Saturday 18 August 2012


Do you get this joke? 

Italians will certainly have no difficulty understanding it; non-native speakers might find it a bit more challenging, instead. The message on the bag, Non basta, ma juta!, if read aloud, means 'It's not enough but it still helps!', that is, using biodegradable jute bags instead of plastic ones is not enough for saving the environment but it can be of great help.

Why did I have to add the phrase if read aloud? Because it's only by pronouncing the sentence printed on the bag that you can get the real meaning of it. The spelling is misleading as juta (sometimes also spelt iuta in Italian) is not the third person singular form of the present tense, aiuta ('(it) helps'), from the verb aiutare ('to help'), but simply the word jute, the material used for making rope and rough cloth. So the stress is on using jute bags for helping the environment.

This witty game of words is phonetically very interesting and can be of special interest to many foreign learners of Italian. It shows how Italian connected speech can be tricky as it very often displays no clear separation of syllables across word boundaries. Non basta, ma juta!, once said aloud, sounds like this:

nom ˈbasta (|) maˈjuːta ||.

If we replace the word juta with aiuta, what we're likely to get is exactly the same thing:

nom ˈbasta (|) maˈjuːta ||.

Why this then? That's because, except in emphatic speech, Italian makes frequent use of elision, dropping one of two adjacent identical vowels when both of them are in unstressed positions:

(Non basta,) ma aiuta!

ma aiˈuːta → ma aˈjuːta → maˈjuːta 

Here we see that the two [a]s from ma and aiuta have been compressed into one syllable, thus creating a rising diphthong. Now you see why the spelling ma juta has been used: the expressions Non basta, ma juta! and Non basta, ma aiuta! are phonetically equal in Italian, though only the latter is grammatically correct and means 'It's not enough but it still helps!'.

This kind of simplification process is also to be found when non-identical vowels are involved, as in, for example, Bisogna evacuare Amalfi ('We have to evacuate Amalfi'):

biˈzɔɲɲevaˈkwaraˈmalfi ||.

Marguerite Chapallaz, in her book The Pronunciation of Italian: A practical introduction (Bell & Hyman, 1979; p.147), clearly states that

"[w]hat is of major importance from the very beginning (...) is that when there are two vowels at word junctions within the same sense group, [the foreign learner] should go smoothly from one to the other without ever making a pause between them or introducing a glottal stop".

This I find one of the hardest things for foreign learners to copy, but it is essential if you want to sound more like a native speaker of Italian.


  1. Spanish is very similar in this respect.
    I was just going to ask you about a good practical handbook on Italian pronunciation, with recordings. I can't find Chapallaz's. Could you suggest another one? (There's no problem if it is written in Italian.)
    Thank you!

    1. Chapallaz's book is old-fashioned now and doesn't have recordings so I wouldn't recommend it.

      Why not wait until January 2013? In Beverley Collins and Inger Mees' new "Practical Phonetics and Phonology" (3rd Edition, Routledge), you'll find a section on the pronunciation of Italian, co-written by yours truly and with recordings of my voice.

      PS: I wouldn't recommend books written in Italian either, I'm afraid, as they're all usually very prescriptive.

    2. Thanks a lot, Alex. You'll be my model. Between ourselves, I find Italian the most beautiful language ever spoken. The problem is that it is sometimes so easy to understand for us Spaniards that we don't get the trouble to study it properly.

    3. "The problem is that it is sometimes so easy to understand for us Spaniards that we don't get the trouble to study it properly."

      Most Italians think the same of Spanish unfortunately.

  2. I do not understand, given that you are Italian, why you represent Italian as having long vowels: ma'ju:ta. I know many German- and English-speaking sources do that, because, having vowel quantity in their languages, they can't help hearing same into Italian; and no doubt Italians drawl sometimes their stressed vowels a bit especially before a pause or if pronouncing the word in isolation, or if special logical or emotional emphasis is put on the word ('che beeeello!') (One extremely self-important Italian professor (one of the 'baroni') known to was in the habit of saying 'noooi' (because after 'noi', noi baroni italiani, there always came a pause)) And not just in closed syllables: I have a friend, another Italian professor (but not a barone) who says "nooorma" (he works on norms) --- but all that is a far cry from having real vowel quantity, don't you think?

    The problem, and the reason why I strongly oppose phantasising (I think) vowel quantity into Italian is that foreign students start talking like that: ci sooono in Itaaalia moltiiissimi partiiiti, tra cuuui anche il partiiito democraaatico, .... which sounds like a caricature of Italian. It's just one step short of imagining that speaking Italian involves gesticulating ferociously and interspersing your discourse with exclamations like 'che bello!' (beeello!) or 'che schiiiifo' and similar idiocies.

    It should be just 'ma'juta' I think. Plus the explanation perhaps that word-stress involves before a pause a slight lengthening of the stressed syllable, but I think most learners will pick this up spontaneously.

    1. John Wells has already discussed this on his blog and I quite agree with him:

  3. Obviously John Wells is something of a pope to you guys. It makes me smile to see how authority-faithful and -bowing humanities are.

    I quite disagree with him, for all due respect for him as a scholar (and the author of a book I once bought, and keep recommending to many), and once had an email exchange with him on the topic, the result of which was inconclusive. His _ultima ratio_ was: well, marking length in Italian was something that most (English language) authors of dictionaries etc. do. This is, sadly, very true.

    I in a sense agree with you guys too, and go even farther than most of you in that I claim that Italians drawl even closed-syllable stress vowels, and even, tho' seldom, in the final syllable.

    But to make real vowel-length out of it is mistaken. Germans and Anglosaxons are notoriously unable to perceive geminated consonants in Italian, latte, notte, bello, ecc., because their languages don't have that, but they hear into Italian something that does not exist in that language. It is perhaps you are an English scholar that you do the same? Could it be?

    I spend every now and again days-weeks in Italy, speaking Italian (and listening how people around me speak) then return to other countries and catch myself drawling stressed vowels in a language I speak, which like Italian has geminated consonants but no vowel quantity. I do this obviously under the subconscious Italian influence. Shall we then say that my idiolect of that language has vowel quantity and would have to be transcribed with ":"'s? Obviously not.

    The reason why I am so ferocious about this (in my view) misconception is not my academic ambition or such (I have none, at least in phonetics) but the fact that those who inculcate in people the notion that Italian has vowel length do simply a disservice to them, teaching them an Italian that will making them looking as though they wanted to hold that language up to ridicule, and ultimately making them ridiculous themselves. This is rather like people who have observed that Russian or Farsi are sometimes spoken (depending on the circumstances) in a whiney tone of voice, imagined that this be hard-wired into the language's phonetic structure, and took to speaking Russian or Farsi like that all the time ... pitiable...

    Here you find a Spanish grammar whose author maintains that Spanish stressed vowels be long in an open or a muta-cum-liquida syllable. This spectre is no longer haunting us---for Spanish. I firmly hope that the same will, one day, be true of Italian.