necessarily an action that will simply occur in the future, but will reach a finsihed and past status at that time. It is also another compound tense using either the verb essere or avere. In English, a future perfect tense form of a verb includes the personal pronoun followed by the auxiliary verbs will (or shall) and to have follow by the past participle of the main verb (e.g., He will have left by then). Again, notice that will have suggests in the future the past view of to leave (i.e., left) will be achieved. In Italian, the future perfect tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb avere or essere conjugated for the future immediately followed by the past participle of the main verb (e.g., Sarà andato per allora) Below are the future conjugations of the auxiliary verb avere or essere.
|Future Tense of avere|
|Future Tense of essere|
What follows are some common nouns that are used often in conversations. This list is not complete and doesn't replace a dictionary, obviously. However, for basic Italian knowledge, you should know all of these.
Below are the numbers for zero through twenty-nine.
Below are the numbers from ten to one hundred, counting by ten. For each set of ten, the pattern is the same as twenty through twenty-nine (e.g., sixty-nine is sessantanove. At the end of the list are the words for one thousand and one million.
Below is a list of basic colors.
Below is a list of the seasons of the year. The names of seasons aren't capitalized unless they're at the beginning of a sentence.
Below is a list of the months of the year. The names of months aren't capitalized either.
Next is a listing of the days of the week with Monday first. Again, they're not capitalized as in English
lunedí, martedí, mercoledí, giovedí,
venerdí, sabato, domenica
For additional or more detailed study of Italian, I would recommend Marcel Danesi's Italian Grammar pocket guide. If English is your native language, but you don't feel you have a strong understanding of English to be able to study Italian, I recommend the book, English Grammar for Students of Italian.