Complex Sounds

Italian complicated sounds
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Suoni impuri / complicati*

In Italian, consonants can be divided into pure and impure sounds (or simple and complex sounds).* While both types can occur anywhere in a word, they only really matter, grammatically speaking, at the beginning of masculine nouns.

Pure / Simple Sounds

Pure or simple consonant sounds are those that are pronounced distinctly, with a single sound. When they’re found at the beginning of masculine nouns, they call for the default definite, indefinite, and partitive articles:

Per esempio…

il sedano   celery
dei sandali   sandals

Impure / Complex Sounds

Letters and letter combinations with more than one sound are considered impure or complex, and require different masculine articles. This is the complete list:

  • gn
  • i + vowel
  • pn
  • ps
  • s + consonant (s impura / complicata)
  • x
  • y
  • z

If you like, you can just memorize this list and go about your day. Or if you’re curious, here’s more detail about the three groups these sounds can be divided into, and why they need special articles.

1) Two consonants

If the letter combinations gn, pn, ps, or s impura (sc, sf, sp, etc) were preceded by the normal articles, there would be three consonants in a row, which is just too difficult to pronounce.

Per esempio…

lo sformato   flan
degli spinaci   spinach

2) Two-sound consonants

The letters x and z are pronounced with a combination of two sounds, so need lo and dello for the same reason as above.

Per esempio…

lo xenofobo   xenophobe
dello zucchero   sugar

Coincidentally, x and z each hase two possible combinations of two sounds – an unvoiced (sorda) combination and a voiced (sonora) combination:

  unvoiced voiced
x [ks] [gz]
z [ts] [dz]

3) Semi-vowels (aka semi-consonants)

The letter i followed by a vowel and the letter y are semi-vowels, which are difficult to pronounce after the letter l. These words are uncommon.

lo iodio   iodine
lo yogurt   yogurt

  * There doesn’t seem to be an Italian term that encompasses all of these sounds. S + consonant is commonly referred to as s impura or s complicata, so I’ve taken the liberty of extending this terminology to cover the whole group. If you know of a better – official – term, please let me know!

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Suoni complicati