Epen[t]thesis in Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP)


Guest post by Alex from alex-ateachersthoughts.blogspot.it

How do you pronounce the term persona (‘person’) in current standard Italian? Is it peɾˈsona or peɾˈʦona? The answer is both. The former variant is the one that always features in dictionaries and textbooks on Italian pronunciation; the latter is never included in dictionaries and is characterized by what I shall call /t/-epenthesis, that is the process whereby s in Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP)  can optionally become ʦ after the consonant sounds n, r/ɾ and l. This process occurs not only word-internally but also across word boundaries. Despite its frequency and unmarkedness in contemporary spoken Italian, it is still often unjustly considered by linguists and elocutionists as a reprehensible regionalism rather than pukka SIP.

/t/-epenthesis is so widespread amongst Italian native speakers of all ages and social backgrounds – and has been so for quite a long time now – that it can be heard on both television and radio. It also frequently features in the political speeches of ex-prime minister Mario Monti and President Giorgio Napolitano. Canepari in his Manuale di Pronuncia Italiana (2004; Zanichelli) states that this phenomenon is extremely common “al Centro (compresa la Toscana, tranne Firenze e Prato)” (p.88) [in the centre of Italy, including Tuscany, but not Florence or Prato] . He then adds:

“Pure alla RAI le cose non cambiano. Anche in Lombardia orientale e settentrionale e nella Svizzera italiana e al Sud (tranne la Sardegna) c’è la stessa caratteristica, ma con diffusione meno sistematica” (p.88).
[This feature is to be heard on all RAI channels and is also typical of northern and eastern Lombardy (= the region around Milan). In addition, it can be found in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland and in the south of Italy (except in Sardinia), although here it tends to be more variable.]

Contrary to what some people think, /t/-epenthesis is not at all a speech defect. If this were so, then millions of Italians would presumably be ‘abnormal’ in the way they speak. This phenomenon, which is also to be found in current General British (GB) and General American (GA) in phonetic contexts similar to those found in Italian, is simply due to the fact that

“the speech organs instead of moving immediately from the first type of articulation to the second, anticipate the second in one or more ways so that a third type of consonant is produced on the way. For [ns] → [nts] the soft palate is raised closing the passage to the nose and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [ls] → [lts] the sides of the tongue are raised to form a complete closure and the vocal cords cease to vibrate, again before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [rs] → [rts] the tip of the tongue ceases to vibrate and forms a complete closure with the teeth-ridge and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the organs separate to form [s]” (Chapallaz, M., 1979, The Pronunciation of Italian, p.149; London: Bell & Hyman).

Failing to use /t/-epenthesis in the contexts described above can sound old-fashioned, formal, unnatural, or even comical for native speakers. A variant like, for example, inˈsjɛme for insieme (‘together’) would be described by many as a ‘stage pronunciation’, unlike inˈʦjɛme which would go pretty much unnoticed by most speakers.

You can find several examples of /t/-epenthesis in the following post by the present author here.

[1]Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP) as described here is the accent based on a geographically central variety (including the city of Rome) but lacking marked regional features.

[2] Please note that Canepari still views /t/-epenthesis merely as a characteristic of regional speech.


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