Spanish is one of the major languages of the world, is one of the six official UN languages, and is spoken by around 360 million people as a first language. It is, furthermore, an official language in 21 countries, most of which are in Latin America.
Spanish is said to be an easy language to learn and this is certainly true of the pronunciation. It takes hispanophone (Spanish-speaking) children about a year to master Spanish spelling, as opposed to ten years to a lifetime for English speakers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some forms of dyslexia are not possible in Spanish-speaking countries. This has come about because, over the years, the Royal Spanish Academy has been ruthlessly efficient in removing oddities from the language. For example, there were previously 29 letters in the Spanish alphabet including 'ch' and 'll', which were listed separately from 'c' and 'l'. Then, in 1993, the Academy voted to abolish these two, leaving a total of 27 letters.
Spanish is now largely phonetic, meaning that the orthography (how the spelling and pronunciation interrelate) is simple. One letter typically represents one sound only, and vice versa. Of the exceptions, there are well-defined rules that determine which sound occurs where. Despite this high level of precision, co-ordinating the sounds of Spanish still needs a lot of practise.
Variations in Spanish
In this entry, Castillian pronunciation (ie, that from central Spain) has been adopted. This is because it is the default accent on which the spelling system is based. Some of the sounds are pronounced differently in Latin America - for details see the final section.
Understanding this Entry
This entry is intended to provide a firm grounding in Spanish pronunciation, but should also be useful for more casual reading.
The tables break down as follows:
Column One gives the letter in Spanish.
Column Two gives a representation of the sound of the letter using English-style spelling.
Column Three has an English word containing this sound.
Column Four contains an example Spanish word. Most of these will be familiar - but should not be pronounced as in English.
Column Five is a notes column where there are detailed positional rules and pronunciation cues.
Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English. These will appear in bold, and more information about them will be provided in the notes column. Due to their importance, the vowel sounds will receive special attention. Approximations are made mostly using British accents, but American equivalents are included where necessary.
Spanish has the same five vowels as English. However, while in English, these can be pronounced a number of ways, Spanish vowels have only one vowel sound each. These vowels are about the same length as English short vowels, or slightly longer when stressed, and should all be pronounced distinctly.
|a||a||father||amigo||shorter in Spanish|
|y||yet||bien||before another vowel|
|w||wood||bueno||before another vowel|
|guide||guerra||in gue and gui, the u is silent. 1|
a - like RP u in butter; like Northern English and US a in father.
e - like e in let, but not as open.
i - the lips should be spread wide, and the sound kept distinct.
o - like Northern English or Scots 'oh': lips should be quite tightly pursed.
u - lips should be in a very tight 'o' shape.
With very few exceptions, no more than two vowels can occur together in Spanish. Vowel pairs are pronounced according to a few simple rules. Firstly the vowels are grouped into strong sounds ('a', 'e' and 'o') and weak sounds ('i' and 'u'). The strong vowels always remain vowel sounds, whereas the weak ones can become consonants, as follows.
Two strong vowels together are still pronounced fully and form two separate syllables, so that there are three syllables in paella.
Strong + Weak results in a diphthong - see the next section.
Weak + Strong, and Weak + Weak would mean that the first vowel becomes a consonant sound y or w (as above), while the second vowel is pronounced fully.
The effect of an acute accent on these paired vowels is dealt with in the 'Stress' section below.
A word from Greek literally meaning 'two sounds', a diphthong is when two vowel sounds should be said as one. Try saying the letters 'a', 'i' or 'o' very slowly and you'll realise they're made of more than one sound. There are five of these combined vowel sounds in Spanish. All but one are similar to sounds from English. The diphthongs ending in 'i' and 'y' are paired: they are spelled with 'i' before a consonant, and with 'y' between a vowel or word final. In fact, all the diphthongs not ending in 'y' can only appear before a consonant. Note that all these diphthongs are rather rare in Spanish.
|eu||e-oo||neutral||Spanish e followed by a brief u|
There are 22 consonant letters in the Spanish alphabet. Two of these appear only in non-Spanish words: k, pronounced like Spanish 'c', and w, usually pronouced like Spanish 'v'. As in English, q only occurs before u, and is dealt with in the Combinations section below.
|b||bh||pueblo||generally like English v but made with both lips|
|b||bat||bonanza||at start of sentence or after 'm'|
|th||thin||cerveza||before 'e' or 'i'|
|d||do||dos||at start of sentence or after 'l' or 'n'|
|g||kh||gente||before 'e' or 'i': like Spanish 'j'|
|g||got||grande||before 'a', 'o', 'u' or a consonant, at the start of a sentence or after 'n'|
|gh||fuego||elsewhere a softer, continuous sound2|
|h||hour||hasta||'h' is always silent in Spanish|
|j||kh||junta||like ch in Scots 'loch', a harsh h sound|
|l||l||let||loco||the tongue should touch the gum ridge like an Irish l|
|ñ||ny||canyon||niño||the sounds should be run together|
|r||r||puerta||generally: like RP r; like US tt in 'butter'|
|rr||rico||word-initial: a rolled 'r' as in Scottish|
|z||plasma||mismo||before 'b', 'd', 'g', 'l', 'm', or 'n'|
|v||bh||avocado||generally (see 'b')|
|b||bat||vano||at start of sentence or after 'm'|
b, d and g - the way these letters vary is similar to the way 't' and 'd' vary in American English.
c, p and t - these letters should be pronounced without the puff of air that accompanies them in English.
t and d - put the tongue against the teeth for these sounds.
As with English, more than one letter is used to spell some sounds in Spanish.
|qu||k||skull||tequila||only appears before 'e' or 'i'|
|rr||rr||burro||rolled as in Scottish 'r'|
This brief section contains all the rules required to stress words in Spanish. For a more detailed analysis, see Accent Use In Spanish
Stress in Spanish generally falls on the penultimate or final syllable.
Stress on the penultimate syllable:
If the word ends in a vowel.
If the word ends in n or s (both used with plural meaning in Spanish)
Stress on the final syllable:
If the word ends in another consonant (d, l, r, y or z: no other consonants can end a word in Spanish.3)
Exceptions are always marked with an acute accent on the stressed vowel, eg, lápiz ('pencil'). An accent can 'break' a diphthong: here the accented vowel is stressed, and the other vowel has its normal quality, eg Raúl, is pronounced ra-ool.
Latin American Spanish
Several of the consonants detailed above are pronounced differently in Latin America. Note also that 'x' is pronounced like Spanish 'j' in 'México' and its derivatives.
|c||s||sit||before 'e' or 'i'|
|g||h||hat||before 'e' or 'i'|
|gu||w||wet||before 'a', 'o' or 'u'|
|ll||y||yet||in most areas; zh as in 'vision' in Argentina|
|x||s||sun||before a consonant|
|y||zh||vision||in Argentina and some other regions|