Just like the umlaut (those two dots over some vowels) in German and the tilde (the squiggly line over the letter n) in Spanish, Italian has a couple of letter markings that don’t exist in English, namely accents. Though tiny in size, these markings pack a punch as far as pronunciation—and, at times, meaning—so don’t underestimate their importance.
Luckily for the language learner, the use of accent marks is pretty straightforward, so they’re not as hard as you may think to master. Read on to learn more about the grave and acute accents and how to use them correctly.
Using Italian Accent Marks
Accent marks are used to guide the reader in the pronunciation of various words, indicating which syllable of the word should be stressed or how a certain vowel should be read. In the best case scenario, ignoring an accent can lead you to mispronounce a word. In the worst case, overlooking an accent can change the meaning of what you’re trying to say, as these tiny marks are often used to differentiate words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently.
Many Romance languages use accents over both vowels and consonants, but in Italian, accent marks are only used above vowels. Of course, in this largely phonetic language, vowels are a basic building block and finish off the vast majority of words, so the use of accents only with the letters a, e, i, o, and u doesn’t diminish their vital role.
Here are the main ways in which accent marks are used in Italian:
- to indicate the word ends in a stressed vowel
- to signal a long or short vowel sound
- to differentiate two words that are spelled the same
- to indicate the stressed syllable in a word
- to identify the stressed vowel in a single-syllable word that ends in two vowels, with the exception of “qui” and “qua” (here)
Though accents are sometimes omitted because a reader can deduce the meaning of the word from the context, you should know how to use them in your own writing and recognize their use when reading Italian. Here is a more in-depth explanation of the two main types of accent marks and some practical examples to get you started:
Grave Accent ( ` )
The most common accent marks in Italian is the “accento grave”, or grave accent. This tiny mark begins in the upper left corner and runs diagonally down to the right. It often hovers above a vowel and the end of a word and indicates that vowel should be pronounced with a short sound: “eh” for the letter e and “ah” for the letter a.
This accent mark distinguishes one of the most common words in Italian: “è” (is, the first person singular conjunction of “essere” or to be). Not only does the accent indicate that the word should be pronounced with the short “eh” sound, but it also differentiates it from an equally common word: “e” (and), pronounced with a longer “ahy” sound. Other similar examples include “sì” (yes) and “si” (itself, herself, himself) and “dà” (give) and “da” (from).
The grave accent is also used in words of more than one syllable to place the stress on the final vowel—like in “caffè” (coffee), “città” (city), “falò” (bonfire), or “tivù” (tv)—and in monosyllabic words made up of a consonant + i or u + vowel—like in “ciò” (this, that), “già” (yet, already), “giù” (down), “più” (more), and “può” (s/he can).
Acute Accent ( ´ )
Less common than the grave accent, the “accento acuto”, or acute accent, is only used above the letter e. This mark begins in the lower left corner and runs diagonally up to the right.
Where the grave accent is used in a few different ways, the acute accent is only primarily as a pronunciation marker, signaling a long or open vowel sound most often in compound words ending in -ché like “perché” (why, because), “giacché” (since), and “benché” (despite). Other odd words with the acute accent include numbers ending in tre (three) like “ventitré” (twenty-three) and certain forms of the remote past tense (passato remoto).
There are a few limited cases in which the acute accent is used to distinguish different meanings and pronunciations between two monosyllabic words that are spelled the same, as in the case of “né” (neither, nor) and “ne” (of it, from there) and “sé” (oneself) and “se” (if). The pronunciation vaires only slightly, but the meaning is very different.
Apostrophe ( ‘ )
Not to be confused with an accent mark, the apostrophe is also sometimes used at the end of a monosyllabic word ending in a vowel. This doesn’t change the pronunciation but instead signals the abbreviation of a longer word, so it used to clarify the meaning. A very common example of this is “po’”, short for “poco” (a little). Other examples you may run across are “da’”, short for “dai”, “fa’”, short for “fai”, and “sta’”, short for “stai”. There are the imperative forms of give, do, and be/stay in the second person singular.