I've been learning Italian for the last year. While being fluent in Spanish helps tremendously, there is one infamous sound that is lacking from both English and my dialect of Spanish: gli.

I understand that gli is a palatal approximate and that it is supposed to sound something similar to a Spanish 'l' and a 'y'. My understanding is, however, that it is to be pronounced as one consonant. The classic example for English speakers is to use the 'l' in million, but to me that's just a 'y'. Someone suggested that I try saying it like Botelli in Spanish, but that comes out as a double 'y' for me, which I know is wrong (honestly, -lli is odd for a Spanish speaker; In my dialect it would be a double 'y').

Basically these are my questions:

  1. Is this one consonant or is it geminated? When I think of the 'l' sound in million, to me, it sounds geminated. I distinctly hear an 'l', but I'm not sure if I'm mishearing it.
  2. How is the tongue positioned for this sound? I've been trying to pronounce it as an 'l' with the back of my tongue touching my soft palate instead of the tip of my tongue touching the alveolar ridge as it normally would be for 'l'. Is this correct?
  3. Am I correct that the 'gli' article is pronounced differently? In other words, if I were to say gli figli, are those two completely different sounds?

I'm not sure that I'll ever master this sound, but I'd like to try to improve it at least.

  • 2
    If that's of any consolation, a friend of mine with Naples origins cannot pronounce the gl sound, which is constantly replaced with something similar to a long semiconsonantic i (mejjo, fijjo, ajjo), and I wouldn't say he's the only one. So, even between native speakers this sound may be a problem =) – Matteo Italia Nov 22 '13 at 11:58
  • Hmmm ... Perhaps it's genetic; I'm of Neapolitan descent. That native speakers sometimes find it challenging is comforting. When you say, mejjo, fijjo, and ajjo, is that /j/ equivalent to the English 'y'? (i.e. fee-YEE-yo?) My main issue is timing; I'm not sure if it's supposed to be one 'l' and one 'y' sound, or if it's just a collective 'ly" (well, technically 'lj') – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 20:55
  • I wouldn't say it's exactly that sound, to get an idea of what I mean just look for some Roman saying "daje" (I think you can easily find it on YouTube). By the way, also my grandmother (who comes from Trentino) cannot pronounce "gl", which for her tends to become a plain "L". – Matteo Italia Nov 23 '13 at 17:09
  • I've been told that I mispronounce gli (the fact is that I hardly hear the difference)...but I'm not of Neapolitan origin :D – laika Jul 18 '14 at 13:40
  • Saying “genetic” is quite an exaggeration. Simply put, the sound isn't the easiest one to pronounce and some people have a hard time; without proper practice or the help of a speech therapist, the problem remains even when growing up. – entropid Jan 21 '15 at 8:26

First of all, it's probably worth noting that gli is not univocally pronounced, but it actually depends on the context - meaning its position in a word.

According to the Enciclopedia Treccani, it depends on the letters sorrounding it.

  • when it comes right after a n, it's biconsonantico, i.e. you pronounce both the g and the l.
    Some examples are: ganglio and anglicismo, where the gl is pronounced like in deglutire or glucosio

  • when gli is followed by a consonant, the sound is biconsonantico if it is at the beginning of a word
    Examples: glicemia and glissare, where again the gl is pronounced like in *a

  • whenever gli is followed by a consonant and it's not at the beginning of a word, the gl sound becomes a dygram, i.e. is must be pronounced with that sound your are talking about in the question. 1

Is this one consonant or is it geminated? When I think of the 'l' sound in million, to me, it sounds geminated. I distinctly hear an 'l', but I'm not sure if I'm mishearing it.

I admit I'm no expert in phonetic, so I cannot tell whether gl is geminated. Surely it's stressed and elongated when pronounced.

How is the tongue positioned for this sound? I've been trying to pronounce it as an 'l' with the back of my tongue touching my soft palate instead of the tip of my tongue touching the alveolar ridge as it normally would be for 'l'. Is this correct?

When I pronounce it I have the tip of the tongue touching the upper teeth, the middle of the tongue touching the palate and the end part not touching it.

As you've been told already, I think the closest sound in the Spanish language is the ll.

The way many Spanish-speaking people pronounce the ll in botella (i.e. as a Palatal lateral approximant) is actually fairly close to an acceptable pronunciation of gl. Here's a sound sample of such pronunciation.

It's also not uncommon for native speakers not to be able of pronounce that sound correctly and they sound pretty much like the sound sample above.

Am I correct that the 'gli' article is pronounced differently? In other words, if I were to say gli figli, are those two completely different sounds?

Actually no. A part from the the fact that gli figli is not grammatically correct (figli requires the article i), the two gli are pronounced exactly in the same way.

1. A few exceptions apply, namely: negligente, negligenza and negligere; sigli, sigliamo, sigliate and siglino from the verb siglare; ipoglicemia, nitroglicerina, nitroglicol, trigliceride; compound and derivates from glifo, like geroglifico, aglifo, anaglifico, geroglificare, petroglifico and triglifo; anaglittica and anaglittico.

| improve this answer | |
  • Sorry, I knew that was the wrong articles. I did that quickly to illustrate a point. The vast majority of the Spanish speaking world pronounce 'll' and 'y' the exact same way. It's called yeísmo The pronunciation you speak of is only found in pockets of Spain and parts of South America. You're talking about lleísmo, so while I appreciate you trying, that's not helpful. I can do 'll' just fine in Spanish, but it represents /ʝ/, so it's not the same. Am I going to sound like a fool if I say fee-LEE-yo? – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 3:56
  • And in all seriousness, thanks @Gabriel Petronella for the list of exceptions, which I will study. – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 4:00
  • @Giambattista, regardless of the diffusion, that's the pronunciation I'm referring to :) fee-lee-o sounds weird, definitely less weird than the "biconsonantic" pronunciation fee-glee-oh, but I would still feel a shiver on my back ;) If you can manage this sound it's not that far from a proper pronunciation, IMHO – Gabriele Petronella Nov 22 '13 at 4:01
  • 1
    @GabrielePetronella: Are you sure? This contradicts what Wikipedia has to say in the article on Rioplatense Spanish and also my intuition. In Chile the "ll" sound is different to the "ll" sound in Spain and to the "ll" sound in Mexico, but it is the same as the "y" sound in Chile - both are pronounced much like "zh" (the "s" in English "measure"). Which is different to to the /ʎ/ sound of "ll" in Spain and "gli" in Italian. But I'm not an expert, just an armchair linguist and I know I glossed over accent differences within Spain. – hippietrail Nov 23 '13 at 17:49
  • 2
    @hippietrail I explicitly mentioned the city in my previous comment, and that was on purpose. The Chilean Spanish spoken in Santiago is slightly different than the rest of the country. If you look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye%C3%ADsmo, you can spot a red dot right at the center of Chile, which roughly correspond to the Santiago region. – Gabriele Petronella Nov 23 '13 at 18:01
  1. If by "geminated" you mean that we have gemination, i.e. the consonant is doubled or has different length, then no, we don't. It's a whole different sound than "ll" in Italian. First, it's a Palatal lateral approximant, in that page you can hear a sample of what it sounds like.

    It's basically the sound you write as ll in Castillan Spanish (from Spain), as in llamar.

  2. Not sure how to best describe it, but from the L position, I take the tongue back a little bit and make the tip of it round, or at least this is what it feels like to me.

  3. No, gli and figli have the same pronunciation, but you should say i figli. Also note that GL before A, E, O, and U is pronounced as two distinct sounds, G and L. Also at the beginning of a word, e.g. glicerina.

| improve this answer | |
  • Oh I knew the article was the wrong choice, I just used it as an example. My tongue is positioned exactly the way you say it should be; it's just that it's very difficult to bend my tongue like that and to keep the tip from touching my alveolar ridge. I thought the gl(x)'s were pronounced like a standard l and g when it's not gli. – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 3:40
  • BTW, I do not speak castellano. My spanish is North American/Mexican, and we don't have that sound anymore. It's called yeismo, meaning 'll' and 'y.' are always pronounce the same. Since I don't know a single person who speaks Peninsular Spanish, that's not helpful. – Giambattista Nov 22 '13 at 3:43
  • @Giambattista Ah ok, I didn't know you did know. :D The pronunciation depends on the position, but one rule to cover the majority of cases is to pronounce them distinctly when you have those vowels following it. :) Yes, I'm aware of yeismo, and I thought that you might not speak Castellano, but I thought that you knew of it a little bit. In any case, it's a good reference, the sound is the same, so if you search for Spanish words with that sound it might help you more. – Alenanno Nov 22 '13 at 10:54

The distinction between the pronunciation of gli and li (or even between that of gni and ni) is perhaps one of the most difficult ones for foreign learners of Italian to pronounce as it is perhaps the most subtle one of the entire Italian language, but some practice can sure make perfect.

What you need to do for 'l' is make an 'l' sound making sure the tip of your tongue touches the front palate just above the upper teeth while taking care not to touch the upper palate with the middle of your tongue: you should imagine keeping your tongue straight along a line pointing upwards towards just behind the top of your teeth and pronounce the 'l'.

On the other hand, when pronouncing 'gl', while the tip of your tongue touches that very same place behind the top of your top teeth on the hard palate, push the middle of your tongue up towards the soft palate; your tongue should now not be straight, but bent, making a convex arch making much more contact with the top of your mouth / palate; imagine shaping your tongue like a dome as you do this. Then pronounce the 'l'.

And for the difference between gni and ni the concept is the same, just this time point the tip of your tongue lower (for instance towards the middle part of your top teeth, as you are now making an 'n' sound instead of an 'l' sound). The straight tongue principle versus dome-like tongue principle will produce the difference between the 'ni' and 'gli', respectively, here too.

So, having said that, having been exposed to Italian at a young age, I've noticed that in North America, several people, when speaking English, and without realizing it (even people living in the very same geographical locations) pronounce 'l' as Italian 'l', while others pronounce 'l' as Italian 'gl' (and the same is true of 'n' versus 'gn'). Why? Here is the theory: some tongues are shorter and thinner and thus produce 'l' and 'n' sounds by default so as to speak, whereas other longer and fatter tongues have a natural tendency to produce 'gl' and 'gn' sounds). Admittedly, in English different words can also produce different results because of the fact that adjacent phonemes can steer the tendency towards making 'l/gl' or 'n/gn' sound rather than the other by affecting the change in tongue shape that takes place when moving from pronouncing one sound to the next. Isn't that funny? Well, so here's the good news: no matter what kind of tongue you've got, with a little bit of practice anyone can train their tongue to produce two distinct and authentic sounds for both of these cases.

So just practice, practice, practice... and good luck!

| improve this answer | |

I'm a native English speaker and a heritage speaker of Ecuadorian Spanish (where distinguishing between /ll/ and /y/ is still quite common). I'm from the Mid-Atlantic but my mom's family is from the Tennessee/Kentucky border region. My mom and my grandfather for sure both pronounced English lli followed by a vowel with the palatal lateral approximant, in rare cases reducing it to a geminated y. This pronunciation seems to have been standard in the first half of the 20th century in the south as well as in the some social groups of the north and with television hosts. The current POTUS almost uses the sound, but he seems to not palatalize the l so harshly and immediately adds a y (/j/. In reality the [ʎ] is just one sound, and when you make it, it's only after you stop the articulation on the hard palate and move on to the next vowel that it sounds a bit like ly or li. This can be evidenced by the fact that in the Amerindian Quechuan languages the LL sometimes comes before a consonant and in this case sounds more like a harsh, vibrating L than an li (words like Atawallpa, the last Incan ruler apply). It's a hard sound to learn how to make, because the temptation will be to just say /ly/. In fact, a lot of speakers of Portuguese have depalatalized the sound and converted it into li in their /lh/ words. In almost every romance language it's emerged in, it's been reduced to some other sound. Romanian lost it first, then French (words like Papillon, Bataille) etc. and now Spanish. In all these languages the LL sound reduced to a Y, though in Spanish it was reduced to a palatal Y, and in some cases (central Andes of Ecuador, parts of Argentina) reduced to a /ʒ/.

In my opinion, the trick to making this sound of Spanish/Catalan/Old French LL, Portuguese LH, and Italian GLI is NOT to focus on putting the tongue in the normal place of the l in a world like /l/ateral. Instead, try curving the tongue downwards and placing it near the bottom two teeth. You should really feel the tongue arching downwards, and its uppermost point should now be on the had palate. Now try to make an L sound on the hard palate by pushing it harshly and hear it vibrate and feel the air pushing itself out the sides of the mouth. This is a bit of a harder way to articulate it but it will show you where the tongue has to touch the hard palatal and what the vibration sounds like. From there you can move back to a word like lateral and push it down in the same spot, should be easier. But I recommend first trying to arch the tongue downwards, because it removes the temptation to make the /lj/ sound.

Hope this helps!

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    Welcome to Italian.SE! – Charo Aug 10 '19 at 20:58

I am a retired speech therapist, with a very fine ear for subtleties in articulation. Regarding GLI, someone said it’s similar to an English speakers production of “millions”. So, to say “gli” simply push your tongue tip to your gum ridge just behind your front teeth. Say the [l] sound— without releasing the contact of tongue tip to palate. Then slide your tongue into position for the “Y” sound. Think of it as saying “ulyee”, it’s even easier if you use a dentalized ("flat-tongue”) to say the L.

| improve this answer | |
  • I meant “flat tongue” L. – user4528 Apr 22 '18 at 8:23
  • 1
    Welcome to Italian.SE! Do you know that you can edit your answer? – Charo Apr 22 '18 at 9:00
  • 1
    I am not sure that the Italian gli is similar to the li in millions. At least to me the pronunciation in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/million) sounds completely different. Do you have an example recording with the pronunciation you mean? – Denis Nardin Apr 22 '18 at 18:27
  • 1
    @Charo It's a bit weird to me (I lived five years in the US, so I'm at least acquainted with American pronunciation) and none of the pronunciations in Forvo are particularly close to what I'd consider a [ʎ] (although part of it might boil down to the distinction between phonemes and phones). In my experience people from the US have a really hard time distinguishing [ʎ] from [lj]. – Denis Nardin Apr 23 '18 at 10:21
  • 1
    I perfectly agree with @DenisNardin: for instance, J.C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics, noting that “it may be useful to compare genuine [ɲ] and [ʎ] with the sequences [nj] and [lj] that occur in English” (p. 95), specifically contrasts English billiards [biljə(r)dz] with Italian biglietto [biʎetto] and Spanish billar [biʎar]. – DaG Apr 23 '18 at 20:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.