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The Letter S in Italian

From Michael San Filippo,
Your Guide to Italian Language.

The Big Exception
Most of our lives, we are blissfully unaware of the complex computations going on in our brains which form our speech. The only times we do tend to notice such processes are when we stumble across exceptions to grammatical rules which make no sense to us. Though it may not look it, the letter s in Italian presents exceptions to many phonological rules which govern the formation of syllables in Italian.

In order to understand how s is an exception, we must first understand the rules themselves. A syllable, though difficult to define sometimes because of its elusive confines, is an essential phonological unit which must contain at least one syllabic element called a nucleus.

The nucleus is almost always a vowel, but may also be a consonant in some languages. For example, in the English word bottle, the nucleus of the second syllable is the letter l. Italian, on the other hand, only permits a vowel as a nucleus. As a result, s only exerts its influence over guidelines which control the letters surrounding the nucleus.

The first rule controls the onset of a syllable. Any consonant may be an onset in Italian as long as it is by itself. The words ma-le, ga-bo-la, and ga-ro-fa-no all contain syllables which begin with one consonant. For a syllable to begin with two consonants—bra-vo, a-tle-ta, gli-ci-ne—the second consonant must be a liquid (those sounds which are regarded as not vowels yet quite not normal consonants; typically l and r are considered liquids). The exception to this rule is the letter s. As long as s is the first consonant, almost any other consonant may follow: stan-co, sba-glio, sfat-to.

The second guideline also relates to the onset of a syllable and is very simple: a syllable may not begin with more than two consonants. Ever. S, however, is exempt from such a decree. There are many words in Italian which begin with three consonants but only when s is the first, for instance stra-no, sfrat-tare, and splen-dere.

A third rule governing syllables controls the tail. A syllable may end with the nucleus, or vowel. When this is the case—as in ma-le—it is called an open syllable; when a consonant closes the syllable—stan-co, for example—it is termed closed. According to this principle, closed syllables may only end in a sonorant consonant (that is one that may be produced continuously; in Italian, these are the letters l, r, n, m and the sound gn- of gnocchi produces). The sole circumstance in which a non-sonorant consonant may end a syllable is when that consonant is also the beginning of the next syllable, for instance in the words leg-go, fat-to, and av-vi-so. S, of course, is not subject to this rule and may close a syllable in words such as la-pis.

The final—and possibly most interesting—rule which s thumbs its nose at is syntactic doubling. Syntactic doubling is the phenomenon which Italian employs in order to avoid an unpalatable formation at the end of certain words such as unstressed monosyllabic words like the word a in the phrase Andiamo a casa. Say that phrase aloud. Note the length of the c in casa. Typically, this is not a written change and we only hear the elongation of the c. However, there are a few cases where syntactic doubling is graphically visible as in the word chissà which combines the words chi and sà.

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S almost never exhibits signs of syntactic doubling unless a new word is formed (as in chissà). Say these phrases out loud and note the length of the s in each: Ha scritto molto, È strano, and Avrà sbagliato. It is not lengthened. Instead of doubling, there is a restructuring of the syllables, dividing each as follows: has-crit-to mol-to, ès-tra-no and av-ràs-ba-glia-to. There is no need to elongate the consonant given that the s is already available in the following word, so to speak. Instead, the s passes to the tail of the syllable to its left without modifying anything else.

What is most interesting about this rule is that it answers the question, "Why do we say il libro and un foglio but lo studente and uno straniero?" Normally, articles, some prepositions and a few other specific words such as quello, bello and buono drop the final o when followed by a noun: un albero, dell'uomo, il bell'usignolo, al mare, quell monte. Words that begin with s followed by a consonant block this cancellation of o, as do words that begin with one of a few other consonants (such as gn, sci or sce, gli, and z). The accessible o lends itself to the passage of s from the beginning of the noun to the word which precedes it, as in the case of uno straniero which breaks down into syllables as follows: u-nos-tra-nie-ro.

While some of these irregularities posed by the letter s serve to clarify mysteries previously unexplained (such as why the article il changes to lo before words beginning with s and a consonant), others only pose more questions. Why do some syllables end with an s in Italian when that formation appears to violate strict phonological rules? Whatever the reason, it is fascinating to think that we never consciously noticed such a striking anomaly. Our minds factored the variable into the computations of speech and continued on without flinching.

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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