Biscotti (bis) Note 1

BiscottiThe biscotti to the left are partially coated in chocolate - yum!  The word Biscotti in Italian is the plural of biscotto. Americans seem to assume that "biscotti" is singular, and so they speak of one biscotti, two biscottis. But Italian, which is closer to Latin than the other major Romance languages, never makes plurals by adding "s". In Italian, it's one biscotto, two biscotti (just as in Latin, it's one alumnus, two alumni).

Quite a number of names of people, towns, and regions in Italian end in the letter "i" (e.g. Berlusconi, Todi, Chianti). But among improper nouns, apart from a small number of words of Greek origin (such as tesi, meaning "thesis"), Italian nouns ending in "i" are mostly plural. Thus biscotti, panini, gnocchi, and spaghetti are all plural in Italian. Spaghetti means "little strings" (spago = "string", add diminutive ending -ettospaghetto = "little string", plural spaghetti).

An Italian word even more frequently misused in the US than biscotto/biscotti is panino/panini. In Italian, pane means "bread". Swapping the final "e" for the diminutive ending -ino gives panino, meaning "little bread". And indeed, Italian sandwiches are often made on rolls that look like miniaturized versions of larger Italian loaves. American delis routinely have signs advertising their "paninis". I suppose one could argue that while biscotti and panini are plural in Italian, they are singular in English. The funny thing is, nobody seems to have any trouble saying gelato (plural gelati).  Note 2

Americans generally use words like "spaghetti" and "gnocchi" as if they were singular non-count (mass) nouns. But to a native speaker of Italian, these words are unquestionably plural. I once heard a student in an Italian class say to another, "Gnocchi might be technically plural, but you'd never use it in the singular." Unfortunately for that theory, our native Italian teacher, Sabrina, overheard the remark. She said, "Huh?? What if you dropped one on the floor?" A native speaker would have no hesitation about saying, "Ho fatto cadere uno gnocco" ("I dropped a gnocco").  Note 3

So similarly, if you drop a single strand of spaghetti, you can say, "I dropped a spaghetto". Well, you can say it in Italian ("Ho fatto cadere uno spaghetto"). In English, you'd have to say, "I dropped some spaghetti", or "I dropped a strand of spaghetti".

Italian makes wonderful use of diminutive and augmentative suffixes. I've already mentioned above the diminutive suffixes -ino and -etto, used to create panino (little bread) and spaghetto (little string). The suffix -cello is another diminutive, while the suffix -one (pronounced "OH-nay") is an augmentative, which makes things bigger. Thus, if you take the word for "soup", minestra, and modify it with -one, you get minestrone, a thick, hearty soup.

Diminutives and augmentatives create the names of the family of string instruments in Italian, which then were taken up by English (as were so many musical terms). Starting with a viola (English "viola"), you can make it smaller with a suffix: violino ("violin"). Or you can make it bigger, violone ("bass"). Then shrink the violone a bit to get a violoncello ("cello").

My friend Phil Radoff pointed out that Italian can use a double diminutive, or even a combination of a diminutive and an augmentative. Indeed, I then noticed that violoncello is formed with an augmentative suffix followed by a diminutive suffix. Spaghetti already has a diminutive ending, but that doesn't stop the Italians from adding another one: consider spaghettini (sort of "little little strings"). Then look at the word panettone. Add a diminutive ending to pane ("bread") to get panetto, a word used by itself to refer to a block of butter. But now extend it to panettone, and you get a word which my dictionary defines as "a kind of spiced brioche with sultanas, eaten at Christmas."

Perhaps the most magnificent word created by piling on Italian prefixes and suffixes was created by Dante Alighieri in De vulgari eloquentia. It's the word:


The best we can do with it in English is "very, very, magnificently".

In addition to misusing Italian plurals, Americans have problems with Italian pronunciation. Pretty much everyone knows how to pronounce chianti ("kee-YAN-tee"), and most people don't have a problem with scherzo ("SCARE-tsoh"). If you've lived in New England in recent years, you'll know the name of the New England Patriots football player Tedy Bruschi ("BREW-ski"). So why do so many people mispronounce bruschetta? It should be "brew-SKET-ta", but people say "brew-SHEH-tah". The combination "ch" in Italian is ALWAYS pronounced like a "k". There are no exceptions.

Further confusion is being thrown on this issue by a commercial company that calls itself "Freschetta". They advertise heavily, and pronounce their name "freh-SHEH-ta", despite the fact that it seems to be a diminutive of the Italian word for "fresh", fresco. When adding the diminutive -etta ending, the "h" needs to be added after the "c" precisely to maintain the "k" sound of the "c". I imagine that Freschetta wants the name to sound like the English word "fresh", rather than the Italian fresco. Commentaries on web sites indicate that some people think that Freschetta is responsible for misleading people about how to pronounce bruschetta. But in my opinion, people were mispronouncing bruschetta long before Freschetta came along.

By the way, the murals that go by the name "frescos" (in English) are called that because the paint is applied while the plaster is still wet ("fresh"). And in Italian, the plural of fresco is freschi - notice that "h" that has to be stuck in to keep the "c" hard when the final "o" is changed to an "i".

OK, I'll now tell you more than you need to know, as is my wont. If you don't want the details, just skip down to the conclusion. For you sticklers like me who really want to know the rules in Italian relative to the above, here they are:

Rule 1: Pronunciation of G, C, and SC:

  Before e or i: soft Otherwise: hard
 G as in English Gist as in English Go
 C as in English CHurch as in English Cat
SC as in English SHow as in English SCant

Rule 2: Pronunciation of H:

The letter H is always silent

Rule 3: Pronunciation of I after G or C:

Immediately after a G or C,
and immediately before another vowel,
an unstressed I is silent

As a result of Rule 2, an H can be put after a G, C, or SC to force it to be pronounced hard. The H will have no other effect, because it is silent. Hence Chianti: the C is pronounced like a K, because it's in front of an H, not in front of an I or an E. The H itself is silent, and the I is pronounced, because it doesn't immediately follow a C or a G. Thus the result is like "kianti".

As a result of Rule 3, an I can be put after a G, C, or SC to force it to be pronounced soft. If the I is unstressed and in front of another vowel, it will have no other effect, because it will be silent. Thus the Italian name Gianni is pronounced like the English name "Johnny". It is NOT "Gee-onny". And the wine pinot grigio is pronounced "PEE-noh GREE-djoe", NOT "PEE-noh GREE-djee-oh".

Farmacia is "far-ma-CHEE-a", because the I is stressed (and the C is pronounced soft, like an English CH, because it's in front of an I). In Italian, as in English, you just have to know which syllable is stressed, unless that syllable is a final vowel, in which case an accent mark is put over it, as in città. Note 4   Otherwise, consult a dictionary to find the stressed syllable. But I think that a stressed I after C or G is most often found in endings like "–cia" ("farmacia") and "–gia" ("allergia").


Go out to an Italian restaurant, have a nice meal, read the menu, and practice your pronunciation! Enjoy a nice bruschetta appetizer ("brew-SKET-ta"), or a bowl of minestrone ("mee-nay-STROH-nay"). Try the chicken parmigiana ("par-mee-DJAH-nah"), or some spaghetti (without that "h", it would be pronounced "spah-DJEH-tee"). Have a glass of pinot grigio ("PEE-noh GREE-djoe") Note 5 Enjoy a dolce ("DOL-chay"). Have a few biscotti with your coffee. Finish with a limoncello ("little lemon"). Call it research. Ignore the waiter's pronunciation.

Mangia!  Ciao.


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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted June 17, 2010, and updated December 21, 2012

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   I'm using "(bis)" here in the sense of "again, encore" (a common usage), because I wrote a previous entry called "Biscotti" (in which I explain the origin of that word). If I write a third entry with the title "Biscotti", it will be called "Biscotti (ter)", for "third time". Of course, this is the same "bis", with the same meaning, that begins the word biscotti itself.

I think we mostly see "(bis)" in song lyrics, where it is put after a line to indicate "sing this line twice".   [return to text]

Note 2:   In an October, 2011 trip to France, I discovered that even The French use "panini" in the singular. France borders Italy, and the French, like the Italians, speak a Romance language. So if even the French can't get this straight, I give up.   [return to text]

Note 3:   I've studied Italian with Sabrina for many years, initially with Concord-Carlisle Adult and Community Education, and then privately. Click this Italian with Sabrina link to see her web page.   [return to text]

Note 4:   I'd be grateful if anyone could explain to me the history of marking a stressed vowel only if it's at the end of a word. It seems bizarre. One would think that Italian would mark either all stressed vowels, or none. Apparently that would have been too simple.   [return to text]

Note 5:   The pinot is pronounced as French, and grigio in Italian means "gray", so this wine is made from a gray pinot grape (in French, pinot gris).   [return to text]