Language Nerdery – The Italian Spelling Alphabet

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It is the kindness of Italians when you stumble through a few words of their language that I love about Italy. Sometimes, a taxi driver or shopkeeper will give you a concise but coherent sentence and you are praised like someone who has just memorized Dante. Although the overwhelming positive responses seem completely out of my grasp of Italian, it is an invaluable confidence booster that keeps me returning for more.

But, not when it comes down to calling on the phone.

To keep my linguistic skills in order, I will gladly have a conversation with my taxi driver. However, I will not make or receive a telephone call in Italian. I don’t rely on reading lips, but I am not looking at the driver when I sit in the back of the taxi. It may be physical because Italians speak with all their bodies. But most of it is due the speed at which they talk.

After all that, it is sometimes necessary to pick up the phone in Italy for travelers – like me – who are traveling there from other countries. After you have convinced the person on the other side of the phone that you really, truly need them to speak slower, the next obstacle is one you probably aren’t prepared for: Spelling.

My last name is so complicated that I must spell it over the phone every day at home. “S as in Sam,” I repeat, followed by “P as in Paula” in Italian. This is why the Italian spelling alphabet or Italian phonetic alphabet is available.

The spelling alphabet will be covered in a moment. But first, you must know the Italian alphabet. It is different from the English alphabet. It only contains 21 letters, with pronunciations in parentheses.

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)

Although the letters J, K and W are not in the Italian alphabet you will see them everywhere in words that were introduced from other languages or dialects. These five letters also have their own pronunciations:

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

Even if you have this or another pronunciation guide, M can still sound a lot like N on the phone. This is when the Italian spelling alphabet is needed.

Italian people use city names wherever possible. These are not the only ones that are commonly used. You can substitute “Savona” for “Siena” by using “Salerno” or “Salerno”. You will also find that it is possible to understand the five non-Italian letters without using one of these prompts.

meh. Each phrase will have its pronunciation listed below, which includes both the letter as well as the word.

A, come Ancona

(ah / ahn | KOH | nah)
J, have a jolly

gah / JAW
S, come Savona

(EH | seh / sah | VOH | nah)
B, come Bari

K, come kursaal

(KAH | pah / koor | SAL) **
T, Torino

C, come Como

L, come Livorno

leh / lee
U, come Udine

(oo / OO | dee | neh)
D, come Domodossola

M, come Milano

(EH | meh / mee | LAH | noh)
V, come Venezia

(vee or voo / veh | NET | zee | ah)
E, Empoli

N, come Napoli

(EH | neh / NAH | poh | lee)
W. Come Washington

yah voo or vee / WAH
F, come Firenze

(EH | feh / fee | REN | zeh)
O, come Otranto

(oh / oh | TRAHN | toh)
X, come xilofono

(eeks / see | LOH | foh | noh)
G, come Genova

(jee / JEH | noh | vah)
P, come Palermo

Y, come yogurt

kah or EEP
H, hotel

(AH | kah / OH | tel)
Q, come quarto

Z, come Zara

(ZEH | tah / ZAH | rah)
I, come Imola

R, Roma

reh / ROH

* The “jolly” (or what the Italians refer to as the “joker”) in a deck is a card that contains a number of playing cards.

** “Kursaal” is a German word.

+ These are English words. You don’t have to know how they sound. Except that Italians pronounce them slightly differently. You may not be able to understand an Italian if you speak “yogurt” and “Washington” the same way as you do in English.

Super-Handy Bonus Phrases to Talk on the Phone

  • “Io non parlo Italiano molto bene.” – I don’t speak Italian very well.
  • “Parla lentamente per favore” – Please speak slowly.

More Language Nerdery in the Internet Age

It’s not technically possible to use the letter W in Italian. Also, it isn’t always spelled out aloud – “doppiavoo voo voo” – so imagine the collective groaning in Italy when it was discovered that all web addresses had to begin with “www.” However, the Italians have a clever way of putting the beginning of each web address. Instead of saying “doppia doppia doppia voivoo voo,” they just say “voo vao voo.” Next time you ride in an Italian taxi with the radio on, listen out!

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11 Responses to “Language Nerdery – The Italian Spelling Alphabet”

  • Will Douglas:

    This is the best thing I have ever seen. There are a thousand baci.

    All right, Alitalia and Trenitalia call centres… bring it on!

  • Jessica, this is a great post! After 4 years of living in this area, I’m finally not scared to make a call. My bailiwick now includes appointments, reservations, and simple transactions. But spelling is funny. When I’m a bit flustered, I forget the alphabet cities. This should be posted in the “by the phone” spot. I suppose that means in my purse right next to my cellulare. BTW, I didn’t know about “kursaal”, and I love “VooVooVooVoo.”

  • Excellent advice! Funny that you mentioned lip reading. My glasses make it seem like I can understand foreign languages better if I have them on. It’s a combination lipreading, context, gestures, and as you say, lipreading.

  • Donald antonangeli:

    grazie,Jessica. This and any future “Italy Explained” will be shared with the members of the Italian American Club in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

  • P.steyn says:

    This is the second part

    Imagine the collective groaning in Italy when it became clear that each web address must start with “www”.

    It made me laugh out loud at work

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