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Why do reduplicated/geminated letters (lettere doppie o geminate) occur more frequently in Italian than in other Romance languages like Spanish or French?

Examples of gemination in Italian (w/ Spanish, French):

  1. accademia (academia, académie)
  2. carrozziere (carrocero, carrossier)
  3. casetta (casita, maisonnette)
  4. soppressione (supresión, suppression)
  5. colonna (columna, colonne)
  • Notice that Catalan has also this phenomenon (but to much lower extent than Italian), for instance with letter "l" (Catalan "l·l" corresponds to Italian "ll"), even if geminated pronunciation of "l·l" is quite lost in some varieties of Catalan. But geminated pronunciation of other "combinations of consonants" is alive in all varieties of Catalan. For instance, the word "setmana" (week) is pronounced /səm:'anə/ in the variety of Catalan I speak. It has nothing to do with accent markings. – Charo May 27 at 19:01
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    @Geremia: It's not clear to us if you are asking about the etymology of this phenomenon or you want to know what's the role of these double consonants in Italian words. May you please clarify this? – Charo May 27 at 19:59
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    @Charo I want to know both. – Geremia May 27 at 20:42
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    @Hachi Grazie. That's very helpful. I didn't know they were called le lettere doppie. – Geremia May 27 at 20:43
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    Now that you have reformulated the question in this way, I would say that the presence of these double consonants in French words does not represent gemination (as a phonetic phenomenon). – Charo May 28 at 6:41
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It is not a matter of syllabification, rather the doubling of the consonant indicates a different pronunciation.

It is perhaps hard at first for non native speakers to hear the difference, but Italians make a distinction between simple and geminate consonants. Geminate consonants are pronounced longer and more forcefully than simple ones. They also tend to shorten the preceding vowel, but this is not a determining characteristic.

Many words in Italian are distinguished by this: for example caro (dear) vs carro (cart), or pala (shovel) vs palla (ball), faro (lighthouse) vs farro (spelt, a type of wheat) etc.


A special note should be made for the letter s, which when geminated changes also in voicing: intervocalic s is a voiced /z/ but intervocalic ss is a voiceless /s:/ (the colon denotes gemination in IPA). This varies on a regional basis, and it's traditionally a "northern" pronunciation, but it is spreading through the peninsula and very few speakers nowadays make a distinction between /'kjese/ (he asked) and /'kjeze/ (churches) as it used to be done in Central Italy (and perhaps it is still done in some areas).

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    @Hachi It's not a matter of "so many words": geminate consonants are an important part of Italian phonology, while they are not distinctive in, say, English. They existed already in Latin! Perhaps an interesting question would be why they survived only in Italian and not in the other Romance languages, but that's a different question from the one here. – Denis Nardin May 27 at 19:37
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    @Hachi I'm not saying that Italian has only the geminate consonants that were already in Latin (this is manifestly absurd, since Italian geminates also sounds that did not exists in Latin). I'm saying that the phonological phenomenon of distinctiveness of geminate consonants existed already in Latin and it survived in Italian (but not, e.g., in Spanish) – Denis Nardin May 27 at 20:05
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    @DenisNardin "why they survived only in Italian and not in the other Romance languages" Yes, I'm interested in that, but perhaps that's outside the scope of Italian StackExchange? – Geremia May 27 at 20:47
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    @Geremia It's not outside the scope, but I don't have time to research it properly now. I will leave the answer as it is for now and try to work on it tomorrow. It might be useful if you edited the question to make it clearer though. – Denis Nardin May 27 at 20:54
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    «intervocalic s is a voiced /z/»: since you sort of clarify later that this is not standard Italian (tell someone from Pisa they hail from “Piza”) but rather its Northern variety (all of them?), you might as well make it explicit here. – DaG May 27 at 21:53
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You have to distinguish between gemination in spelling and pronunciation.

French has a lot of geminated consonants in spelling, but none in pronunciation (except maybe at word boundaries, when a word ends with the same consonant the next word begins with).

The French word suppression comes directly from Latin subpressio/suppressio, where the second spelling was more common, due to the assimilation of the two consonants into the unvoiced one.

French spelling largely keeps etymological spelling, although there is no difference in pronunciation with, say, après; the ending is pronounced the same as the ending of nation.

Spanish spelling got rid of the unpronounced geminated long ago. Basically, the only geminated consonant that remains is rr, but this is rather more a digraph than a true geminated. Indeed, French would hyphenate the word as sup-pres-sion if needed at the end of a line, keeping the lost syllabification, whereas rr in Spanish is indivisible because it denotes a different quality of the r, rather than a “reinforced pronunciation”.

Consonant gemination is a peculiar phenomenon in Italian and other Romance languages spoken in Italy (Neapolitan, Sicilian, Sardinian and dialects thereof).

To roughly mark a boundary between Italian languages that have gemination or not, go from the eastern end of Liguria to the top of Marche.

Standard Italian has gemination in pronunciation. Where does it come from? From Latin, of course, in several words, but also from assimilations such as -dv- > -vv-, -pt- > -tt. The origin of gemination can be different, though: the Latin academia becomes accademia, for a totally different phenomenon and indeed you can see it written academia in old books.

Other common cases are femina (Latin) > femmina (Italian) or cathedra (Latin) > cattedra (Italian), which are due to the proparoxytone word attracting gemination of the consonant following the tonic vowel. See the article on Enciclopedia dell'italiano Treccani for more information.

As to the question of why Italian kept gemination from Latin and other Romance languages lost it, it's not easy to answer. Likely, the reason is the linguistic substrate of the peoples that started to speak Latin during Roman domination.

Just to make an unrelated example: ask a Tuscan to pronounce the consonants /s/ and /ʧ/ one after the other and you'll get funny results; people in my region would have no difficulty: the local word for rifle is /'sʧopo/ (the root is the same as for Italian scoppio, explosion). To the contrary, my regional (northern Italian) language has no consonant gemination at all and it's not uncommon to hear “wrong” pronunciation of Italian words that have geminated consonants.

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  • @Geremia: Since you are interested in the comparison of Italian to other languages, the article "Comparative graphematics" by R. Weingarten in this book (cont.) – Charo May 29 at 18:49
  • (cont.) explains in detail how different languages that have a phonemic distinction between short and long consonants (for instance, Latin, Italian, Catalan) represent geminated consonants with graphemes: this graphemic representation do not always consists of doubling consonants. – Charo May 29 at 18:49
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Forse perché è la più giovane di quelle lingue.

L'articolo Treccani dice:

In italiano, infatti, da uno stesso termine latino possono essersi formate due parole, una vicina alla forma originaria, più conservativa, e una di tipo popolare, più innovativa. […] Per es., dalla parola latina vĭtĭum si ha sia vizio (esito dotto) sia vezzo (esito popolare), dalla parola latina rătĭo si ha sia razione (dotta) sia ragione (popolare) e via dicendo in molti altri casi simili.

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    I don't understand in which sense Italian is younger than other Romance languages. – Charo May 28 at 16:51
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    The phenomenon you are referring to occurs also in other Romance languages: I believe it has nothing to do with consonant gemination. – Charo May 28 at 16:52

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