Home: How to correctly pronounce the lyrics to «'O Sole Mio» and other Neapolitan songs and operas

'O Sole Mio is a classic of Neapolitan music written in 1898 by Giovanni Capurro and composed by Eduardo di Capua. Neapolitan music or la conzone napoletana is a stand-alone category of songs quite distinct from other Italian music, because Neapolitan is a different language from Italian. It therefore has a different pronunciation, and anyone who attempts to pronounce Neapolitan songs like «'O Sole Mio» using the Standard Italian rules of pronunciation is making a mistake.

What is going on? Isn't
'O Sole Mio written in Italian?
Many people believe there is only one Italian language with many dialects. The reality is very different, and many of these so-called dialects are actually languages with rules of grammar and literary histories unto themselves. For example, did you know the first sonnets were written in Sicilian? Or that Venetian gave us many English words like ballot, contraband, and quarantine (in addition to inventing the Italian word ciao)? Even today's Standard Italian started off as a dialect and was popularized by Dante. All of these are "Italian dialects" (as in dialects "of Italy", and not dialects "of Italian").

All educated people in Italy today speak Standard Italian, but they may also speak their local dialect at home and with friends. Although Italian dialect speakers are sometimes looked down upon in Italy today, Neapolitan music is known and loved throughout Italy and the world. Neapolitan music is so tied to Italian identity abroad that, for example, at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp they played «'O Sole Mio» when they couldn't find the sheet music to the Italian national anthem. Because everyone knew the music to «'O Sole Mio». By heart.

So, how closely related are Italian and Neapolitan?

Well, Standard Italian comes from Tuscan, which is Central Italian, and Neapolitan is Southern Italian. So they are about as close as French and Occitan or Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, besides their different pronunciation (Italian keeps unstressed vowels, just like Spanish, whereas Neapolitan reduces them, like most dialects of Portuguese), Italian and Neapolitan have a variety of differing grammatical structures (for example, Neapolitan has three grammatical genders and declines/inflects words by metaphony whereas Italian has two grammatical genders and declines/inflects words by changing the ending)

In case you're wondering why some languages, like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, rose to prominence while others, like Occitan-Catalan, Galician, and Neapolitan, faded... Around the Renaissance, some really innovative trendsetters started trying to write in the spoken language rather than Latin. At that time it looked like Occitan would become the language of France, and Sicilian, the language of Italy. But fortunes changed and eventually Madrid (where they spoke Castilian), Paris (where they spoke Langue-d'Oc), and Florence (where they spoke Tuscan) became the cultural centers and their languages spread, replacing Latin as the written language. Although people continued to speak Occitan or Neapolitan or Sicilian, they largely gave up trying to write it.

OK BUT HOW DO I PRONOUNCE IT SO I DON'T SOUND LIKE A FOOL?!

Now that's the right question! If you want to hear what perfect Neapolitan sounds like, listen to the great native speakers like Enrico Caruso (his version is canon, it is all you need: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1QJwHWvgP8) and Mario Merola (a self-taught singer-songwriter and Neapolitan lyrical genius, although he never performed 'O Sole Mio). Here is a phonetic transcription of the pronunciation of 'O Sole Mio in correct Neapolitan in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), Neapolitan writing, and an Americanized English transcription. The funny letters are IPA and their pronunciation is described below:

Remember that the /j/ is pronounced like the English letter y as in you! The square brackets indicate pheonetic (rather than phonemic) transcription (i.e. how it's said versus how it's structured). The underlined vowels are stressed.
 

[

Kəbbɛllɐ kozɛ nɑjurnɑdɛ so

Nɑriɐ sərenɐ dɔppə nɑtɛmbɛstɐ

Pəllɑriɐ freskɐ pɑrə ʤɑ nɑfɛstɐ

Kəbbɛllɐ kozɐ nɑjurnɑdɛ so

 

Mɑnɑtu solə kkju bɛllə, ojne

Osolə mijə stɑnvrond ɑtte!

Osol- osolə mijə stɑnvrond ɑtte,

Stɑnvrond ɑtte!

 

Kwɑnnə fanɔttə ɛ osolə sə nə ʃʃɛnnə

Məvɛnə kwɑsə nɑmɑlingunija

Sottɑ fənɛstɐ tojɐ rəstɑrri

Kwɑnnə fɑnɔttə ɛ osolə sə nə ʃʃɛnnə

 

Mɑnɑtu solə kkju bɛllə, ojne

Osolə mijə stɑnvrond ɑtte!

Osol- osolə mijə stɑnvrond ɑtte,

Stɑnvrond ɑtte!

]


ə = the "reduced vowel" schwa, Tina
ɐ = just like /ə/ but a bit more open 
ɛ = bell
e = day
ɔ = not
o = dope

ɑ = father
e = bell
i =
me
u =
food
j = yes, boy
ʤ = gym, June
ʃ = shell

 

«

Che bella cos’è na jurnate sole,

N’aria serena doppo na tempesta!

Pe ll’aria fresca para già na festa...

Che bella cosa na jurnate sole.

 

Ma n’atu sole cchiù bello, oi nè,

'O sole mio sta 'nfront’a te!

'O sole, 'o sole mio, sta 'nfront’a te,

Sta 'nfronta te!

 

Quanno fa notte e 'o sole se ne scenne,

Me vene quase na malincunia;

Sott'â fenesta toia restarria

Quanno fa notte e 'o sole se ne scenne.

 

Ma n’atu sole cchiù bello, oi nè,

'O sole mio sta 'nfront’a te!

'O sole, 'o sole mio, sta 'nfront’a te,

Sta 'nfronta te!

»


You may see a slightly different version of the lyrics elsewhere. Neapolitan writing is not standardized, so differences are possible. You may see less apostrophes and more vowels: this is because native speakers know when to elide (delete) vowels. In this case, I have replaced elided vowels with apostrophes.


Kuhbelluh kohze nayoornahde sohluh

Nahryuh suhrehnuh doppuh natembestuh

Puhllahryuh frehskuh pahruh djah na festuh

Kuhbelluh kohzuh nayoornahde sohluh

 

Mahnahtoo sohluh kkyoo belluh, oyne(h)

Ohsohluh meeyuh stahnvrohnd ahtteh

Ohsohl-, ohsohluh meeyuh stahnvrohnd ahtteh

Stahnvrohnd ahtteh!

 

Kwahnnuh fahnottuh e ohsohluh suh nuh shehnnuh

Muhvenuh kwahzuh nah mahleengooneeyuh

Sohttah fuhnestuh tohjuh ruhstahreeyuh

Kwahnnuh fanottuh e ohsohluh suh nuh shehnnuh

 

Mahnahtoo sohluh kkyoo belluh, oyne(h)

Ohsohluh meeyuh stahnvrohnd ahtteh

Ohsohl-, ohsohluh meeyuh stahnvrohnd ahtteh

Stahnvrohnd ahtteh!


uh = uhm, fun
ah = father
e = bell
eh = day
o = not
oh = dope
ee = me
oo = food
dj = gym, June
sh = shell

Whenever [oh] is not underlined, it is pronounced more like /oo/.

Some notes for the linguistically-inclined...

The first [o] in [osolə] and the [o] in [tojɐ] are pronounced more closed (more like [u]), so that we almost hear [usolə] and [tujɐ]

Voiceless consonants are voiced after a resonant, thus [stanvrond'] from /stanfront'/, although in some speakers this rule is limited to stops, so that we sometimes hear [stanfrond'] (the fricative is not part of the voicing rule but the stop is voiced as usual).

Voiceless consonants are generally voiced intervocalically, and in some dialects voiceless and voiced stops are aspirated before a stressed vowel (stops are never aspirated elsewhere).

What about the apostrophe?

You might also have wondered about the origins and correct spelling of that big "O" in «'O Sole Mio». No, it's not the vocative "O" of a poetic ode. Nor is it the exclamatory "Oh" used to get someone's attention or to express lament. No. In fact, the "o" is the masculine article "the", cognate with Italian "il", Spanish "el", French "le", and Portuguese "o". All these forms come from the Latin "illu" (the demonstrative pronoun meaning "that one" [masculine]).

Italian and Spanish kept the first half, "il-", while French, Portuguese, and Neapolitan kept the second half "-lu". In Neapolitan, as in Portuguese, the sound 'L' is often dropped at the beggining of a word, so "lo/lu" became "o/u". That's why there is always an apostrophe before and not after! It represents the 'lost' initial letter L.

Jatevinne e facite 'e brave! (Go forth and prosper!)

You should now be able to pronounce the Neapolitan phrase above. What's more, you are now ready to go out into the world and do justice to the cultural legacy of the Neapolitan people who poured their heart and soul into works of great poetic beauty. Again, I encourage you to seek out authentic Neapolitan performers' versions of the song, starting with Enrico Caruso's 1917 version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1QJwHWvgP8). Thanks for your interest in my people's cultural legacy!




© Jordan Black 2020