Pronouncing Italian Last Names

How To Pronounce Italian American Surnames

Italian man drinking wine at a sidewalk cafe
Cultura RM Exclusive/Antonio Saba

Everyone knows how to pronounce their last name, right? In fact, though, posts on the About.com Italian Language forums such as "how do I pronounce my last name Cangialosi?" are common.

Since surnames are obviously a point of pride, it's not hard to understand why families would insist on pronouncing them a certain way. But second- and third-generation Italian Americans who have little or no knowledge of Italian are often unaware of how to correctly pronounce their last names, resulting in anglicized versions that bear little aural resemblance to the original, intended form.

That's Not Italian

In popular culture, on TV, in movies, and radio, Italian surnames are frequently mispronounced. Endings are truncated, extra syllables are added where none exist, and vowels are barely mouthed. It's no wonder, then, that many Italian Americans cannot pronounce their last names the way their forefathers did.

If you cringe when hearing Italian words mispronounced, are interested in how your surname was meant to be pronounced in the original language, or want to recognize your own last name when spoken by a native Italian, there are a few simple rules to follow.

When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang, in the 1969 Grammy Awards Record of the Year song "Mrs. Robinson," "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" they turned the Yankee Hall of Famer's last name into four syllables. In fact, the Italian pronunciation should be "dee-MAH-joh."

In 2005, amidst the blanket media coverage of the Terri Schiavo case (brain-dead and in a coma, her husband went to court to have her taken off life support) the American media persisted in pronouncing her last name as "SHY-vo," which to Italian speakers sounded very wrong.

The correct pronunciation is "skee-AH-voh."

There are many other examples in which no attempt is made for even a close approximation of standard Italian pronunciation, which has lead to the spread of careless sounding out of Italian last names. Ironically, in Italy native Italian speakers struggle with the same dilemma of whether to pronounce surnames on the grounds of nationality (i.e., to italicize a last name) or on the basis of the origin of the surname.

The Correct Way

If many English speakers cannot seem to pronounce Italian last names correctly, how can you avoid common pronunciation mistakes in Italian? Remember that Italian is a phonetic language, which means words are usually pronounced as they are written. Determine how to break down your surname into syllables and learn how to pronounce Italian consonants and vowels. Ask a native Italian or someone fluent in the language how to pronounce your cognome italiano, or post a message on the forums such as: How to pronounce the surname Lucania correctly (hint: it's not "loo-KA-nia," or "loo-CHA-nia", but "loo-KAH-nee-ah"). At some point, the linguistic clouds will part, and you'll be able to pronounce your Italian last name as it was meant to be.

Stumbling, Mumbling Pronunciation

There are a few letter combinations in Italian that frequently trip up even the most assiduous speaker, and lead to the mangled pronunciation of last names. For example, Albert Ghiorso was the co-discoverer of a number of chemical elements. But pronouncing the surname Ghiorso shouldn't require a Ph.D. in chemistry. The scientist's last name is not enunciated "gee-OHR-so" but rather "ghee-OR-soh." Other potential tongue-twisters include double consonants, ch, gh, and the ever-tricky gli.

Master these articulation challenges, and you'll sound like a native when pronouncing memorable Italian last names such as: Pandimiglio, Schiaparelli, Squarcialupi, and Tagliaferro.