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Italian words with the format vowel + s + vowel are typically pronounced /z/, like:

  • mese
  • cosa
  • esercizio

But some words break this rule, and are pronounced /s/, like:

  • stasera (because it comes from "sera", which has an initial s and is always pronounced /s/)
  • presidente (I don't know if there's a reason for this one)

Are there any other words that follow the pattern of "stasera" and "presidente"?

  • What is "mesa"? However I've got the feeling that this would be too broad to be answered here. – kos Jul 14 '15 at 18:48
  • You're right, I meant mese, I'll change it. I don't know about broad, I'd just like to know if there are any other words. Those are the only two I could find – nachocab Jul 14 '15 at 18:50
  • Right, but "prestare" isn't vowel + s + vowel. All words that have an "s" followed by a consonant like "t" are pronounced /s/ – nachocab Jul 14 '15 at 19:08
  • Ah you're right! Then I'll go for "presidiare" ("presidio", "presidi", "presidia", [...], "presidiante", "presidiato", [...]) – kos Jul 14 '15 at 19:10
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    Yes, personally I'd suggest to begin by following “standard Italian” pronunciation, and at the same time – if so inclined – paying attention to the different regional variants. For instance, you'll notice that zio (“uncle”) is often pronounced /dzio/ rather than the “standard” /tsio/; and some people, especially in the North, open their closed vowels, so that /per'ke/ (perché, “why/because”) becomes /per'kɛ/, orthographical cue notwithstanding. – DaG Jul 14 '15 at 20:01
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There is not a fixed rule for which words in which an intervocalic “s” occurs are to be pronounced with a /s/ and which ones with a /z/. Short of having well clear the origin and evolution of each word, one has to check each on a dictionary.

Of the examples in the question, the tradizional, standard Italian pronunciation for mese is /'mese/ (see Dizionario di ortografia e pronunzia by Migliorini et al., Treccani dictionary, De Mauro dictionary, the paper ones I have checked – Devoto-Oli, Zingarelli – etc.), for cosa is /'kɔsa/ (DOP, Treccani, De Mauro), while for esercizio is /ezer'tʃitsjo/ (DOP, Treccani, De Mauro). So two out of three have /s/ rather than /z/.

Other works, like the already mentioned one by Canepari, take into account regional variants which can differ from these.

Especially for a foreigner studying Italian, personally I'd suggest to begin by following “standard Italian” pronunciation, while at the same time – if so inclined – paying attention to the different regional variants. For instance, one will notice that zio (“uncle”) is often pronounced /dzio/ rather than the “standard” /tsio/; and some people, especially in the North, open their closed vowels, so that /per'ke/ (perché, “why/because”) becomes /per'kɛ/, orthographical cue notwithstanding.

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Disclaimer: I am Italian native speaker but not a linguist nor an expert of any sort.

In my experience this is highly regional and maybe even simply north / south. F.ex. I cannot imagine anyone from Napoli (south Italy) pronouncing "mese" or "cosa" with the /z/ (it's always /s/) and I cannot imagine anyone from Bologna (north Italy) pronouncing them with /s/ (it's always /z/).

Actually - as I lived many years in the north - I'm trying to think of any "vowel + s + vowel" non-composite word that a northerner would pronounce with /s/ and none is coming to my mind. I will update this post if some does come to my mind.

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  • I remember a priest in Catania who always said /spiritozanto/, pronouncing “Spirito Santo” as a single word. – egreg Aug 20 '15 at 20:01
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According to the "Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana" of L. Canepari, the modern and neutral pronunciation tends to use /s/ (unvoiced) between vowels only in the case of composite words, in which the second element starts with -sV- (V is any vowel) and maintains an independent semantic value. This is the case of "stasera" and "presidente" (comes from the Latin present participle praesidēre formed by "siedere" with "pre" as a prefix). Other examples are: "controsenso", "caposala", "presalario", "risalire", "risaltare", "girasole", etc. Despite this general rule you can hear /-VzV-/ in the South.

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You claim your first examples to be an "S sonora". I couldn't understand the difference, because in my Italian pronunciation (I am a native Italian speaker) all your examples sound the same. So I did some research and it turns out that, as a general rule, vowel + s + vowel should be a "S sorda" (your second list of examples), but exceptions might arise depending of the region in Italy, making your question very interesting to me. I hope this wikipedia page helps you: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/S_sorda

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    Welcome to Italian.SE! – Charo Jul 14 '15 at 21:35
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    Esercizio con la “s sorda” mi farebbe rizzare i capelli, esattamente come Brasile con lo stesso suono. – egreg Jul 18 '15 at 20:29
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    Ok, apprezzo la tua opinione, per me sono entrambi accettabili. – Silvia Ghinassi Jul 18 '15 at 20:57

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