The "a" sound in Italian and Romanian, is identified as the central unrounded vowel and represented as being practically identical, very close to [ä].

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Although a is used in these images to indicate [ä].

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(Complete IPA chart with sound here.)

But, as a native Romanian speaker, when I try to pronounce correctly an Italian word like "casa" (house), I have to go rather far away from my Romanian "a" of the otherwise similar word "casa" (the house).

On the one hand, I definitely keep my mouth less open when I say "a" in Romanian than when I try to pronounce it like in Italian (contrary to what I see in the images; but those representations were not made in relation to one another, so that doesn't really count: it might very well be that the authors of the Romanian chart wanted to represent a much more closed position than what was intended for Italian). On the other hand, when I hear the Italian "casa" - like here , here or here it definitely seems to me much closer to the front "a" [a] - at least relative to the Romanian sound.

Here's how I say in Romanian casa mea - casa ("my house" - "the house").

For the sake of argument I'd say that what I hear is closer to this:

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(- and that only vaguely and relatively to one another; I could imagine pushing Romanian "a" even more to the right and up, closer to English [ʌ], like in cut.)

It seems to me that internet audio resources focused on Romanian pronunciation take little account of the open-close (and none at all of the back-front) variability of the open unrounded vowel, and that the it is pronounced differently (closer to Italian, more open) when separate - than when it is used in a word. I think I've noticed that here or here.

See here pronunciation of Romanian "patru" vs Italian "quatro". More here.

(I notice that in such examples Romanian words are pronounced with a bit more open "a" than what happens in a fluent phrase. In the latter example I even suspect a self-awareness of comparison to Italian from the part of the Romanian speaker, so she says it "clearer", more open, and thus closer to Italian. The purpose of such videos is just to show "how one says it" in Romanian, what the word is - beside the fact that when it comes to Italian showing probable similarity is the purpose; and the phonemic/phonetic aspect is overlooked. -- I have even noticed in Romanian more than in other cases that people tend to think that not only there must be just one vowel per letter and one letter per vowel in Romanian, but that a Romanian vowel like "a" must be the same in other languages.)

I guess the difference from Italian can be noticed more in longer phrases, like here.

Even more useful would be to look at longer examples in separate videos: a dialogue (partly about language) in standard Romanian here; one in and about Italian here).

How different is the Romanian "a" from the Italian one if at all?

I know that slight differences are to be expected anyway. But am I totally wrong in what I've argued above?

1 Answer 1


Short answer: there is more variation than what is expected, but the data could be interpreted 'on average' to show that Romanian has more instances of a back /a/ than Italian.

The /a/ phoneme covers a fairly wide range of realisations in both languages. As there is no phonemic /æ ~ a ~ ɑ/ distinction (compared with most pronunciations of English, Dutch, Afrikaans, and conservative or dialectal French), the /a/ phoneme is permitted in both Italian and Romanian to have a rather free range.

Romanian does have a highly loaded distinction between /a/ and /ə~ʌ/, e.g. casă vs casa, and as can be seen from the F1-F2 plots, these are adjacent but distinct.

There are indications that both /a/ phonemes are significantly affected by sociolinguistic variety. The /a/ of the regional Italian in many parts of southern Italy such as Naples, as well as in parts of the northwest such as Piedmont, is backed compared to 'true' central [ä]. On the other hand, Milan has a higher [a] than Rome and Florence, and the high media exposure of that particular accent may contribute to the perception of a 'higher' /a/ than standard Romanian.

Even within Tuscany, the 'home' of standard Italian, there is significant variation in /a/. Parts of Tuscany, e.g. Anghiari in Arezzo, front [a] in certain environments (e.g. Eastern Tuscan casa has [æ] as its stressed vowel, but a more central [a] in the stressed vowel of carta); but other parts of Tuscany, e.g. Pisa, traditionally back [a] to [ɑ].

Romanian also has a range of dialectal variation. Moldova for example has an /a/ that can be somewhat more centralised, so much so that it has been cited as part of the Moldovan accent in Italian - long stressed Italian /a/ being slightly diphthongised as [aɐ].

However, the most salient issue is that Romanian has a wider range of environments for its /a/, notably in the orthographic diphthongs ea and oa, as well as frequently preceding syllable-final /l/. Thus, as can be seen in some comparative F1-F2 charts from a 2012 study, Romanian vowels cluster less neatly than Italian vowels for a single speaker; i.e. they all vary somewhat more, and especially /a/ when /e̯a/ and /o̯a/ are added. The Italian /a/ in that study takes up a subset of that Romanian /a/, and that subset is within the 'higher' region of the Romanian /a/.


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