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Italian Phonology

The Musical Side of Language


What is phonology? According to Marina Nespor, Italian linguist and author of the book "Fonologia," it is "that branch of grammar that is occupied with the sounds that are systematically used in natural languages for communicating meanings." Put more simply, phonology studies the meanings of the sounds we make when we speak.

One important fact to begin with, is the difference between phonology (fonologia) and phonetics (fonetica). Phonetics analyzes all sounds arising from human speech, regardless of the language or meaning. Phonology studies the sounds in context, searching for patterns by determining which sounds contain meaning, then explaining how these sounds are understood by a native speaker. So while phonetics studies how the letter "f" is produced (what parts of the mouth are used and how, in order to say an "f") and how it is perceived, phonology analyzes how the words fa and va have different meanings, despite only differing by one sound. Phonology is the musical side of linguistics.

If you listen closely to Italian—whether you understand what you are hearing or not—you may notice that the rhythm differs greatly from English. Several linguists have conducted phonological investigations into the various rhythmic patterns of languages. Using computer programs, the linguists replaced all consonants with the letter "s" and all vowels with the letter "a". The final product, read aloud by the computer program and sounding like a stuttering snake, demonstrates distinct variations in the frequency and stress of consonants and vowels. As a result of this simplification each language differs only by its own musicality.

The road to sounding like a native speaker is filled with obvious barriers such as accent and vocabulary, however sometimes even having a flawless mastery over both is not enough. Knowing where to put the correct stress, how to have proper inflection and intonation—that is, the more musical aspects of languages—are more subtle obstacles. Phonology is the study that helps identify these elusive keys to fluency and is a foundation upon which other branches of linguistics such as morphology begin their studies.

At one of the intersections between phonology and morphology lies an interesting mystery: that of words. Surprisingly, linguists find it enormously difficult to define the exact properties of a word, though at first it may not be apparent why. For those learning Italian, pay close attention to how what you hear changes from nonsense sounds to words packed with meaning as you progress and learn new vocabulary. You may be inclined to use phonological cues (such as tone, stress, and pauses for breath) to classify a word, however, as we will see in the next article on morphology, this definition may not always be accurate.

Certainly, phonology is a very broad subject covering other inquiries with complicated names such as assimilation, epenthesis (adding sounds to words), and phonotactics (which sound combinations are permissible within a given language). However there are more recognizable inquiries as well, for instance the mysterious properties of the letter "s" in Italian, "erre moscia," and the role of doubled consonants. These three topics will be covered in later individual articles. Each is intriguing because of the misconceptions surrounding them, however it is through mastery of puzzles such as these that you can come closer to understanding Italian, regardless of whether or not you are a native speaker.

About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.
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