Comparison of Italian and Spanish
Pronunciation and Spelling
- The Italian alphabet officially only contains 21 letters.
If the letters j, k, w, x or y appear in a word, it is because
the word has been borrowed from a foreign language.
- The situation with Spanish is a bit more complicated. The current
official stance of the Real Academia Española is that there are 29
characters, with 'ch', 'll' and 'ñ' regarded as characters in their
own right. However, the Academia permits the rule to be relaxed for 'ch' and
'll' to make computerised sorting easier.
- Italian has seven vowel sounds and Spanish five. The vowels /a/, /i/ and
/u/ are pronounced very similarly. However, standard Italian has 'open' and
'closed' versions of both /e/ and /o/, whereas Spanish only has one version
of each. To me, the Spanish /e/ and /o/ sound similar to the closed Italian
- In both languages, the voiceless consonants /p/, /t/ and /k/
are less aspirated than in English. Also the /t/ is made by putting the
tongue against the upper teeth.
- The voiced consonants /b/, /d/ and /g/, on the other hand, differ.
The Italian versions are similar to English, although the voicing is more marked.
Spanish /b/ is indistinguishable from /v/ and is made using the lips.
When /d/ appears between vowels in Spanish, it becomes like the sound at the
beginning of the English word 'this'. When /g/ appears between vowels, it becomes
softer (technically, it becomes a fricative).
- Both Italian and Spanish have a sound which is similar, but not identical,
to the sound 'lli' in the English word 'million'. The Italian version is
written 'gl', as in consiglio, svegliarsi, and is always
followed by 'i'. The Spanish version is written as 'll', as in calle,
llamar, caballo, and may be followed by any vowel.
- Both Italian and Spanish also have a sound which is similar, but not
identical, to the sound 'ni' in the English word 'onion'.
The Italian version is written 'gn', as in spagnolo, bagno,
whereas the Spanish version is written as 'ñ', as in
- The letter 'h' is silent in both languages. However, it can change
the sound of adjacent letters, as explained below.
- Italian and Spanish follow English in that the letters 'c' and 'g' are
softened when followed by 'e' or 'i'. Unfortunately, the meaning of 'softened'
varies from one language to another. In Italian, the soft 'c' is like English
'ch', and 'g' behaves as in English. In Spanish, the soft 'c' is like the sound
at the beginning of the English word 'think' (in Spain), or `sink' (in
Latin America). The soft 'g' is like the Scottish 'ch'.
- Just as in English, this causes difficulties if you want a hard 'c' or 'g'
before 'e' or 'i'. To do this in Italian, you have to insert an 'h', as in
chi, righe, paghi. To do this in Spanish, you use
'qu' or 'gu', as in que, guerra.
- This leads to the confusing situation where the Italian words che,
quando and quanto mean exactly the same thing as the Spanish words
que, cuando and cuanto, and are pronounced in exactly the
same way, but are spelled differently!
- Alternatively, you may want a soft 'c' or 'g' before 'a', 'o' or 'u'.
To do this in Italian, you have to insert an 'i', as in ciao,
ciò, già, giù. To do this in Spanish,
you have to use 'z' and 'j', as in zapatos, zumo,
- In Italian, 'sc' is pronounced like the English 'sh' when before
'e' or 'i', as in sciare, capisce. If you want 'sc' to be
pronounced normally before 'e' or 'i', you again have to insert an 'h',
as in schifo, mosche.
- In Spanish, 'ch' is pronounced as in English. E.g. chocolate,
- In Italian, the letter 's' can be pronounced voiced or voiceless,
depending on the context. In Spanish, it is always voiceless.
- In Italian, the letter 'z' is pronounced as /ts/ or /dz/, again
depending on the context, whereas in Spanish it is pronounced
like the 'th' in 'think', as we have seen.
- Italian contains many, many words with doubled consonants, as in
gabbia, bocca, addio, baffi, leggo,
bello, gomma, anno, scoppiare, correre,
adesso, gatto, avverbio, azzurro.
When a consonant is doubled in this way, the sound is lengthened.
In Spanish, on the other hand, the only consonants which can be doubled
are 'l' (llamar) and 'r' (perro). The Spanish 'rr' is similar
to the Italian version, but 'll' is a sound in its own right as described
above. (It is also possible to have 'cc' in Spanish, as in acción,
but this is not a true doubling as the first 'c' is hard and the second is soft.)
- In Italian, the majority of words are stressed on the penultimate syllable,
as in cane, orologio, bella. However, there are many
exceptions. If the final syllable is stressed, it is indicated with an accent,
such as caffè, città, virtù.
If a different syllable is stressed, there is no indication and the word
must simply be learned, as in the case of parlano, abito,
possibile. Spanish on the other hand has very simple rules governing
stress. Words ending in a vowel, 'n' or 's' are normally stressed on the
penultimate syllable, as in casa, tienen, hombres. Words
ending in other letters are normally stressed on the last syllable, as in
ciudad, español. Any exceptions must be indicated by
an acute accent, as in árbol, andén.
- Accents are always acute in Spanish. In Italian, they are usually grave,
but occasionally an acute accent is used to indicate that a final /e/ is
closed, as in perché.
- The rules for capitalisation are quite similar in the two languages
(and quite different from English). The main difference is that titles
of persons (such as Signore/señor) and newspapers (such as
La Repubblica/El pais) are usually capitalised in Italian but not
in Spanish. Also, the Italian formal third person subject pronoun Lei
is capitalised in Italian, but the corresponding Spanish pronoun
usted is not.
- On the whole I would say that Spanish spelling is slightly easier to
master than Italian, but both systems are a lot simpler than English!
Created October 2006 by Adam N. Letchford.