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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)
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  • 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, 2020 at 19:01
  • Is there a word similar to “ragaza” in other Romance languages? By the way, it derives from Arabic.
    – DaG
    May 27, 2020 at 21:55
  • @DaG academia is the Spanish spelling.
    – Geremia
    May 27, 2020 at 22:32
  • @DaG I added some more illustrative examples. It seems Spanish has the least gemination.
    – Geremia
    May 27, 2020 at 22:44
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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, 2020 at 6:41

4 Answers 4

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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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  • 1
    @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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 at 18:49
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Short answer:

Some Romance languages originally developed in quite isolated geographical areas, Sardinia and central-southern Italian Peninsula, have preserved original Latin geminated consonants. In addition, such languages had a remarkable tendency to create new geminated consonants by the mechanism of assimilation.


Italian linguistic Matteo Bartoli formulated some principles, called the "Bartoli area norms", which can help us to interpret the geographical distribution of linguistic phenomena to infer some conclusions in relation to relative chronology of the different linguistic forms present in different Romance areas. The first one states that an area that is geographically more isolated than other ones tend to be more conservative, that is, usually preserves some features of an early stage of Latin language.

Latin had several geminated consonants: [p:], [t:], [k:], [f:], [s:], [m:], [n:] and [l:]. Sardinia, Tuscany and at least part of central-southern Italian Peninsula had a quite isolated situation with respect to the main communication routes in Late Antiquity and in the Early Middle Ages. Such Latin geminated consonants were preserved in the Romance languages developed in such geographical areas, whereas in other Romance areas they became plain consonants. In particular, they were preserved in Italian, which comes from 14th century Florentine.

The languages that have preserved original Latin geminated consonants have been found to be quite prolific in creating new ones by assimilation. Assimilation is a phonetic phenomenon in which a vocalic or consonantic segment changes to resemble an adjacent segment. For instance,

Latin SEPTE(M) > Italian sette, Sardinian ['sεt:e], Sicilian ['sεt:i].

Since you are interested in comparing Italian to other Romance languages, Catalan has also produced geminated consonants by assimilation (this occurs more frequently in some Catalan varieties than in other ones). Even if Catalan shows degemination in inherited words, some geminated consonants are present in Latin borrowed words. For instance, [l:], written <l·l>, is present in col·legi and cel·la, Catalan words borrowed respectively from Latin COLLEGIUM and CĔLLA; [m:] is present in immanent, borrowed from late Latin IMMANENTIS; [n:] is present in innovar, borrowed from Latin INNOVARE; etc.

An interesting approach to explain degemination in stops, which is also valid for understanding the reason of consonantic lenition, is given by Alkire and Rosen in the book cited below. It has to do with the articularoty effort made when pronouncing consonants. For instance, if you are pronouncing a stop or a fricative after a vowel, the articularoty effort would be stronger in the first case because you will have to completely stop the air flow, whereas when articulating the fricative you will allow air to pass through. When pronouncing geminates, such articularoty effort would be strongest because you not only will have to interrupt the air flow, but you will need to prolong the interruption. A tendency to relax such articularoty effort is in some sense "natural".

But the mechanism of assimilation is really so frequent in languages that I would say it's also in some sense "natural" that new geminates are produced when pronouncing certain two consonant clusters. It seems to me that Italian and Catalan have in a certain sense evolved in opposite directions in relation to Latin geminated consonants. Italian has preserved Latin geminated consonants and then has produced new ones by assimilation. Catalan instead has lost Latin geminated consonants, but has acquired new ones by assimilation and then has reintroduced some etymological geminated consonants in Latin borrowed words.

References:

  • Pietro G. Beltrami, La filologia romanza. Bologna, Il Mulino, 2017.
  • Lorenzo Renzi and Alvise Andreose, Manuale di linguistica e filologia romanza. Bologna, Il Mulino, 2015.
  • Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen, Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • The Oxford Guide to Romance Languages, ed. by Adam Ledgeway and Martin Maiden. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Daniel Recasens i Vives, Fonètica històrica del català. Barcelona, Institut d'Estudis Catalans, 2017.
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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, 2020 at 16:51
  • 2
    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, 2020 at 16:52

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