Language Nerdery: The Italian Spelling Alphabet

Alfabeta || creative commons photo by Martin Abegglen

Alfabeta || creative commons photo by Martin Abegglen

One of the things I love most about traveling in Italy is how gracious Italians are when you fumble through a few words of their language. Getting a short – but coherent – sentence out to a taxi driver or shop keeper sometimes means getting praised as if you’ve just recited Dante from memory. The overwhelmingly positive responses always seem out of whack with my meager attempts at speaking Italian, but it sure is a confidence boost that keeps me coming back for more.

Except, that is, when it comes to talking on the phone.

I will happily start a conversation with my taxi driver just to keep the linguistic gears in my brain oiled, but I will do almost anything to avoid making or receiving a phone call in Italian. It’s not even that I rely on reading lips – I’m certainly not staring at the driver’s face when I’m in the back seat of the cab. Some of it is physical, since Italians speak with their entire bodies, but most of it is due to just how rapidly Italians talk.

Having said all of that, sometimes travelers in Italy – including me – find it necessary to get on the phone. Once you’ve managed to convince the person on the other end of the line that you really, really need them to speak more slowly, the next hurdle is one you’re probably not prepared for: Spelling.

My last name is such that I have to spell it out over the phone all the time at home. “S as in Sam,” I say, followed by, “P as in Paula.” In Italian, though, “Sam” and “Paula” won’t cut it. Which is why there is something called the Italian spelling alphabet, or Italian phonetic alphabet.

I’ll get to the spelling alphabet in a moment, but first you need to know the Italian alphabet itself – and yes, it’s different than the English one. There are only 21 letters in it, as follows (with pronunciations in parentheses):

A (ah) H (AH | kah) Q (coo)
B (bee) I (ee) R (EH | reh)
C (chee) L (EH | leh) S (EH | seh)
D (dee) M (EH | meh) T (tee)
E (eh) N (EH | neh) U (oo)
F (EH | feh) O (oh) V (vee or voo)
G (jee) P (pee) Z (ZEH | tah)

The other letters – J, K, W, X, and Y – aren’t in the Italian alphabet, although you’ll see them used all over the place in words that have been introduced from other languages or sometimes regional dialects. Those five letters have their own pronunciations, too:

  • J – i lunga, which means “long I” (ee LOON | gah)
  • K – kappa (KAH | pah)
  • W – doppia v, which means “double V” (DOHP | yah voo or vee)
  • X – icks (eeks)
  • Y – i greca or ipsilon (ee GREH | kah or EEP | see | lon)
Phone call in Siena || creative commons photo by Duccio Moon

Phone call in Siena || creative commons photo by Duccio Moon

Even if you’ve got this or a similar pronunciation cheat-sheet in front of you when you need to call a taxi or make reservations at a trendy restaurant, however, M still sounds an awful lot like N over the phone. That’s when you need the Italian spelling alphabet.

Italians use city names whenever possible, and you’re not really limited to the ones listed below – these are just some of the most commonly used. If you want to substitute “Siena” or “Salerno” for “Savona,” feel free. Also note that the five non-Italian letters can often be understood without having to use one of these prompts.

The word in every phrase below is “come,” which means “like.” It’s pronounced KOH | meh. Below each phrase you’ll find its pronunciation, including both the letter and the word.

A, come Ancona
(ah / ahn | KOH | nah)
J, come jolly
(ee LOON | gah / JAW | lee) *
S, come Savona
(EH | seh / sah | VOH | nah)
B, come Bari
(bee / BAH | ree)
K, come kursaal
(KAH | pah / koor | SAL) **
T, come Torino
(tee / toh | REE | noh)
C, come Como
(chee / KOH | moh)
L, come Livorno
(EH | leh / lee | VOR | noh)
U, come Udine
(oo / OO | dee | neh)
D, come Domodossola
(dee / doh | moh | DOH | soh | lah)
M, come Milano
(EH | meh / mee | LAH | noh)
V, come Venezia
(vee or voo / veh | NET | zee | ah)
E, come Empoli
(eh / EHM | poh | lee)
N, come Napoli
(EH | neh / NAH | poh | lee)
W, come Washington
(DOHP | yah voo or vee / WAH | sheen | ton) †
F, come Firenze
(EH | feh / fee | REN | zeh)
O, come Otranto
(oh / oh | TRAHN | toh)
X, come xilofono
(eeks / see | LOH | foh | noh)
G, come Genova
(jee / JEH | noh | vah)
P, come Palermo
(pee / pah | LEHR | moh)
Y, come yogurt
(ee GREH | kah or EEP | see | lon / YOH | goort) †
H, come hotel
(AH | kah / OH | tel)
Q, come quarto
(coo / QUAR | toh)
Z, come Zara
(ZEH | tah / ZAH | rah)
I, come Imola
(ee / EE | moh | lah)
R, come Roma
(EH | reh / ROH | mah)

* A “jolly” is what Italians call the “joker” in a deck of playing cards.
** “Kursaal” is a German word.
Yes, I know, these are English words, you don’t need to know how they’re pronounced… Except that they’re pronounced slightly differently by Italians. If you say “yogurt” or “Washington” to an Italian the same way you do in English, they may not understand you.

Super-Handy Bonus Phrases for Talking on the Phone

  • “Io non parlo Italiano molto bene.” – I don’t speak Italian very well.
  • “Parla lentamente, per favore.” – Please speak slowly.

More Language Nerdery: W in the Internet Age

The letter W isn’t technically in the Italian language, and when it’s said aloud it’s rather long – “doppia voo.” So imagine the collective groan in Italy when it turned out that every single web address had to start with “www.” The Italians now use a bit of clever shorthand for the start of any web address, however. Instead of saying, “doppia voo doppia voo doppia voo” they simply say “voo voo voo.” Listen for it the next time you’re riding in an Italian taxi that has the radio on!

11 responses to “Language Nerdery: The Italian Spelling Alphabet”

  1. Will Douglas says:

    This is one of the handiest things I’ve ever come upon. A thousand baci.

    Allright, Alitalia, Trenitalia call centers…bring it on!

  2. Great post, Jessica! I am finally, after 4 years living here, not horrified by making a call. Appointments, reservations, simple transactions are now in my bailiwick. BUT spelling is always funny and when I am slightly flustered I forget the cities of the spelling alphabet. I need to post this in the proverbial “by the phone” spot, which means, I guess, in my purse next to the cellulare. Didn’t know “kursaal” BTW, and I just love “VooVooVoo.”

  3. EXCELLENT advice! It’s funny you mention the lip reading. I feel as though I understand foreign languages better when I have my glasses on. I think it’s a combination of lipreading and as you say, context, gestures, etc.

    • Jessica says:

      That’s funny, Karen – I wonder if wearing your glasses makes you feel like you’re paying closer attention? šŸ™‚

      • You know, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be without them for “important” phone calls, either, even if I don’t have to read anything. I guess I want total clarity!

  4. donald antonangeli says:

    grazie,Jessica. I will share this and all future “Italy explained ” with members of the Italian American club here in fort mill,south Carolina.

  5. P.steyn says:

    This part

    “So imagine the collective groan in Italy when it turned out that every single web address had to start with ā€œwww.ā€

    got me laughing out loud here at work šŸ™‚

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