“I speak Italian, but I think I am woefully ignorant of the history of the language. Masculine nouns beginning with gn, such as gnocco and gnomo (“gnome”), require a special form of the definite article. Whereas most nouns have the singular article il and the plural article i, gn words require lo and gli, so: lo gnomo and gli gnocchi. The same is true of words beginning with z, so “the uncle” is lo zio and not il zio. It is also true of words beginning with s followed by a consonant, so “the mirror” is lo specchio. The indefinite article also takes a special form before all of these words, so uno gnomo, uno specchio, uno zio. For other masculine nouns the form is un. And I don’t know why! Are there any Italian experts out there who can enlighten me?”
Well, it’s simply a matter of euphony, John. Let me explain.
For centuries, people have used either form of the article (il or lo, and consequently the plural i or gli) for no particular reason. In the past, writers and poets usually chose one form or the other depending on metre. In Foscolo’s works, for instance, it is quite common to find i stemmi (“coats of arms”) i ˈstɛmmi rather than gli stemmi ʎi ˈstɛmmi, and in one of Leopardi’s poems, Il Sabato del Villaggio, we read il zappatore (“the hoer”) il ˌdzappaˈtoɾe, il ˌtsap- instead of lo zappatore lodzˌdzappaˈtoɾe, lotsˌtsap-, which is the only form that’s possible in Standard Italian today.
In the last century, because the situation had become all too messy, Italian grammarians decided it was about time they had established rules which – they said – would simplify the use of articles before both vowel and consonant sounds. These rules were based on whether a word sounded better with il or lo. So, it was established, for example, that terms beginning with ɲ like gnocco ˈɲɔkko should take the definite article lo and the indefinite article uno: thus, lo gnocco, uno gnocco loɲˈɲɔkko unoɲˈɲɔkko. The same went for words beginning with dz-/ts- as in zero, zucchero (“zero”, “sugar”) ˈdzɛɾo ˈdzukkeɾo, ˈtsuk-, and those with initial ks- and pn-, as in xenofobo (“xenophobe”, “xenophobic”) kseˈnɔfobo (sometimes also seˈnɔfobo) and pneumatico (“tyre”) pneuˈmatiko.
The above rules were set out to essentially make it easier for Italians to pronounce words in running speech. loɲˈɲɔkko, as opposed to il ˈɲɔkko, is in fact phonetically interesting on two counts: (i) it is articulatorily ‘simpler’ to pronounce; (ii) it appears to be more natural (and more pleasing?) for native speakers, the Italian syllable structure being usually characterised by C+V sequences.
Despite prescription, in Standard Italian today there appears to be a lot of variation. Many people are now saying il xilofono (“the xylophone”) il ksiˈlɔfono rather than lo xilofono lo ksiˈlɔfono; il psicologo (“the psychologist”) il psiˈkɔloɡo rather than the traditional lo psicologo lo psiˈkɔloɡo (the form with il is now quite common in newspapers, too); il pneumatico (more frequent in the spoken language) and lo pneumatico (more common in formal written language). But what about gnocchi? Is it gli gnocchi or i gnocchi? Well, again grammar books say we should write gli gnocchi and pronounce it ʎiɲˈɲɔkki, but increasingly more and more Italians are saying i gnocchi iɲˈɲɔkki, and this form has now become accepted in newspapers and on television, too.
In support of what I’m saying, here’s a video clip of a famous Italian cooking programme, La Prova del Cuoco, broadcast every day on RAI Uno and hosted by TV presenter Antonella Clerici. In this video Mrs Clerici shows how to cook gnocchi and varies a lot between the forms gli gnocchi and i gnocchi:
a) ... dei gnocchi... (“... some gnocchi...”) 01:00
b) ... allora facciamo i gnocchi di mia mamma... (“... so, we’re going to cook gnocchi the way my Mum does them...”) 02:08
c) (Reading from her cookery book) ... gli gnocchi di mia mamma... (“... gnocchi the way my Mum cooks them...”) 02:15
d) ... stiam facendo degli gnocchi... (“... we’re cooking gnocchi...”) 06:42
e) ... dei gnocchettini piccolini... (“... some little dumplings...”) 09:26
f) ... i gnocchetti sono pronti... (“... our gnocchi are ready...”) 10:03
g) ... facciamo che sono pronti... i gnocchi... (“...let’s pretend our gnocchi are ready...”) 12:37.
As you can see, both forms are possible and equally used.
For more on this topic, you can either read here or consult the book Grammatica Italiana (2006, pp.163-165; UTET Università) by Luca Serianni.
Oh, one last thing: buon compleanno, Italia!