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I understand that in Italian the letter "e" can make two different vowel sounds:

  • [ɛ] like the e in bet
  • [e] like the a in chaos

Recently, I was caught off guard by an Italian song where the singer sang "vedo". Since I had learned to pronounce it as [vedo], I was surprised to hear it sung as [vɛdo] (which is correct?).

The rules I learned only pertained to particular conjugation endings like:

       Imperfect -ERE 

    rimanevo | rimanɛvamo
    —————————————————————
    rimanevi | rimanɛvate
    —————————————————————
    rimaneva | rimanevano


    We will eat: mangɛrɛmo
   We would eat: mangɛremmo

When encountering new words, are there any rules of thumb for figuring out which sound to use?

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    who knows :-) (I never managed to distinguish among the two e-s. I had to rote learn when to use the right accent...) The upside is that at least in northern Italy nobody really cares. – mau Dec 9 '13 at 9:23
  • This is a very good question: I just want to remark that the same happens for [ɔ] and [o]. – martina Dec 9 '13 at 13:35
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    Where did you find such a thing as “rimanɛvamo”? No unstressed “e” is open in Italian... – DaG Dec 10 '13 at 9:58
  • @DaG - Am I correct in assuming that by an "open e" you intend [ɛ]? If so, I have been been pronouncing quite a few unstressed e's incorrectly for more than two years (so, I am happy that I asked this question). I wrote those examples in the way I have been pronouncing the e's. – Xantix Dec 10 '13 at 16:01
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    Indeed, [ɛ] is often called “e aperta”, while [e] “e chiusa”. As @egreg explains in his answer, «unstressed e is always pronounced closed ([e] in IPA)». The only doubt can hold about stressed e s. – DaG Dec 10 '13 at 23:42
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The unstressed e is always pronounced closed ([e] in IPA). The classical example of a minimal pair is pesca, which is

  • ['pɛsca] when it means “the peach”

  • ['pesca] when it means ”fishing”

But regional pronunciation varies; in Northern Italy, both words usually have the closed e. In several local pronunciation schemes in Calabria there's no distinction between the two sounds.

How can one distinguish between the two sounds? By etymology. For instance, neve (snow) comes from Latin nives, so we can predict a closed vowel: ['neve]. On the contrary, vento (wind) comes from ventus and so an open vowel is used: ['vɛnto]. The numeral venti (twenty) originates from viginti, so the e is closed. Similarly, Latin's diphthong ae produces [ɛ].

However, it's fairly common to hear ['vento] for wind and ['vɛnti] for twenty and etymology can also be misleading. I'm not able to say ['neve], to be honest, and it's always ['nɛve] for me, because that's how it's pronounced in my region.

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  • I guess Sicily would be a better example than Calabria for the "open e" (and for the "open o"): they really don't have the "closed" versions of both the sounds. – martina Dec 9 '13 at 13:33
  • Even if I was born in Turin, I tend to pronounce [ɛ] even in the words who need [e] :-) – mau Dec 10 '13 at 9:16
  • @mau It's the same in certain parts of Veneto, where the closed sound is almost inexistent. – egreg Dec 10 '13 at 9:42

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