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The phonologies and orthographies of English and Italian

Italian and English consonants

In the Italian language, consonant length is contrastive (Laver, 1994). This means that there are singleton (short) and geminate (long) consonants, which are distinguished by relative phonetic duration. These phonetically short and long consonants distinguish minimal word pairs, that is to say pairs of words differing in only one phoneme. Orthographically, this phonological contrast is represented using single letters for singleton consonants and double letters for geminate consonants. For example:

Meaning Phonological form
(Standard Italian)
Orthographic form
casa

/ˈkasa/

<casa>
cassa

/ˈkasːa/

<cassa>

In the English language, consonant length is not contrastive, meaning that consonants with different lengths are different realizations of the same phoneme (Laver, 1994). Double consonant letters do not represent consonantal length (Carney, 1994). For example:

Meaning Phonological form
(Standard British English)
Orthographic form
finish


/ˈfɪnɪʃ/

<finish>
finnish /ˈfɪnɪʃ/
<Finnish>

This project investigated whether ItalianL1 speakers of EnglishL2 distinguish long and short consonants in English, even though this distinction does not exist in English. This is because in Italian grapheme-phoneme correspondences (rules for the pronunciation of letters or letter clusters) a double consonant letter represents a geminate (long) consonant. If this prediction is correct, Italians would perceive, produce and identify a geminate consonant in an English word where the consonant is spelled with double letters, and a singleton consonant in an English word where the consonant is spelled with a single letter. For instance, Italians would perceive, produce and identify a geminate in Finnish and a singleton in finish.

Meaning Phonological form
(English native speakers)
Phonological form
(ItalianL1 speakers of EnglishL2)
Orthographic form
finish.jpg /ˈfɪnɪʃ/ /ˈfiniʃ/ <finish>
finnish.jpg /ˈfɪnɪʃ/ /ˈfinːiʃ/ <Finnish>



Italian and English vowels

The Italian language has seven monophthongs, and vowel length is not contrastive.

The English language has 12 monophthongs, with qualitative and quantitative differences (the latter are differences in length). In particular, tense vowels are longer than lax vowels. In the English orthography, double vowel letters always represent long vowels:

Meaning Phonological form Orthographic form
ship /ʃɪp/

<ship>
sheep /ʃiːp/
<sheep>

Long vowels can also be represented by vowel digraphs other than double vowel letters, such as <ea> <ou>, and the digraph <V__e> (this is often called ‘silent e’), as in scene and seen, both /ʃiːn/.

This project tested whether ItalianL1 speakers of EnglishL2 would distinguish long and short vowel in EnglishL2, even though this distinction does not exist in English, and perceive, produce and identify a long vowel in an English word when a vowel is spelled with double letters, and a short vowel when a vowel is spelled with single letter in English (including vowels spelled with <V_e>, as Italians do not know that this grapheme represents a long vowel, and recode it as a <V>). For instance, Italians would perceive, produce and identify a long vowel in seen and a short in scene.

References

Carney, E. (1994). A survey of English spelling. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Laver, J. (1994). Principles of phonetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.