Stress & Accent Marks

Stress is the audible accent that you put on a syllable as you speak it. One syllable always gets more stress than all the others. Although there is no strict rule, in most Italian words the accent or stress falls on the penultimate syllable. But for this rule there are too many exceptions.

In Italian, only vowels have accents. All vowels at the end of a word can have this accent (`), but only the “e” can have both (`) and (´). The difference lies only in the pronunciation. That is, è is pronounced very open, as in “hell”, whereas é is more closed, as in “gourmet”. Here are some examples:

  • Caffè ("kahf-feh")  »  coffee
  • Città ("cheet-tah")  »  city
  • Lunedì ("loo-neh-dee")  »  Monday
  • Perché ("pehr-keh")  »  why; because
  • Però ("peh-roh")  »  but
  • Università ("oo-nee-vehr-see-tah")  »  university
  • Virtù ("veer-too")  »  virtue

Is very unusual for Italian words to be spelt with accented letters, with very few exceptions discussed further in this page.

In ordinary spelling accented vowels are allowed, but very seldom used. Only in two cases accented vowels are commonly used:

  • Words whose last syllable carries the accent:
There are many words of this kind in Italian (nouns, verb inflections, adverbs, etc.), and some are frequently used. An accent is compulsory in this case, otherwise the stress would not be heard. Furthermore, in some cases the same word spelt without an accent even has a different meaning (see further down). A few words with a similar spelling, but whose last syllable is not stressed, are shown on the right:
  • Perché  »  why, because
  • Sarà   »  it will be   (Sara   »  Sarah, a name)
  • Perciò  »  therefore
  • Papà  »  dad   (Papa   »  pope)
  • Però  »  but, however   (Pero   »  pear-tree)
  • Farò  »  I'll do   (Faro   »  light-house)
  • Più  »  more, plus

Also several compounds of che (pronounced "ke", meaning which, that) are spelt with an accent:
  • Perché  »  why, because
  • Poiché  »  because
  • Benché  »  despite
  • Giacché  »  since
  • Sicché  »  so, therefore etc.
  • Words that have a different meaning depending on the position of the accent:
A few words have a different meaning when different syllables carry the accent. Note that the stress is in the underlined syllable:
  • àncora "ahnkohrah"  »  anchor (noun)
  • anra "ahnkohrah"  »  again, more (adverb)
  • gia "rehjah"  »  royal (adjective)
  • rea "rehjyhah"  »  direction of a movie or a play (noun)
  • capino "kahpytahnoh"  »  captain (noun)
  • pitano "kahpytahnoh"  »  they happen, they occur (verb)
  • vati "lahvahtih"  »  wash yourself
  • lati "lahvahtih"  »  masculine plural of washed
In this case, accents are not mandatory; in most cases they are not used, therefore the correct pronunciation of the word is understood only by the context of the phrase: for instance, considering the third couple of sample words, in sentences such as "sometimes strange things happen" or "he is the captain of the ship", neither of the two words could be mistaken with the other.