The spelling-to-pronunciation rules for Italian are reasonably straightforward once you have learnt them. Apart from the e–ɛ and o–ɔ contrasts, which some Italians ignore anyway, the only important thing the spelling doesn’t tell you is where the word stress goes.
The default is for it to fall on the penultimate syllable (‘parole piane’: caro ˈkaːɾo, fanciullo fanˈtʃullo, dottore dotˈtoːɾe, incominciare iŋkominˈtʃaːɾe). But in a minority of words it falls elsewhere. Final stress is always shown by a written accent mark (‘parole tronche’: città tʃitˈta, caffè kafˈfɛ). The big trap for the foreigner is words with antepenultimate stress (‘parole sdrucciole’: povero ˈpɔːveɾo, scatola ˈskaːtola, vicolo ˈviːkolo).
It is very easy to be caught out ordering “feˈɡaːto” from the menu in an Italian restaurant, instead of the correct ˈfeːɡato (fegato, ‘liver’). You may remember the earthquake at L’Aquila (blog, 13 April 2009) and the difficulty we had getting that name correctly stressed.
So I had some sympathy when a friend of mine recently came back from a weekend break in Florence. He was enthusing about the art and architecture he had seen and about the influence of the … meˈdɪtʃi family there. But no, in Italian the (de’) Medici have antepenultimate stress, ˈmɛːditʃi.
Actually I am in no position to crow, because I see from my Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d’Ortografia e di Pronunzia (blog, 19 July) that the stressed vowel in Medici is open-mid rather than the close-mid that I wrongly put in LPD as the Italian pronunciation.
This name does though raise a point of principle. My friend is by no means alone in giving this word penultimate stress. On the contrary, even though we may agree that the correct anglicization is ˈmedɪtʃi, nevertheless meˈdiːtʃi and the like are very commonly heard from English speakers. Was I right to include them as secondary variants in LPD? Or ought a pronunciation dictionary to shun such incorrect forms? It’s the old question of description vs prescription. While I prefer to go for accurate description, at least I try to prioritize the correct form.
As we all know, there are cases like Beijing in which the ‘incorrect’ -ˈʒɪŋ is much more prevalent in English than the -ˈdʒɪŋ that corresponds to the pronunciation in the original Chinese.