Monday, 13 April 2009


In last Friday’s Guardian, Alexander Chancellor commented:
It took the BBC all week to master the correct pronunciation of L'Aquila, the Italian city devastated by the earthquake. Broadcasters as famous as John Humphrys and Fiona Bruce started out by calling it la-QUEE-la, but more surprisingly, even reporters on the spot got it wrong.
Duncan Kennedy, who was described by the corporation as its Rome correspondent, also called it la-QUEE-la, while George Alagiah, who had hastened to Italy to address us from among the ruins, gave it the more rarefied pronunciation of la-KEE-la, as if it were a Mexican liqueur. It should, of course, be pronounced LA-qui-la (with the stress on the first syllable).
The BBC's pronunciation research unit is sadly not succeeding in its proclaimed purpose "to ensure that pronunciations used on the BBC are accurate and consistent".

The fault lies not with the BBC Pronunciation Unit, but with newsreaders and reporters who do not bother to consult the database the Unit provides. The Pron Unit will certainly have the correct pronunciation on file, and as far as I am aware always responds promptly and accurately to enquiries.
The name L’Aquila is not in British pronunciation dictionaries (perhaps it ought to be), but it is in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch, as ˈlaːku̯ila.
Once upon a time any educated person had some knowledge of Latin. Not any more. But classicists will tell you that the Latin word for ‘eagle’, the origin of this name, is ăquĭla (with a short i). As readers of this blog will know by now, a Latin word in which the penultimate vowel is short and not followed by a consonant cluster has its stress on the antepenultimate. This Latin rule still works for Italian, as long as you know the Latin vowel quantity, lost as such in Italian.
And by the way, the Latin word for ‘songs’ is carmĭna, so this word too was/is stressed on the antepenultimate. As far as Orff’s Carmina Burana goes, insisting on this stressing seems to be becoming a lost cause.


  1. Thank you for mentioning my country's woes. I live very far from the affected area, but I have friends and relatives there: all of them are well, even if their houses are now in bad need of repair.

    The city's name is /'lakwila/. Vowel length is not phonemic, and long allophones are rare under antepenultimate stress anyway, so, in my opinion, Duden's /aː/ is not a good idea: the result might be one of those exceedingly long /ɑː/'s that we find either hilarious or irritating when Germans try to pronounce Italian.

    The transcription I gave can be found in prof. Luciano Canepari's authoritative Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana, most of which is available as a free download. It uses a standard IPA phonemic transcription with which I agree, even if I don't agree with the strong criticism of the simplicity principle that Canepari expresses elsewhere.

    Indeed, Italian stress can be determined by Latin vowel quantity, which also brought about the distribution of /ɛ/,/ɔ/ versus /e/,/o/, at least for those speakers who have them as separate phonemes and not as context-conditioned allophones. Both laws have their fair share of exceptions, of course.

    The definite article in L'Aquila was officially added only in 1939, when the Roman eagle was one of the symbols of the fascist state. Most authors agree that the city has originally been named after the bird, either because it evolved from a hilltop castle that was “an eagle's nest”, or because an eagle was in Frederick II's coat of arms. However, in Dizionario di toponomastica, UTET, Torino 1990, Carla Marcato cites both the accepted etymology and the opinion of G. Alessio and M.M. de Giovanni, who link Aquila and other placenames to Latin aqua, “water”. That would yield the meaning “rivulet”.

    As for BBC's la-QUEE-la, I heard it, but the Guardian's “all week” is an exaggeration. I always watch the World Service, and they had already got it right by Wednesday.
    On the other hand, CNN's reporting was flawless.

  2. George Alagiah did my blood pressure no good at all, especially when at one point he was joined on screen by another BBC reporter, who consistently got the pronunciation right. Alagiah ploughed on with his oddity regardless.

    However, one must admit that Italian word-stress has a few traps for the unwary. The vast majority of words, called parole piane in Italian have stress on the penult. There are quite a few with final stress, called parole tronche, but for most of these Italian orthography helpfully marks the stressed vowel with an acute or a grave accent. But for words with antepenultimate stress, which have the splendid name of parole sdrucciole, there is no help from the spelling.

    Way back in the mists of time I lived in Italy for a while. Not long after I arrived I plucked up enough courage to take myself to a restaurant unaccompanied. I ordered Fegato alla Veneziana, which, as you probably know, is calves' liver fried with onions. There are thousands of Italian words ending -ato, most of them the past participles of first conjugation verbs -- preparato, portato etc. There are also some nouns ending thus, soldato (soldier) is an example. They are all stressed on the penult. But I was somewhat taken aback when I ordered my feGAto. The waiter barked "FEgato" at me, snatched away my menu and stumped off to get it.

    Knowing the derivation of this word (I didn't) would have been no help. It apparently derives from "iecur ficatum", which I suppose one should translate as "figgy liver" and, according to some, this term refers to a traditional dish of goose liver cooked with figs. However, I am pretty sure (John will correct me if I am wrong) that ficatum should have penultimate stress, so the sdrucciolicity of fegato remains a mystery.

    By the way, the dear old Guardian managed to call the town both L'Aquila and L'Aquilia with a few lines.

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  4. George, the “sdrucciolicity” of fegato has been extensively studied for decades. I'll try to answer as briefly as I can.

    “Figgy liver” came to Rome from the East, and iecur ficātum was the translation of its Greek name. Both Latin and Greek gave up their original “liver” word and started using the “figgy” word instead (modern Greek σ(υ)κώτι). Romance forms derive from three variants: (1) ficātum: Romania, Corsica, Northeastern Italy (2) *fícatum: Central and Southern Italy, Spain (without Catalan Caountries), Portugal (3) *fítacum: Northwestern Italy, France, Catalan Countries; in Sardinia we find reflexes of all three. The third variant is clearly a metathesis, no problem. The second one is what you asked about. Giacomo Devoto (Dizionario Etimologico) believed that back-and-forth borrowing between Longobardic and Vulgar Latin could explain it, while Gerhard Rohlfs (Grammatica storica della lingua italiana e dei suoi dialetti) derived it from Greek. I side with Rohlfs, but the fascinating details and the amount of historical linguistic knowledge put forth in the debate are really too much for an off-topic comment. Excuse me if I stop here.

  5. The passage from ficātum to fégato does not seem particularly surprising. The fact is that "the vast majority of words, called parole piane in Italian have stress on the penult" is a common idea, but does not correspond entirely to reality. It is true for the majority of suffixed words (but for words in /ato/ there is an even more macroscopical exception than fegato, i.e. sàbato 'Saturday'). As far as unanalyzable words are concerned, however, one cannot seriously try to draw a generalisation. The only rule which has almost no exception is the fact that a word with a closed penultimate syllable is 'piano' (e.g. corrénte 'current', Palérmo). Words with an open penult may be either 'piani' or 'sdruccioli', and I spent much time and energies to explain to foreigners that there is no rule for this. You simply have to memorize it. However, I am persuaded that the 'piano' template is preferred for words which end in a sequence identical to a suffix (e.g. farìna 'flour', balcòne 'balcony'), and the 'sdrucciolo' one is preferred for the other words. (Note that I speak of tendencies, and not of rules, because we'd have *fegàto and *sabàto in this case). In fact, you find many stress shifts from an etymological piano template to a sdrucciolo template, but almost none the other way round (the only one I am aware of is Lat. varĭcem > It. varìce 'varix'). Just some examples: valùto > vàluto 'I evaluate', amàca > àmaca 'hammock', explētus > éspleto 'I accomplish').

  6. Would RP favor /"l{kwIl@/ or /"lA:kwIl@/?

  7. I see that "Burana" is left as an exercise to the reader.

  8. ˈlækwɪlə. Compare "aquiline".
    I call them the ˈkɑːmɪnə bəˈrɑːnə.

  9. I think it's better to say that Latin stress is on the antepenult if the penult vowel is short and the syllable is open, rather than speaking of consonant clusters. In particular, this neatly accounts for the 'mutus cum liquida' exception that gives us 'integrum rather than in'tegrum, because gr is entirely in the onset. AFAIK this rule was abandoned in Vulgar Latin, so none of the Romance languages show it.

  10. I am a professional classical singer, and although most of my colleagues can correctly pronounce texts in medieval Latin -- some can even manage the difference between the Italian and the German varieties -- I have never met one who knew to stress "carmina" on the first syllable. This is because the word happens not to occur anywhere in the sung text of Orff's Carmina Burana; if it did, the music would make clear where the stress falls.

    For my part, since I cannot hope to instill the correct pronunciation, I call the work Cabana Banana.

  11. Lat time one of my English learners asked me if it is correct to pronounce a foreign city as in the language from it comes or if we have to make it sound like English..

  12. So nobody is going to respond to the Burana comment? From the rules as I read them, the accent should be on the first syllable there too. I've been correcting people for years as to the Carmina issue, particularly difficult thanks to the musical Rent. But now I feel like I've misled some with my possible mispronunciation of Burana. Aaagh. Experts?

  13. @Anonymous: I stress the middle syllable of Burana as the Latin adjectival ending -anus usually has a long a. Unlike John Wells, I do not use a schwa in the first syllable though: I think I flip-flop between and bjʊ, or possible bjʊə. I'd use an ɑː in the middle syllable despite the fact that, for anglicized Latin, it should be : reconsructed Latin seems to have ousted traditional English Latin in -anus and its forms, perhaps for reasons of decorum! (Though the common pronunciation of Uranus goes against this idea.)

    Going back to Italian sdrucciolous words/names, can anyone explain how Otranto came to be stressed on the first syllable despite the heavy penultimate? Thank you, by the way, to whoever pointed out that Canepari's dictionary is available on-line: I have a print copy, but of course it's not always with me.

  14. I read that L'Aquila which is an Italian city was destroyed by an earthquake! First of all, I think obout all people who lost everyhing, people who died, and finally, the material loss.

  15. wow great i have read many articles about this topic and everytime i learn something new i dont think it will ever stop always new info , Thanks for all of your hard work!