A complete guide to mastery of Italian vowels & diphthongs


Tinamaria Colaizzi

Italian is considered to be one of the most beautiful languages in the world, but finding your way around its mix of vowels and sounds can get a bit complicated.

If you’re struggling with understanding Italian pronunciation, along with the different diphthongs and vowel sounds in Italian, don’t panic!

In this article, we’ve prepared a step-by-step guide on mastering Italian vowels and diphthongs with handy pronunciation guides and examples along the way. There’s also a fun exercise waiting for you at the end!

Plus, mastering Italian alphabet pronunciation is an effective way of learning Italian since it helps us become acquainted with new, unfamiliar sounds and tones. And learning how to pronounce vowels in Italian and understand Italian diphthongs is a step in the right direction. So, andiamo!

Women learning how to pronounce the five Italian vowels and diphthongs.

What are vowels?

The five Italian vowels are just like the vowels in English: a, e, i, o, u. Simple, right? Well, kind of.

While the Italian language has five vowels, there are technically seven sounds. That’s because the vowels e and o can have both open and closed sounds.

How to pronounce the Italian vowels

Our table below contains some helpful hints on pronouncing the seven Italian vowel sounds. As an English speaker, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that e and i are different from the English pronunciations.

The vowel e sounds like eh, whereas the vowel i sounds like ee. So, the next time you order a plate of fettuccine, it should sound like fet-too-chee-neh and not fet-too-chee-nee!

There are also open and closed sounds with the e and o vowels. Keep in mind that the difference between these sounds can be subtle. The closed sounds might be a bit more difficult to get used to, since they don’t appear as often as open sounds in the English language. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear or feel the difference right away.

Remember: practice makes perfect, and there’s a fun activity towards the end of the article that can help you differentiate between the sounds (or at the very least, laugh!).

Young boy learns how to pronounce the Italian vowels while eating Italian food.

LetterIPASounds like in EnglishExample wordsExample words translation
Aaah (like the “a” sound in “father”)amare, ascoltare, antica, antipaticato love, to listen, antique, unfriendly
E (open)εeh (like the “e” in “bet”)bene, leggi, testa, zerogood, you read, head, zero
E (closed)eeh (like the “ai” in “hair”)menta, rete, sera, velamint, net/network, evening, sail
Iiee (like the “ee” in “steep”)Italia, amici, isola, interoItaly, friends, island, whole
O (open)ɔo / aw (like the “o” in “hot”)poco, cosa, storia, brodoa bit, thing/what, history/story, broth/soup
O (closed)ooh (similar to the “o” in “go”)sono, sopra, forno, scontoI am, above, oven, discount
Uuoo (like the “oo” in “stoop”, or the “u” in “dude”)uno, unico, punto, urlareone, unique, point, to scream

For the most part, Italian vowels can be pretty straightforward. Now that you’ve seen the pronunciation hints for the vowels, let’s take a look at some words that contain all five vowels!

documentari : doc-oo-men-tah-ree

(English translation: documentaries)

portrastrumenti : por-trah-stroo-men-tee

(English translation: instrument holder)

contrappuntiste: con-trah-poon-tees-teh

(English translation: contrapointists)

Okay, the last two words might not be that common in everyday language, but they’re great tools to pronounce all five vowels. Plus, they’re pretty long words, and they’re just fun to say!

Now that we’ve understood Italian vowels and their sounds, let’s look at even more sounds they can make when combined!

Italian diphthongs

If you’re scratching your head over what a diphthong is (or how to pronounce it), fear not. Basically, it’s a fancy way of describing adjacent combinations of two vowels within the same syllable. The possibilities in Italian are (almost) endless:

ia - ie - io - iu - ua - ue - uo - ui - ai - au - ei - eu - oi

The coupling and the positioning of the two vowels have a big impact on how they are pronounced. And they’re very common in Italian!

You might also hear diphthongs described as “gliding vowels”, which can be a helpful way to think about them. Imagine the two vowels on a romantic first date as they glide across an ice skating rink, hand in hand, effortlessly melting into one another. Before this example gets too cheesy and romantic, just keep in mind that the first vowel immediately glides into the next vowel, creating a new sound.

There are two categories of Italian diphthongs - ascending and descending - and these classifications depend on “strong” vowels and “weak” vowels. Typically, weak vowels will change their sound when the diphthong is pronounced.

The vowels I and U are considered to be weak vowels, because their sounds change when followed by another vowel in a diphthong. So, for instance:

-The word chiodo (nail) contains the diphthong io. You might recognize these vowels as the Italian word “io” (I in English, like “I am”), and you may even recognize the word “chi” (meaning who in English). But the io diphthong sounds like “yo”, so it makes a completely different sound to the words “io” and “chi”. Why? Remember: diphthongs are part of the same syllable and can’t be separated!

So, instead of being pronounced as “key-oh-doe”, it would be “kyo-doe” since the io diphthong makes a “yo” sound. This is just one reason why learning Italian diphthongs is important. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. We’ve separated and explained everything in our two tables below. Let’s check them out!

Italian diphthongs: Ascending

If an Italian diphthong is “ascending”, that means that the “weak” vowel (i or u) comes first in the pairing. Take a look at these examples and practice saying them out loud!

Vowel diphthongsIPASounds like in EnglishExample WordsExample words translation
iaˈiaLike "ya" in "yard"piano, triangolo, spiare, chiavepiano, triangle, to spy, key
ieˈieLike “ye” in “yeah”cielo, dieci, piede, tienisky, ten, foot, you hold/keep
ioˈioLike “yo” in “yo-yo”chiodo, piove, coniglio, figlionail, rain, rabbit, son
iujuLike “you”Giugno, piume, fiume, chiusoJune, feather, river, closed
uawaLike “wa” in “water”guardo, guanto, quale, ugualeI look, glove, which, equal
ueweLike “oo” in “gooey” + “eh” = “oo-eh”bue, quello, questo, dueox, that, this, two
uowoLike “wo” in “woah”scuola, uovo, cuoca, fuocoschool, egg, chef (female), fire
uiwiLike “ooey” in “gooey”cui, lui, quinto, quiwhich, he, fifth, here

Italian diphthongs: Descending

Descending diphthongs contain the strong vowel first, followed by the weak vowel. Try them out!

Vowel diphthongsIPASounds like in EnglishExamplesExample words translation
aiˈai̯Like “eye” or “I”mai, sai, zaino, assainever, you know, backpack, very much
auau̯Like “ow”pausa, paura, baule, aumentopause/a break, fear, trunk of a car, an increase
eiˈei̯Like “ay” in “hay”sei, bei, farei, andreiyou are, nice (plural), I would do (something), I would go (somewhere)
eueu̯Like “eh” + “oo”Europa, Europeo, pneumatico, neutroEurope, European, tire, neutral,
oiˈɔi̯Like “oy” in “Ahoy!”poi, noi, voi, tuoithen/later, we, you (plural), yours

All about accent marks

Our final point to cover about vowels is all about accent marks that come at the final vowel of some words. In Italian, accent marks are only used with vowels. You may have already noticed these in common words like:

perché and venerdì (why and Friday in English)

Do you notice anything about the accents on these two words? They’re facing different directions! The accent on perché (an upwards stroke) is an acute accent, which makes an “open” sound. Acute accents only occur on the vowel e. The accent on venerdì (a downwards stroke) is a grave accent, which makes a “closed” sound.

Accent marks can be helpful when learning Italian, because they can guide you on where to place the stress when you speak. You’ll also see accent marks on some conjugations (like when using the remote past and future) as well as most days of the week (excluding the weekend!).

à - città (city)

è - lo è (it is)

é - perché (why)

ì - venerdì (Friday)

ò - può (he/she can)

ù - giù (down)

It’s also possible to think about accent marks within a word (not just at the end), but this linguistic topic can get a bit complicated and would also lead us into a journey of regional dialects. That’s for another article! For now, work on mastering the open or closed endings as well as the vowel sounds. In fact, we have a fun way for you to do that in our next section!

Fun pronunciation exercises

In Italian, the word “tongue-twister” is translated as scioglilingua -- try saying that five times fast! The verb “sciogliere” means “to melt”, so you can think of this as a “tongue melter”, or a great way to loosen up your mouth to Italian vowels and diphthongs!

Scioglilingue can also help with your fluency, and at the very least, give you a nice laugh. We’ve separated them based on which vowels and diphthongs they target, but you can try them all out for fun. Let’s start with a classic one about chucking wood!

Friends practising fun pronunciation exercises to learn Italian vowels and diphthongs.

To help with the e and i sounds:

  • Quanti rami di rovere roderebbe un roditore se un roditore potesse rodere rami di rovere?
    (English translation) - How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

This next one also has two open é sounds!

  • Trentatré trentini entrarono in Trento, tutti e trentatré trotterellando.
    (English translation) - Thirty-three people from Trento entered Trento, all thirty-three of them trotting along.

To help with the a, e, and i sounds:

You might need a partner for this one! Note: Corriere della Sera is an Italian Newspaper.

  • Buona sera, buona sera! Ha il Corriere della Sera di ieri sera? No, non ho il Corriere della Sera di ieri sera, ma ho il Corriere della Sera di Stasera!
    (English translation) - Good evening, good evening! Do you have last night’s Corriere della Sera? / No, I don’t have last night’s Corriere della Sera, but I have tonight’s Corriere della Sera!

To help with the ue, oi, ei, diphthongs and i sounds:

  • Li vuoi quei kiwi? E se non vuoi quei kiwi che kiwi vuoi?
    (English translation) - Do you want those kiwis? And if you don’t want those kiwis, which kiwis do you want?
  • A quest’ora il questore in questura non c’è.
    (English translation) - At this time, the commissioner is not at the police station.
  • Due tazze strette in due strette tazze.
    (English translation) - Two narrow cups in two narrow cups.

To help with open and closed o sounds and the classic i sounds.

The open o sounds are in bold, which makes a sound like o / aw (like the “o” in “hot”).

  • O postino che porti la posta, dimmi postino che posta portasti.
    (English translation) - Oh postman who brings the mail, tell me, postman, what mail you brought.

Practice makes perfect

Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. But hey, even if your pronunciation in Italian isn’t perfect just yet, there’s nothing wrong with that. The most important part of learning a language is putting yourself out there and learning along the way. Check out our guide on how to best learn Italian in record time for fun and creative ideas to achieve fluency.

Otherwise, order your next coffee or drink of choice with confidence, and revisit this handy guide when you need a refresher on your Italian vowels and diphthongs. And don’t forget to check out our other Italian language articles. Arrivederci!

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