Italian Language: A Matter of Stress
- WTI Magazine #94 Aug 19, 2017
As if Italian wasn’t hard enough with all its spelling rules and doubles, there are some additional little tidbits that complicate the issue. This is the case of the accento, the accent, or maybe a better word for it is “the stress” of the word. First of all, we must say that all words in Italian have an accent. Now, the Italian readers would say: “What are you talking about?!?” But yes, all Italian words have one, we just simply do not write it.
Otherwise how would you know that leggere – to read – is different from leggere – light in weight – right? The thing is that every word has a tonic stress, that helps knowing how to pronounce a word, but only a few words have a graphic stress, The accent, the one that you would actually write.
As a general rule in Italian, if the stress of the word is on the final letter, and if this final letter happens to be a vowel; well, you need an accent. This is the case of città – city,– caffè – coffee,– tabù – taboo,– velocità – speed,– povertà – poverty,– and so on. The word “citta” on its own means nothing, and the lack of accent, in this case, would confuse Italians so much that it will prevent them to immediately recognize the word. What if the word doesn’t end with an accent? How do I know where the stress goes? Well, here we get into some complicated rules, but just for you, here’s the trick: when you don’t know where the stress goes, put it on the second to last syllable. For instance, cavallo – horse – is made up by three syllables, right? Ca-val-lo. So the stress goes on “val,” the second to last. The same goes for calendario – calendar. Ca-len-da-rio. The stress is on “da.” The grammar rules are many and somewhat confusing. When in doubt, this is your best bet.
There are certain monosyllabic words though, that are words made up of only one syllable, that desperately need the graphic accent to distinguish themselves. For example, sì – affirmative yes – and si – pronoun or musical note – or da and di – preposition “from” and “of” – and dà and dì – imperative of “dare” and “dire” – or la and li – feminine article and pronoun – and là and lì – adverbs used to indicate places. The same works for che – equivalent of the English “that” – and ché – short for perchè, “why/because.”
Then there are all the words that completely change their meaning when the graphic accento is written and when it’s not. Maybe the most common example, and most mispronounced too, is papa and papà, the first meaning “pope” and the latter “dad.” A big difference! Or pero and però, relatively “pear tree” and “but;” meta and metà, “destination” and “half.” So you understand that if you say something like “La meta del treno” as in destination or “La metà del treno” as in half, you are saying two completely different things.
But then we have the same problem seen as leggere, how do I read it or understand which one you mean? According to the trick you should read it as leggére, with the stress on the second to the last syllable, but this is valid only for 50% of the times. The word leggere in fact can be read in two different ways: as leggère as we established already, meaning “light in weight,” or as léggere meaning “to read.” In Italian there are a few words like this one, for example, principi can be read as princìpi, meaning “beginnings/strarts,” or prìncipi, meaning “princes;” same with nocciolo, as in nocciòlo, “hazel” or in nòcciolo, “fruit pit/core.” But many more examples are found when looking at the conjugation of verbs as well. Like, legami: legami is both legàmi means “bonds,” while lègami means “tie me up.”Predico can be read as predìco means “I forsee” but prèdico means “I preach,” and rubino like rubìno, which means “ruby”, and rùbino, which means “they steal,” slightly less classy than the stone.
Clearly, stresses are a big fish to fry, but don’t stress too much! Even Italians get confused sometimes!