If using a grave accent as opposed to an acute accent on top of letters e and o in Italian is used to denote a difference in pronunciation when these appear on the last syllable of the word, and such syllable happens to be stressed, with è being an open e and é a closed e, then why is the Italian word perché sometimes written as perchè across the Internet instead of as perché?

After all, I've always heard the last vowel of this word being pronounced as a closed e. Could the reason for this orthographic rule be due to differences in regional pronunciations, or is there some other reason?


In response to a comment in one of the answers given below, his is an image of a magazine for kids that was popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, perhaps even later (not sure if it still exists, haven't checked!). Anyways, it illustrates two different spellings of one particular word, one using the grave accent, and the other using the acute accent, on the very same place (and this is not a misprint, this is a sample representative of thousands of magazines each of whose cover page is similar): PIÙ and Piú. Of course, in the case of 'u' there is only way to pronounce this vowel in Italian; there is no distinction made between an open pronunciation and a closed pronunciation as is the case with the letters e and o, so perhaps this does not matter much here.

"PIÙ" Magazine

(SOURCE: Link to the page where I downloaded this image)

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    Where did you ever see perché written with an è? – DaG Jan 16 '15 at 16:52
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    OK, you are no doubt correct, as the Treccani dictionary lists the correct spelling as perché. As to your question, where have I seen perchè? Just Google up the exact word, and you will get thousands of (undobtedly wrong) results that make use of this spelling. Now I'm not sure whether I should find it strange that so many people would have spelled such a common word wrong, or whether we can simply conclude that many Italians are careless with these diacritics. Thank you for your feedback. – John Sonderson Jan 16 '15 at 17:09
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    Your question, in a sense, could be turned into a sociolinguistic one, i.e., why do relatively many people get their own language's spelling wrong (it happens in other languages too, of course: just think of all the people writing “it's” meaning “its” and so on)? I don't know if there are studies about the Italian situation. – DaG Jan 16 '15 at 17:14
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    Not to mention those who write perche' (with an apostrophe) ... – persson Jan 16 '15 at 17:39
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    My personal reason: because to type é I have to press the shift key. It breaks the flow when typing on a keyboard. Also, when writing by hand I don't really distinguish the two accents for the simple fact that my handwriting is ugly and you wouldn't be able to understand which one is which anyways. – Bakuriu Jan 17 '15 at 9:14

There's more than one reason for that.

The structure of the Italian keyboard

I believe that the major reason has to be researched in the Italian keyboard: indeed, the key for è and é is the same. If it is pressed without any other keys, it outputs "è", while if it's used in combination with "Maiusc", it outputs "é".
My guess is that many people simply forget to press "Maiusc", they're too lazy to do that or they don't know that doing so will output the "e" with an other accent.

Lack of knowledge of the difference

There are plenty of Italians that simply don't know the difference between the two accents, hence they tend to always use the grave one.
This is mostly caused by the education in primary school: indeed, children are often taught the existance of just one, generic accent.

Belief that the difference between the two accents is irrelevant

Italian mother-tongues often don't need to distinguish between the two accents in order to spell a word (relatively) correctly, so they might think that the difference between them is so minimal that it's not worth distinguishing them.

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    I'd add, but it already is included in reasons #2 and #3, the questionable custom of teaching in primary schools, rather than proper accents, a generic, ˘-like sign. – DaG Jan 16 '15 at 19:13
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    As I commented above, you forgot one big reason in your first paragraph: I may be too lazy to press two keys to output é when 99% of the people don't even care. It's simply faster and easier to ignore the difference and always type è. Also on mobile phones autocompletion/autocorrection automatically puts the correct accent even if you write perche (at least on the keyboards I'm using). – Bakuriu Jan 17 '15 at 9:17
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    That's curious because in Catalan we have the word "perquè" which is similar to the Italian "perché", but the final "e" is open there. So I always thought that these "perchè" were due to different regional pronunciations. – Charo Jan 17 '15 at 9:23
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    @Charo and others: It is indeed true that in some parts of Italy “perché” is pronounced with an open final “e”, but those who, by choice or by ignorance, do not conform to standard Italian pronunciation probably are not able or willing to use the way standard Italian orthography would describe their non-standard pronunciation. – DaG Jan 17 '15 at 10:16
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    @Bakuriu you're right, I've updated my answer – Stubborn Jan 17 '15 at 12:30

Historical note. Until about the '50s (I do not have a precise date) in Italian books some accents were written "the other way around", i.e. using the grave accents where one would use the acute one today and the other way around. "Perché" was one of these words.

For example, have a look at the following page of this novel from 1902, third paragraph:

[…] Lo avevo detto io che piangevi! Perchè piangi?

Page 8 from "Dopo il divorzio"

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    Interesting remark! Only, I wouldn't say they used accents the other way around, but simply that at least some typographers only used grave accents. – DaG Jan 18 '15 at 16:31
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    They didn't use just grave accents. Another example found in later books is "piú" (with acute) instead of "più" (with grave). – gioele Jan 18 '15 at 17:21
  • Take also into account (warning: speculations ahead) that until WWII there publisher relied on regional orthographic styles rather than nation-wide rules. – gioele Jan 18 '15 at 17:22
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    Sorry, I did not mean to generalise: I only meant that, from the example you are showing (and from some random pre-war books I have browsed) one could just infer a prevalence of grave accents. Good to know about “piú”, anticipating present-day Einaudi use (see another question). – DaG Jan 18 '15 at 17:26
  • Does the book you provided an image of have any acute accents on the letter e? If so then could you kindly post a page from the same book supporting your argument? Thanks. (ALSO: Now that you mention the word più, a popular kids' magazine sold at newsagent stands since at least around 1995 or so comes to mind. The interesting thing, is that although the text is spelled as PIÙ the logo is spelled Piú. I doubt such magazine dates back to pre-WWII times but I may be wrong. I've updated my post to reflect this information. Check it out! – John Sonderson Jan 18 '15 at 20:27

IMO it's because 99% (my estimate) of Italians with an education level below university - and at least 50% of Italians with a non-language-related university education - have never, ever heard of this distinction, leave alone being taught about it in school. If one has access to a number of Italians with the above mentioned education, he/she should definitely try asking them; I'm very confident that would confirm my estimate. I personally became aware of this difference only a few years ago and by accident.

I'm also under the impression that - except in Italian language-related studies - no teacher would correct "perchè" or even perceive it as a mistake and a teacher who would correct that would likely be considered pedantic.

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    I am about to get my university degree and a few months ago I have discovered that there was a right accent and a wrong accent to the word "perché". NEver had a clue, because simply no one has ever corrected my accent errors in school or even explained there were two accents! – AltGei Aug 22 '16 at 14:11

There are four issues at hand:

  • è stands for /ɛ/, é stands for /e/; in Middle and Southern Italy "perché" is pronounced with /e/, while in Northern Italy it's pronounced with /ɛ/; the official accent is acute because Italian is modeled upon the dialect of Florence, which uses the closed variant. This means that children in the North have a hard time learning that they have to use the acute accent, because according to how they pronounce it they should use the grave accent (in Italian, letters correspond to the actual sound, more or less; much different from English); it may be that at least a part of the faulty spellers comes from this.
  • typing the acute accent is a pain on keyboards (particularly so when you need capital letters), as it was said in other answers: so most people will just use "è"
  • printing houses have long disagreed on which accent to use: there are some important ones that nowadays are still using the acute accent for "i" and "u" (refer to Luca Serianni, Grammatica italiana, chapter 1, paragraph 179); this is actually the "correct" way, because "i" and "u" are both closed vowels: the acute accent is used with closed vowels, the grave one with open vowels; but for reasons I don't know the "incorrect" way has become mainstream.
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    «nowadays a great part of Italy pronounces it with /ɛ/»: Are you from Northern Italy, by any chance? From at least Tuscany and in most of the Centre and South of Italy, an open “e” in perché sounds very characterised regionally as a Northern trait. – DaG Aug 21 '16 at 16:49
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    Ah, it's probably me being weak in the area of dialectal differences – I'll go check right now on Serianni (his college-level Grammatica italiana is the source for any grammatical doubt) and come back with clarifications. – user2750 Aug 22 '16 at 14:22
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    So, I checked Serianni and discovered my memories were half right half wrong: the merge between closed and open e and o really happens, but only OUT of accent: in this kind of instance the degree of openness depends on the consonants nearby, but will always be nearer to be closed than open. – user2750 Aug 22 '16 at 14:35
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    In the case of accented vowels, "benché non rappresentata dalla grafia, l'opposizione non è meno netta di quella che ciascun italiano è disposto a riconoscere tra mAre e mOre": he then goes on distinguishing "egli accètta" from "prendi l'accétta", "mangia la pèsca" from "vado a pésca" (but here he notices that "in molte parti d'Italia" the usage is inverted – interesting). Still I would say that at least in Northern Italy these differences go really unnoticed (we know of them only as a curiosity from one of the first italian lessons in middle school), as we only ever say pésca, vénti, accètta – user2750 Aug 22 '16 at 14:41
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    this means that Northern Italians really think of them as omophones – but it's only them (in every single area? it may not be), and not for the reason I stated in the answer. Thank'you for asking me to clarify, you gave me an occasion to correct myself! – user2750 Aug 22 '16 at 14:52

I'm Italian and I can say that every Italian don't pay attention to the slope of the accent. What you really should care about is to put it on the final syllable if needed, otherwise simply omit it. Anyway in Italian, on the final syllables the slope of the accent is almost always "é", that is on downhill, while in other languages ​​like French it can also be uphill like "è". I hope this helps

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    treccani.it/enciclopedia/… – DaG Sep 5 '19 at 13:22
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    Welcome to Italian.SE! While it is true that most Italians do not distinguish between é and è (in particular because in many parts of Italy this difference does not affect the pronunciation), there is still at the very least a typographical norm that can be observed in the dictionaries. Also, some Italians do pay attention :). – Denis Nardin Sep 5 '19 at 16:27
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    I don't understand the downvotes. The only issues I see if I look for some are that it's not "every" Italian who don't care about the slope of the accent but just the overwhelming majority (say 99%), and that you seem to have "uphill" and "downhill" backwards (if it refers to the slope). For the rest, that Treccani link just confirms that the use of the accent before the last syllable is optional, rare and limited to few cases of possible ambiguity (although I don't know what the link was intended to show), and your point about only worrying about accent if needed on the last vowel is spot on. – SantiBailors Nov 16 '19 at 8:12

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