Italian Accent Marks

Segni Diacritici

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Segni diacritici. Punti diacritici. Segnaccento (or segno d'accento, or accento scritto). However you refer to them in Italian, accent marks (also referred to as diacritical marks) are added or attached to a letter to distinguish it from another of similar form, to give it a particular phonetic value, or to indicate stress. Note that in this discussion, the term "accent" does not refer to the pronunciation characteristic of a given region or geographical location (for example, a Neapolitan accent or Venetian accent) but rather to orthographic marks.

The Big Four in Accent Marks

In Italian ortografia (spelling) there are four accent marks:

accento acuto (acute accent) [´]
accento grave (grave accent) [`]
accento circonflesso (circumflex accent) [ˆ]
dieresi (diaresis) [¨]

In contemporary Italian, the acute and grave accents are the most commonly encountered. The circumflex accent is rare and the diaresis (also referred to as an umlaut) is usually only found in poetic or literary texts. Italian accent marks can be divided into three categories: mandatory, optional, and incorrect.

Required accent marks are those that, if not used, constitute a spelling error; facultative accent marks are those a writer uses to avoid ambiguity of meaning or reading; wrong accent marks are those that are written without any purpose and, even in the best of cases, only serve to weigh down the text.

When Accent Marks Are Needed

In Italian, the accent mark is obligatory:

1. With all words of two or more syllables that end with a vowel that is stressed: libertà, perché, finì, abbandonò, laggiù (the word ventitré also requires an accent);

2. With monosyllables ending in two vowels, of which the second has a truncated sound: chiù, ciò, diè, già, giù, piè, più, può, scià.

One exception to this rule are the words qui and qua;

3. With the following monosyllables in order to distinguish them from other monosyllables of identical spelling, which have a different meaning when unaccented:

ché, in the sense of poiché, perché, causal conjunction ("Andiamo ché si fa tardi") to distinguish it from the conjunction or pronoun che ("Sapevo che eri malato", "Can che abbaia non morde");

, the present indicative of dare ("Non mi dà retta") to distinguish it from the preposition da, and from da’, the imperative form of dare ("Viene da Roma", "Da’ retta, non partire");

, when meaning day ("Lavora tutto il dì") to distinguish it from the preposition di ("È l’ora di alzarsi") and di’, the imperative form of dire ("Di’ che ti piace");

è, verb (“Non è vero”) to distinguish it from the conjunction e ("Io e lui");

, adverb of place ("È andato là") to distinguish it from the article, pronoun, or musical note la ("Dammi la penna", "La vidi", "Dare il la all’orchestra");

, adverb of place ("Guarda lì dentro") to distinguish it from the pronoun li ("Li ho visti");

né, conjunction ("Né io né Mario") to distinguish it from the pronoun or adverb ne ("Ne ho visti parecchi", "Me ne vado subito", "Ne vengo proprio ora");

, stressed personal pronoun ("Lo prese con sé") to distinguish it from the unstressed pronoun se or the conjunction se ("Se ne prese la metà", "Se lo sapesse");

—sì, adverb of afirmation or to express the sentiment "così" ("Sì, vengo", "Sì bello e sì caro") to distinguish it from the pronoun si ("Si è ucciso");

, plant and drink ("Piantagione di tè", "Una tazza di tè”) to distinguish it from te (closed sound) pronoun ("Vengo con te").

When Accents Are Optional

The accent mark is optional:

1. With a, that is, stressed on the third-to-last syllable, so as not to be confused with the identically spelled word that is pronounced with the accent on the penultimate syllable. For example, nèttare and nettare, cómpito and compito, súbito and subito, càpitano and capitano, àbitino and abitino, àltero and altero, àmbito and ambito, àuguri and auguri, bàcino and bacino, circùito and circuito, frústino and frustino, intúito and intuito, malèdico and maledico, mèndico and mendico, nòcciolo and nocciolo, rètina and retina, rúbino and rubino, séguito and seguito, víola and viola, vitùperi and vituperi.

2. When it signals the vocal stress on words ending in -io, -ía, -íi, -íe, such as fruscío, tarsía, fruscíi, tarsíe, as well as lavorío, leccornía, gridío, albagía, godío, brillío, codardía, and many other instances. A more important reason is when the term, with a different pronunciation, would change meaning, for example: balía and balia, bacío and bacio, gorgheggío and gorgheggio, regía and regia.

3. Then there are those optional accents that might be referred to as phonic because they signal the correct pronunciation of the vowels e and o within a word; an open e or o has one meaning while a closed e or o has another: fóro (hole, opening), fòro (piazza, square); téma (fear, dread), tèma (theme, topic); mèta (ending, conclusion), méta (dung, excrement); còlto (from the verb cogliere), cólto (educated, learned, cultured); ròcca (fortress), rócca, (spinning tool). But beware: these phonetic accents are beneficial only if the speaker understands the difference between the acute and grave accent; otherwise disregard the accent mark, since it is not mandatory.

When Accents Are Wrong

The accent mark is wrong:

1. First and foremost, when it is incorrect: there should be no accent on the words qui and qua, according to the exception noted;

2. and when it is completely useless. It is a mistake to write "dieci anni fà," accenting the verbal form fa, which would never be confused with the musical note fa; as it would be a mistake to write "non lo sò" or "così non và" accenting without reason so and va.