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Is there any reason why some words are spelled with -zz-, but others are spelled with -z- between vowels?

My understanding is that either spelling can correspond to either of the following two consonant sounds: a long voiceless affricate [t.t͡s] or a long voiced affricate [d.d͡z]. (Phonologically, I've seen sources that indicate that Italian speakers may think of these as /t͡s.t͡s/ and /d͡z.d͡z/ respectively.) The linguistic sources I've read say that single [t͡s] and [d͡z] don't occur between vowels in (standard) Italian.

But some introductory descriptions that I see online use wishy-washy phrasing, like this one here:

Double z is pronounced almost the same as single z.

("Italian Language Guide". Bolding added by me.)

Is there any basis for saying that Italian speakers really pronounce -zz- "almost" the same as -z- rather than exactly the same as -z- (between vowels)?

If they are pronounced the same (as I think), why are some words spelled with -zz- and others with -z-?

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    Welcome to Italian.SE! – Charo Feb 28 '19 at 6:02
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    @DenisNardin: Regional differences are a thing, but so is standard pronunciation, and learners as well as native speakers should be encouraged to stick to that (studying it). Some regional parlances are more frowned upon than others, but that's another thing. – Vincenzo Oliva Feb 28 '19 at 6:58
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    @VincenzoOliva You have a point with learners, but I will respectfully disagree with respect to native speakers. But my point was that this phenomenon has probably developed in the opposite order than posited in the question: first someone decided the spelling (based on who knows what, maybe their own phontactics, maybe historical spelling in Greek), and then centuries later the standard pronunciation was established (presumably sometime in the nineteenth century), so the question would be more"why did the standard pronunciation disallows [t.ts]?",rather than "why is [ts] spelled like zz?" – Denis Nardin Feb 28 '19 at 7:05
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    @DenisNardin: As DaG said, the sources that I saw probably were only interested in describing "Standard Italian" phonotactics. I'm interested in learning why the spellings with -zz- vs. -z- were originally established. The always-long-between-vowels pattern occurs with a few other consonants in Standard Italian: /ɲ ʎ ʃ/, so even if it is not shared with all dialects, I think it developed somewhat "naturally" as a feature of some dialects. – Pax Feb 28 '19 at 7:08
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    @ChatterOne Intervocalic unvoiced “z” (that is /ts/) is always geminated, independently on the spelling with one or two z's. – egreg Feb 28 '19 at 10:57
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This isn't a complete answer, but while Googling to try to find out more, I came across the following explanation for why some speakers might think there is a difference in pronunciation:

The orthographic distinction between 'z' and 'zz' induces some speakers to distinguish length in pronunciation (spazi 'spaces' spatsi vs. spazzi 'you sweep' spattsi) despite the fact that, in the standard language, both spellings are pronounced long in intervocalic position. Given that northern Italians often fail to observe consonantal length distinctions, in their speech the differentiation of the two 'z''s may arise from hypercorrection.

(Martin Maiden, 1994, A Linguistic History of Italian, 3.1.3.4)

Maiden goes on to say that

In some southern varieties, however, 'z' is pronounced long when it continues original consonant + [tj] (e.g. in concezione 'conception', azione 'action' < conceptionem, actionem), but short when it continues original vowel + [tj] (e.g. in nazione 'nation', stazione 'station' < nationem, stationem).

But the distinction for this group of speakers doesn't seem to be related to the spelling. So I still don't know where the -zz- vs. -z- spelling distinction comes from.

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According to the Enciclopedia Treccani the first instance of this decision was made by Salviati, in his Avvertimenti sopra la lingua del Decamerone

A fine Cinquecento, è fondamentale la figura di Lionardo Salviati. Nei suoi Avvertimenti sopra la lingua del Decamerone (1584) egli giustifica le scelte grafiche da lui operate come curatore di un’edizione purgata del Decameron. Salviati propone soluzioni moderne, principalmente fondate sulla pronuncia del fiorentino a lui contemporaneo, che saranno alla base della compilazione della prima edizione del Vocabolario della Crusca (1612). In essa si riscontrano, per es., l’assimilazione di molti nessi latini (ti e exc resi con ‹zi› e con ‹ecc›) e la doppia ‹zz› per trascrivere l’affricata intensa intervocalica. Gli accademici tentarono, inoltre, di regolarizzare il settore delle doppie (ma in quest’ambito i mutamenti nelle edizioni successive furono molto vistosi).

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, it is fundamental the figure of Lionardo Salviati. In his Avvertimenti sopra la lingua del Decamerone (1584) he justifies the graphical choices he made as editor of an abridged edition of the Decameron. Salviati proposes modern solutions, mainly based on the pronunciation of contemporary Florentine, which will be at the base of the first edition of the Vocabolario della Crusca (1612). In it we can find, e.g., the assimilation of many Latin consonant clusters (ti and exc realized as ‹zi› and ‹ecc›) and the double ‹zz› transcribing the intense intervocalic affricate. Furthermore, academics attempted to regularize the geminate consonants (but in this area the changes in subsequent editions were very prominent).

(From Enciclopedia Treccani "Ortografia")

I then went and looked for the text written by Salviati. It is available on archive.org, albeit in a somewhat old edition. His reasoning (from Libro 3, particella IX) is very long but since it is not easy to find, and very well argued, I decided to transcribe it and translate it in full. After the document I'll add a few comments about the implication for the question. I believe, from reading previous chapters of the book, that "harsh z" indicates the voiceless /ts/, while "rough z" indicates the voiced counterpart /dz/.

Z aspra, e ̀z rozza se sien doppie

Che la differenza, che ha tra la z aspra e la rozza non possa nascere dall'essere questa semplice lettera e quella doppia, lo specificano espressamente quelle parole, che da esse zete incominciano, zelo, zappa, e sì fatte, oltre al dimostramento, che ne facemmo addietro, pur nel presente libro, per via di movimenti, e de' luoghi, onde, e dove quelle due zete si generan nella bocca. Senzachè per coloro, che sanno, che da questo fatto dell'addoppiar le lettere non può il suono divenire altro, sì come altro espressamente in zimarra ed in zotico si riconosce; ma solamente piu, ò men pieno per lo predetto raddoppiamento puo rappresentarsi all'orecchie; troppo è soverchio l'affaticarsi in cosa, che se stessa è palese. Basta, che coloro, non solamente dall'esemplo del miglior secolo, ma anche dalla ragione, restano abbandonati, i quali il suono della rozza, col porla nella scrittura solamente una volta, e la pronunzia della z aspra, col soggiugnerla due fiate, distinguono comunemente. Si tolgono dico dall'esemplo del miglior secolo, perciocchè ne' libri di quell'età, che si son potuti veder da noi, che quelli sono, che nel secondo di questi libri abbiam detto, ed altri di minor pregio, l'aspra, e la rozza indifferentemente si vede raddoppiata: e raddoppiata, senza alcun fallo, le piu volte vi si rirruova, fuorchè nel libro del Mannelli, che l'una, e l'altra senza divario piu spesso scempia pose nella sua copia. Ma il Mannelli quanto nell'altre cose a tutti gli altri, che libri copiarono in quell'età, fu quasi da porre avanti, cotanto in questa parte della nettezza della scrittura che ortografia è chiamata, da alcuni altri del medesimo secolo fu vinto di purità: forse, sì come quelli che intendendo il latino molte cose trasportò quindi nelle nostro parole, che nel Giovan Villani, nel Fra Giordano, e nelle Pistole di Seneca, ed altri, per avventura, più fiorentinamente si ritruovarono scritte: ò perchè più lontani dallo 'mbastardimento della nostra favella, ò perchè laici e idioti fossono i copiatori. Ma la più certa pruova, che queste zete doppie non sieno appo noi, è quella senza fallo, che poco addietro, cioè nel primo capo di questo libro, per contrario argomento, accennammo: che se doppie fossero, altro che doppie non potrebbero pronunziarsi: ed a me sembra di sentire il contrario, cioè, che profferirle scempie si possono amendue, e che così da pozzo, come da lezzo, senza confondere il suon dell'una con quel dell'altra voce, tor si possa una z, ed il suo proprio suono, avvegnachè più debole, conservare a ciascuna. Ho detto si possa torre, non si tolga: perchè nel vero egli non si fa, e scempi, in nostra parola, i detti suoni, per mia credenza, in uso non vengon mai: ò perché faticosi sieno a pronunziarsi, ò perchè cio, per alcuno altro accidente, abbia ottenuto il costume. Ma che fa forza, che non sieno in usanza? Desi per cio privargli della natura loro? Se non s'usano oggi, forse che s'useranno eglino quando che fia. E quando mai non s'usassero, farà per questo, che usar non si possano? che cotal non sia la lor forza? che'l non recarsi ad effetto tolga loro il potere? Se Socrate, ò Senocrate, ò alcun'altro forse non rise mai, fu per ciò, che egli di ridere, come gli altri huomini non avesse la podestà? L'essere una lettera, ò scempia, ò doppia, non consiste nell'uso, ma nella sua natura. E che scempie queste due zete esprimer si possano dalla pronunzia, con la pruova d'essa pronunzia è leggier cosa a far sentire all'orecchie: di significarlo con la scrittura c'è tolto via il potere, poïchè, come dicemmo, parole, e voci da torne esemplo, non ha la lingua nostra. Ma come questo fatto si puo nascondere alle moderne orecchie, in questi affari cotanto assottigliate, se a i nostri terzi, e quarti avoli, i quali in questa parte piu rozze l'ebbero assai, ò men fini, piu che nell'altre lettere lo conobbero espressamente? Imperocchè in raddoppiando tutte l'altre, che poco meno, che da tutti si raddoppiano al tempo nostro, assai manco che nelle zete fermi furono i nostri antichi. Onde non mica truoamento del Bembo, come alcuni gli rimpruoverano, ma savio avvedimento tratto da' libri della migliore età, e confermato dal senso dell'orecchie, fu in quel valent'huomo, intorno all'uso del raddoppiar le zete, questo ripigliamento dell'antica scrittura.

Harsh z and rough ̀z whether they are geminate

That the difference between the harsh z and the rough one cannot originate from the first being a simple letter, and the second a geminate one, is specified expressly by those words, starting from z, zelo, zappa, and similar ones, beyond the proof, that we made earlier, in this same book, through movements and places where those two zs are generated in the mouth. From which those, who know, that from the doubling of the letter a sound cannot become another, difference which you can evidently recognize in zimarra and zotico; but only more or less full through the aforementioned doubling it can present itself to the ears; excessive is the effort I'm putting in a thing clear on its own. It suffices, that those abandoned, not only from the example of a better century, but also from reason, distinguish commonly the sound of the rough, by putting it in writing only once, and the pronunciation of the harsh z, by adding it twice. They abandon I say the example of the best centuries, since in the books of that age, that we could see, those that we have mentioned in the second of these books, and others of lesser value, the harsh and the rough one are indifferently doubled: and doubled without any exception, most often can be found, apart from the book of Mannelli, that writes both of them single in his copy. But Mannelli as in other things was almost to consider in advance compared to the others copying books in that age, in the same way in this part of cleanliness of writing that orthography is called was lacking of purity: maybe, as do those who understand Latin moved many things from there in our words, that in Young Villani, in Fra Giordano, and in the Epistles of Seneca, and others, by chance, more Florentinely are found written: either because farther from the bastardization of our language, or because the copyists were inexpert and idiots. But the most certain proof that those zeds are not geminate in our speech, is that, without error, that we hinted a little earlier, that is in the first chapter of this book, with opposite argument: if they were geminate, we couldn't pronounce them but geminates: and to me it seems to hear the opposite, that is, that both of them can be pronounced simple, and so from pozzo, as well as from lezzo, without mixing the sound of one or the other term, we can remove one z and its own sound, although weaker, conserve to either. I said we can remove, not we remove: because in truth this is not done, and, in my belief, the aforementioned sounds are never used single: either because they are harder to pronounce, or because this, for some other accident, the custom imposed. But what matters, that they are not used? Ought we to deprive them for this reason of their nature? If they are not used today, maybe they will be used whenever it will happen. And if they will never be used, does this imply, that they couldn't be used? that their strength is not such? that not effecting it they lose the possibility? If Socrates, or Xenocrates, or someone else never laughed, does this mean that he did not have the faculty of laughing like other men? Whether a letter is simple or geminate is not a matter of usage, but of their nature. And that these two zeds can be pronounced simple, is easy to make the ears hear with a practical proof: to show it in writing we lost the power, since, as we said, words, and pronunciation to use as example, our language doesn't have. But as this fact can be hidden to modern ears, so subtle in these matters, how did our ancestors, who had them a lot rougher, or at least less refined, know it more than in other letters. In fact, in doubling all, or almost all, the other ones that everyone doubles at out time, our predecessors were a lot less strict in the zeds. So this reasserting of the old orthography was not an invention of Bembo, as many reproach him, but a wise choice taken from the books of a better age, and confirmed by the hearing.


Let me highlight a particularly significant passage of the above paragraph

so from pozzo, as well as from lezzo, without mixing the sound of one or the other term, we can remove one z and its own sound, although weaker, conserve to either. I said we can remove, not we remove: because in truth this is not done, and, in my belief, the aforementioned sounds are never used single

So Salviati claims that in contemporary usage the intervocalic zs are always geminate. The choice of orthography becomes clear now: they used ‹zz› because they were trying to represent /tz:/. But where are the single -z- coming from?

It might help to notice that, with the exception of a few borrowings and cultismos (azalea, bizantino, Venezuela, gazebo, etc.) and of compounds (capozona etc.) the single intervocalic -z- is only present when followed by two vowels, of which the first is i. These, almost without exception, arise from palatalization of Latin -ti-, and were in fact written -ti- at the time when Salviati was writing. In another chapter (Libro Primo, particella XII and XIII), he argues the use of the digraph -zi- in this case, to make it closer to the pronunciation. He also argues that the pronunciation of z in this case is similar but slightly different from /ts/, and he calls it the "subtle z". I suspect, but I am not certain, that he is referring to some kind of palatalization

Ma nella voce della z sottile tutto 'l contrario addiviene: perocchè più s'appressano i denti, la lingua piu s'innalza a chiuder la fessura, che resta infra di loro: appuntavisi con minor forza, ed in punta più s'assottiglia. La minor forza la fa meno aspra: l'aguzzarsi fa la voce piu sottile, quasi a guisa d'un fischio sordo.

But in the sound of the subtle z the contrary happens: in fact the teeth get closer, the tongue gets higher to close the gap remaining between them: it attaches there with less strength, and it thins in the point. The less strength makes it less harsh: the sharpening makes the voice subtler, like in the way of a dull whistle

This sound difference (beyond its origin from -ti-) is the reason why he proposed a different spelling -zi-. The few cases of homophones (e.g. spazi and spazzi) are probably due to a mixture of etymological origin (the root of spazzare being spazz-, there was probably reluctance to adopt a different spelling for some verbal forms), and regional pronunciations where the two words were not homophones.

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  • If someone wants to improve my translation, they are more than welcome. I confess this is a bit of a rush job, and it was sometimes hard to translate the beautiful Latinate syntax of Salviati in proper English – Denis Nardin Mar 1 '19 at 8:13

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