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I've noticed that in Italian, besides è and é, which are pronounced differently (the first with the mouth more open than in the second case, thus producing different sounds; examples include the very frequent words è which means he/she/it is and perché which means why or because), the only other vowel which can take both diacritics is o (ò and ó) which can also be pronounced in two ways with the mouth more open in the former case and with the mouth more closed in the latter case. The other three vowels can only take one accent which by convention is written in most texts as a grave accent (thus à, ì, and ù) and in any case take only one pronounciation. From what I've seen on the Internet it appears as though á is not part of Italian orthography whereas í and ú are not part of the most common, conventional, written Italian orthography. The letter a with an acute accent on top never appears and is not valid anywhere in Italian text. On the other hand, some Italian publishing companies write í and ú in a somewhat unconventional manner in place of ì amd u throughout the entirety of some of their texts. Thus, when writing, one must make a decision as to whether to follow the most common convention of spelling ì and ù throughout the text, or the unusual convention of spelling í and ú throughout the text.

In Italian it is possible to produce both open and closed sounds corresponding to the Italian vowel o which may be written with or without diacritics / accent marks. Here are just a few of the most common examples: the word però (which means but) is pronounced as an open oh, just as the verb ho (which means I have) which is also pronounced as an open oh (the h in front of the oh is silent here), but the word o (which means or) is pronounced as a closed oh.

Nevertheless, I am also not sure where 'ó' would be used, but Wikipedia lists it. Quoting from the Accento acuto section of the Italian Wikipedia:

L'accento acuto è presente in molte lingue per indicare una particolare intonazione su diverse vocali:

  • lingua italiana: sulla vocale é, ó, ma anche, nelle scritture più ricercate e forti di una solida base fonetico-linguistica, sulle vocali í, ú

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia also references this paper on the subject matter.

As pointed out by @Charo below, accent marks are always used to denote stress, but with "e" and "o" they also tell you how to pronounce the vowel.

So, how can I decide whether to write plain o, when to write ò, and when to write ó, and what is the exact difference between these?

Thanks.

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    But Italian pronunciation does actually make a distinction between ò and ó! – Charo Jan 16 '15 at 13:27
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    ò is pronounced [ɔ] ("o aperta"), whereas ó is pronounced [o] ("o chiusa"). – Charo Jan 16 '15 at 13:54
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    @IssamTP:"Meglio cólte che còlte" from "La radura" by Marisa Madieri. – Charo Jan 16 '15 at 14:14
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    I think you can drop all the ó except for cases similar to charo's one, context will tell the reader the meaning.Òs are different, some requires to be written in any case (perciò, però...). – IssamTP Jan 16 '15 at 14:43
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    @JohnSonderson: Accent marks are always used to denote stress, but with "e" and "o" they also tell you how to pronounce the vowel. – Charo Jan 16 '15 at 15:34
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The phonetic system of standard Italian has seven vowels: a (in IPA, /a/), closed e (/e/), open e (/ɛ/), i (/i/), closed o (/o/), open o (/ɔ/), u (/u/).

The accent is usually only written to denote the main stress on a word when it is on the last syllable, so you cannot normally graphically distinguish between botte meaning “barrel” (and pronounced /'bot:e/) and botte meaning “blow, thump” (/'bɔt:e/), unless you explicitly write them as bótte and bòtte, normally done only in dictionaries and the like.

As to ì/ù vs. í/ú, see a previous question; finally, writing “á” in Italian is just plain wrong.


To sum up, all graphical accents apart from those on last syllables (città, perché, ) are only used:

  • in dictionaries,
  • to be extra clear on one's meaning («Ho detto bòtte, non bótte, perdinci!»), or
  • by some odd exception (for instance, some people write dèi meaning “gods”, to distinguish it from the preposition dei, plural form of “del”).

Another relevant question and answer is here.

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  • Could you please update your answer to point out the difference among the way accents are used in normal printed text as opposed to in dictionaries, including which ones appear in dictionaries, which ones in dictionaries indicate stress and which ones vowel openness, and how to know how to remove or vary accent marks in dictionaries when one needs to write down the word elsewhere? Thanks. – John Sonderson Jan 16 '15 at 14:31
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    @JohnSonderson: Is it clearer like this? – DaG Jan 16 '15 at 14:42
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    I've finally found the information I was looking for. Thanks! :-) – John Sonderson Jan 16 '15 at 14:57
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    When I write “somebody”, I mean “somebody”. :-) There is some leeway for personal preferences (unless dictated by the guidelines of a newspaper or publisher). For instance, for the plural form of principio, someone simply writes principi, someone else, to avoid confusion with the equally spelt plural of principe, writes princìpi, someone else still writes principî. – DaG Jan 16 '15 at 15:30
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    Re “somebody/some people”, thanks for pointing out my mistake! I fixed it. – DaG Jan 16 '15 at 16:23
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Everything has been said already, however you ask when you should use ò vs. ó vs o (and, I guess, similarly for è vs. é etc.).

In the case of "o" it's relatively easy: the only case where an accent needs to be written is if it's on the last letter of a word (with exceptions for monosyllables and a few other cases which however we won't go into here), and in those cases you always write ò.

In the case of trailing "e", or if you are unsure between plain and accented version, or if you just want to explicitly write an otherwise not mandatory accent for "o" or "e" (ie, in the middle of a word), to clear ambiguities or whatever, then I'm afraid you just have to know which one it is (normally, dictionaries indicate accents explicitly, so you can look it up). To tell the truth there are some patterns and guidelines that might help somewhat, but there are exceptions and thus no real hard and fast rule.

Furthermore, the fact that many people don't use the right pronounciation in everyday's speech (and even that has many regional variations) doesn't help, so you can't normally guess based upon what you hear from natives (unless we're talking about trained actors with knowledge of elocution or similar situations).

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  • There are monosyllables with an ò which does not appear as the last letter of the syllable. There can't be that many monosyllables in Italian. Can you name a few of these? Also, what are some of the other cases? I'm interested. – John Sonderson Jan 16 '15 at 16:58
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    Which monosyllables are you referring to? The basic rule for monosyllables is that by default they carry no accent, except for those cases where ambiguity would ensue. So for example (verb) vs. da (conjunction), è (verb) vs. e (conjunction), vs. ne, vs. se and many others. There used to be a distinction between (verb) and do (musical note), but this is mostly pointless since there's virtually no chance for confusion given their different contexts, so nowadays one always writes a plain do (and yes, italian has /a lot/ of monosyllables). – persson Jan 16 '15 at 17:11
  • Thank you for your example which clearly points out some of the differences between monosyllables carrying a graphical stress and others that don't. As to the number of monosyllables occurring in Italian, I don't have any numbers at hand, but while there are certainly several more syllables in Italian than in English (some of these result from conjugated verb forms that do not even appear in most printed dictionaries), my guess is that when contrasted with slavic languages the number of such syllables is approximately the same, and I think knowing these ratios could be interesting. – John Sonderson Jan 16 '15 at 18:18
  • Anyways, what are some examples where you can't guess the exact spelling by just listening to native Italians (in terms of accent marks on vowels)? I'm curious. Would you consider speakers on Italian television as having knowledge of elocution? Thanks! – John Sonderson Jan 16 '15 at 18:21
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    An easy example: lots of northern italians say /per.'kɛ/ (with an open "e") when they speak, so you would be tempted to infer a "perchè" from that, which however, as you know, is wrong (it should be "perché", /per.'ke/). I don't watch italian television, however I seem to remember that elocution could vary somewhat; after all, most speakers are journalists, not actors and I suppose not many of them get proper elation training. Things should be a bit better with films. – persson Jan 17 '15 at 0:43

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