Italy Roundtable: Mussolini Bans the 5 Letters of the Alphabet

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I am an outsider in Italy. My Jewish heritage makes me look like an Italian outsider. But I don’t have any Italian blood in my family tree. It didn’t make sense for me to concentrate on my outside status for this month’s Italy Roundtable topic of FOREIGN.

Instead, I am doing something I love – geeking over Italian language history. It’s what I call “Italian language geekery”.

Although I find etymology fascinating, looking at alphabets takes my mind back to words. I was intrigued when I discovered that the Italian alphabet did not have the same number letters as the alphabet I grew to sing. It wasn’t until I started writing this article that I began to really dig into the history. It was very interesting to me. I hope you do, too.


Public domain photo by bernswaelz

My Italian language teachers always considered this good news: There are only 21 letters to the Italian alphabet. Although the English alphabet doesn’t have five letters, they are almost always used to “loanwords”, which are words of foreign origin that Italians have adapted, such as “yogurt,” or “jeans,” and “webcam.”

Another thing to note about the five letters that don’t make up the official Italian alphabet: Mussolini banned them in 1929.

Let me take a moment to explain.

Italian Alphabet

Italian is a direct descendant of Latin. It may be the closest living Romance language that Latin is, depending on who you ask. The ancient Latin alphabet was derived from the Etruscan alphabet. It is a descendant of the Cumae alphabet which comes from the ancient Greek alphabet. The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters. However, the Etruscans increased that number to 27. The ancient Romans reduced it to 21 letters, which they used to create the Latin alphabet.

While the 21 letters of the ancient Roman alphabet don’t correspond directly with the 21 letters of the Italian alphabet, I love the symmetry of numbers. It makes me believe there was some logic and reasoning behind it.

Here’s a list of all 21 letters in the Italian alphabet with phonetic pronunciations.

A kah) Q (coo
B – (bees) I reh)
C L (EH | leh) S (EH | seh)
D meh) T
E eh N (EH | neh) U oo
feh) O V (vee or voo)
G [jee] P – (pee). tah)

These are the five letters not included in the official Italian alphabet:

  • gah)
  • K – kappa (KAH | pah)
  • yah voo or vee)
  • X– icks
  • kah or EEP

For those who are observant, the Italian name for “Y” is the “Greek “. And “kappa,” which is the Italian name to the letter “K”, is the Greek name. As I mentioned, these five letters are mostly borrowed from foreign languages (principally Greek), and are used primarily as “loanwords”, such as the ones I just discussed. Names can also be loanwords. Although there is no “J” in Italian alphabet, it’s common enough for Italians to be able to pronounce my name.

It is difficult to say that those five letters are from “foreign languages” because all the dialects and regional languages that are still widely spoken in Italy are, in a way, “foreign languages”. Jesolo is a small town located near Venice. Juventus, a popular Turin soccer team, may also be known to sports fans. These names are not Italian, but come from regional languages.

Today, languages and dialects from regional areas are more than just accepted. They are celebrated and sometimes enshrined in local law. This wasn’t always true. It wasn’t that long ago that the dominant belief was that foreign was better than Italian. Foreign was bad.

That’s why 1929 was so difficult.

Banning Foreign Words


Mussolini in Milan, 1930 || creative commons photo via German Federal Archives

Censorship has been a powerful tool dictators have used to their advantage in many places and at different times. Censorship was one of the first measures they took to strengthen and consolidate their control over Italy when Benito Mussolini, the Fascists, rose to power in Italy in early 1920s.

Mussolini’s government, which was entirely composed of Fascists at this point, was nationalist to an extreme. It promoted “Italianization in everything to ” prevent polluting the Italian cultural.” On July 23, 1929, less than 70 years after the country’s first unification, the Italian government prohibited the use of foreign terms.

Perhaps you are already able to see where this is heading and why this particular piece of censorship was more problematic in one country than another. It was estimated that only 12 percent of the total population spoke in 1922, the year Mussolini became Prime Minster of Italy. Twelve percent. The rest spoke, you guessed, a wide variety of regional languages. Some of these had little or no resemblances to Italian and were all considered “foreign.”

Ostensibly, the goal was to increase the number of citizens who speak the official language. Fascists desired words from English, French and other foreign languages to be out of common use. However, dialects and other regional languages were placed in the same category with English and French. It was strictly forbidden to speak dialects or regional languages.

We are back at the beginning, as five letters were banned by the Italian government.

The letters were not banned per se. However, because they were used only in languages that the Fascists considered “foreign”, they were effectively blacklisted. Italian words were created where none existed before. Names were altered.

Some of these changes have remained constant. In Italy, Mickey Mouse is still known as “Topolino”, or “Little Mouse” today. Fascism was the first to ban dubbing foreign films into Italian. This was done to prevent foreign words from entering the ears of Italians. While many Italians speak their native languages and dialects, the Italian language is almost universally spoken throughout the country.

The censorship did not last and the five banned letters, along with all associated banned words, are now allowed in Italy. It was not codified in 2007 as the official language for Italy, but that’s another story.

Italian Language

These are some other things that I have written about the Italian language.

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12 Responses to “Italy Roundtable – The 5 Letters from the Alphabet Banned by Mussolini”

  • Great post. It was a surprise to me when I first saw the letter “j”, in Italian. This is the same letter that is used in the word “jella”, which can be translated as “jinx, malocchio” and it’s also called iella. It is amazing to see how Italians can use different spellings interchangeably. Calabria’s Ionian Sea (Mar Ionio), is sometimes written “Mar Jonio” – nobody blinks!

    • Jess has the following:

      I was also told that the former Yugoslavia was written in “Iugoslavia”, “Jugoslavia”, and the Y – both at the same moment, interchangeably.

  • Lorenzo says:

    Fascism did attempt to Italianize a few foreign words from Cocktail to Bar to Film to Menu to Bordeaux to Bordeaux to many other languages, but I have never heard of them trying “abolish” letters.

    The semivocalic J in Italian was a dying feature. J was one of the last Latin letters added. It is only a few crystalized instances that remain (Jesolo (Juventus in Latin), Jacopo ….)). It was replaced by the geminate i. in the XIX Century. Mussolini may have realized that the letters were slowly disappearing by themselves and therefore had only one job.

    • Jess has the following:

      Lorenzo, the entire article will show that the censorship was of foreign words. The article was not technically about the letters being banned. However, they were used primarily for foreign words and were therefore effectively prohibited.

  • Gloria has the following:

    Names were also changed. Walter, for example, was changed to Valerio or Gualtiero like my great-grandfather.

  • Roy Scarbrough

    This is really fascinating. It was Mickey Mouse of Mussolini who made it possible for children in Italy to call the cartoon character another name.

  • Jessica, this is an interesting read. “Censorship” has been a powerful tool dictators have used to benefit in many places and at different times. This is especially true in the current political climate. Gloria said that although I didn’t know this, I was aware of the name changes. My ex-boyfriend’s grandfather was changed from Spartacus to Spartacus, which clearly signified revolt, not practical for the time period )…

  • Jessica, this is a great article! It was always a mystery to me why Mickey Mouse was named Topolino. It never occurred to me that it might be connected to Mussolini.