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In modern standard Italian, common written text (text which does not appear within dictionaries where stressed syllables take accent marks, and text which does not use accent marks on vowels which are not ending vowels in order to produce emphatic visual differentiation effects based on differences in pronunciation) is written using the following diacritic-carrying letters and no others, with such accent mark-carrying letters occurring only as last letters of words: à, è, é. ì, ò, and ù.

Given that the only letter that can carry two different accent marks in such manner (i.e. when appearing in the final position of a word) is the letter e (è or é), are there any pairs of Italian words of the form ...è and ...é where the ... part is the same in both and the only differing letter is the final è or é, and the two words have incompatible distinct meanings?

I would be interested in the list of all such pairs.

  • 6
    My impression is that there's none. – egreg Jan 19 '15 at 8:37
  • Thanks. That was my impression too, but I just wanted to double check. Given that there are no such words, in practice, Italian could easily make use of a single type of accent (e.g. just the grave accent for all letters). Your answer explains why the difference between one accent mark and the other is often not taught to kids in primary (and middle?) school. Thanks! – John Sonderson Jan 19 '15 at 15:32
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    I don't think you could just use one type of accent. That there is no possible ambiguity between, say, "perché" and "perchè" (because the latter does not exists) doesn't mean that only one type of accent could be enough. As things stand now, the accent also defines pronunciation, so we need both accents to be able to tell whether we have to say /e/ or /ɛ/. (Unless, of course, you also introduce a phonetic system where "e" has only one possible sound, as in spanish, for example.) – persson Jan 19 '15 at 16:23
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    Also, as pointed out elsewhere, the stress on the final syllable often does not reflect everyone's pronounciation, thus making the distinction even more useless in such location. It doesn't hurt to know the correct accent mark on final e, but such knowledge often does not give a complete clue about pronounciation differences across different Italian provinces. Such differences have perhaps developed precisely because of the answer to the question I posted: the fact that in there are no Italian words differing only in the final è or é... – John Sonderson Jan 19 '15 at 16:35
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    Italian is different from english. Local variations aren't automatically considered equally valid, and having leeway for regionalisms isn't necessarily regarded as a good thing (again: as things stand now and looking at how these things have historically developed). If half the people keep saying "perchè" (I'm among them), that doesn't make it less wrong, even if everyone else understands them. I'm not saying this is good or bad, or that it can't or won't change in the future. – persson Jan 19 '15 at 16:51
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I don't know of any pair where the final acute or grave accent distinguishes the words and would bet there aren't any. There are only minimal pairs of words where the accent is not marked: pésca (fishing) and pèsca (peach) is the classical example, but both are simply written pesca.


The question why two forms of the graphic accents are used (acuto and grave) on words ending with a tonic e has been dealt with in Why is perché sometimes written perchè instead of perché? and also in Perché a volte si scrive l'accento acuto sulla "i" o sulla "u"?

My opinion is that the accent on oxytone words (words where the stress is on the last syllable) is just a historical artifact and is by no means necessary nor useful. We learn how to read tavolo, tallero, andiamocene without any need of marking a graphic accent, so we might as well learn to correctly read citta, virtu and so on.

A policy on graphic accents similar to the norm in Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan would be much better and useful.

However the prevailing norm is to mark the accent on oxytone words and distinguish between é and è, so I follow it.

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As far as I'm aware, the only pair of words spelled as such in Italian are:

The list increases somewhat if you expand your criteria from words ending ...è vs ...é to words with terminal stress /ˈɛ/ vs /ˈe/ (seemingly all monosyllabic):

  • re vs re
  • v'è vs ve, 've, ve' (veh)
  • c'è vs ce
  • 1 vs UE
  • me' vs me, me'
  • che vs che
  • deh vs de, de'
  • neh vs ne, , ne'
  • 4, te' vs te
  • è, eh, he vs e, e'
  • (beè), be' (beh) vs be2,

1. Onomatopoeic
2. Antiquated or regional variant of bi (B)
3. Chemical symbol
4. Alternate (rarer) spellings: thè, the



Further Note

Most Italian polysyllabic words ending ...è are naturalised loanwords from French, given names, or contractions with ... + è. Almost all those ending ...é are compounds of ... + ché or numbers whose unit part is three (... + tre (tré)):

"...è"

bebè (from Fr. bébé)
bidè (from Fr. bidet)
bignè (from Fr. beignet)
corvè (from Fr. corvée)
cupè (from Fr. coupé)
defilè (from Fr. défilé)
gilè (gile) (from Fr. gilet)
lacchè (from Fr. laquais)
narghilè (narghile) (from Fr. narghilé)
nattè (from Fr. natté)
oboè (òboe) (from Fr. hautbois) (antiquated spelling)
purè (from Fr. purée)
relè (from Fr. relais)

caffè, tostacaffè, macinacaffè (from Ottoman Turkish قهوه‎ (kahve))
macramè (from Turkish makreme)

aloè (àloe) (from Lat. alŏe, from Gr. ἀλόη)

ahimè (aimè, omè) (ahi +‎ me)
cioè (ciò + è*)
com'è (come + è)
cos'è (cosa + è)
dov'è (dove +‎ è)
piè (piede)

fendè (fendé) (third-person singular past historic of fendere)
temè (temé) (third-person singular past historic of temere)

Eunoè (given name, coined by Dante from Greek eu + nous)
Giosuè (given name, cog. Joshua)
Iosè (given name, cog. Josephine)
Letè (Lete) (given name, from Lat. Lethe) (antiquated spelling)
Mosè (given name)
Noè (given name, from Ancient Greek Νῶε (Nôe))


"...é"

• alé, d'emblée, mercé, testé, marron glacé

• acciocché, affinché, allorché, ancorché, benché, centotré, checché, cosicché, conciossiaché, dacché, finché, fintantoché, fuorché, giacché, granché, imperocché, nonché, ondeché, perché, poiché, purché, sicché, sinché, talché, tantoché, trentatré, tuttoché

• ventitré, cinquantatré, sessantatré, settantatré, ottantatré, novantatré, centoventitré, centotrentatré, centoquarantatré, centocinquantatré, centosessantatré, centosettantatré, centottantatré, centonovantatré, duecentotré, cinquecentotrentatré, cinquecentoquarantatré, cinquecentocinquantatré, cinquecentosessantatré, cinquecentosettantatré, cinquecentonovantatré

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  • 3
    Great answer! I'd just add, among the “...é”-words, some passati remoti: poté, batté (and its composites sbatté, ribatté...), perhaps someone else. – DaG Mar 15 '18 at 13:52

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