Although Italian has gained the reputation of being a “phonetic language” – meaning that there is a direct relationship between the spelling and sounds – there are a few pesky letters that aren’t always pronounced in the same way. One such letter is C.
In today’s article, we’re going to discover the different ways in which the letter C can be pronounced in Italian. Let’s dive straight in! 🙂
The first important rule about the letter C in Italian is that it represents two distinct phonemes in Italian, or in other words, it can be pronounced as a hard or soft sound.
IPA symbol: /k/
In Italian, the hard C, which sounds just like the C in car or the K in kite, can be represented by the letters C or CH depending on the vowel that follows. C is used before the vowels A, O and U, while CH appears before the vowels E and I.
- C + A: casa (house), oca (goose)
- C + O: cosa (thing), bianco (white)
- C + U: cucina (kitchen), cucù (cuckoo clock)
- CH + E: anche (also), bruschetta (bruschetta)
- CH + I: chilo (kilo), chimico (chemical)
Casa – Cosa – Cucina – Anche – Chilo
Be aware that if CH + I is followed by another vowel, such as O or A, and they are contained within the same syllable, the letter I becomes a [j] sound, similar to the letter Y in “yes”. For example:
- the CHIO in chiodo (nail) is pronounced KYO, not KEE-OH
- the CHIA in macchia (stain) is pronounced KYA, not KEE-AH
Chiodo – Macchia
If CHI and the following vowel aren’t contained within the same syllable (i.e. anarchia – AN-AR-CHI-A), they are pronounced separately.
If C is followed by another consonant, namely R or L, it is always hard. For example:
Crescita – Cliente – Clima – Croce
Growth – Client – Climate – Cross
IPA symbol: /tʃ/
The Italian soft C is represented by a C followed by an E or an I. It sounds exactly like the English CH, as in the words child or chess.
- C + E: cena (dinner), oceano (ocean)
- C + I: cigno (swan), acido (acid)
Cena – Oceano – Cigno – Acido
If C + I is followed by another vowel, such as O or A, and they are contained within the same syllable, the letter I becomes silent. For example:
- the CIO in micio (cat) is pronounced like the CHO in “chosen” (not CHI-OH)
- the CIA in pancia (tummy) is pronounced like the CHA in “chance” (not CHI-AH)
Micio – Pancia
If CI and the following vowel aren’t contained within the same syllable (e.g. farmacia – FAR-MA-CI-A), they are pronounced separately.
Sometimes you will encounter words that contain a double CC. To pronounce this double consonant, all you have to do is hold the C a bit longer than you normally would, almost as if you were taking a very brief pause before finishing the word. Have a listen to the examples below:
Cuccia – Cucchiaio – Macchina – Accipicchia!
Dog basket – Spoon – Car/Machine – Gosh!
What about SC words?
The presence of an S before the letter C can influence its pronunciation. More precisely, if S comes before the soft CI or CE, the pronunciation of SC becomes [ʃ] like the SH in the English word “sheep”.
Scienza – Pesci – Scegliere – Scena
Science – Fish – To choose – Scene
If SHI and the following vowel are contained within the same syllable, then the I becomes silent (e.g. sciarpa – SHAR-PA). If they aren’t, the I is clearly pronounced (e.g. sciare – SCI-A-RE).
Sciarpa – Sciare
Scarf – To ski
Loanwords with C
The pronunciation of loanwords, or words adopted from another foreign language, can vary in Italian. More often than not, however, the original pronunciation of the C is preserved, as in the case of the French imports cyclette and chic, and the English check-in and chewing gum.