Local pronunciation differences
Just like in English, different Spanish-speaking countries and areas have different accents when they speak. The main
difference is that in the Americas two sounds were lost in comparison to Spain: z sounds like
s, and ll sounds like y. In Bolivia and Peru, z is lost but
ll is kept. In Argentina and Uruguay ch and ll have a characteristic hard
sound. In Mexico, vowels are reduced to schwa (like in English about, celestial, gorilla). In
Puerto Rico and Cuba they confuse r and l. In many countries j is not hard but it's like an English
h (as in hot). A Chilean is heard as saying mujier instead of mujer.
In spite of this differences, two Spanish speakers from different places will always understand each other, provided they
speak the cultivated versions of their respective cities. If fast colloquial speech is used, comprehension may be impaired.
The Spanish Alphabet
The following is a list of all the Spanish letters, their names, and their pronunciations.
- a (a)
- Sounds like a in the word father.
- b (be, be larga, be alta)
- Sounds like b in the word bad. Between vowels, the lips should not touch when pronouncing the sound
(somewhat similar to the v in value).
- c (ce)
- Before a consonant, or the vowels a, o, u, it sounds like c in the word
- Before the vowels i, e, it sounds like c in the word center (in America), or like
th in the word thin (in Spain).
- ch (che). Formerly was considered to be a letter, ordered after cz. Now the international
alphabetical order is used.
- Sounds like ch in the word church.
- In Argentina it sounds almost like j in jump, but it's clearly different from Argentinian
y (see below).
- d (de)
- Does not have an exact English equivalent. Sounds similar to the d in the word day, but instead of the
tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, it should touch the teeth themselves. Between vowels, the tongue should
be lowered so as to not touch the teeth (somewhat similar to the th in the).
- e (e)
- Sounds like e in the word ten.
- f (efe)
- Sounds like f in the word four.
- g (ge)
- Before the vowels e and i, it sounds like Spanish J (see Spanish J below);
- In any other case, it sounds like g in the word get. It never sounds like g in the word
- In the syllables gue and gui the u doesn't sound.
- In the syllables güe and güi the u sounds.
- Between vowels, when it represents the hard sound (that is, before a, o or u), the tongue should
not touch the soft palate (no similar sound in English, but it's somewhat like Arabic ghain).
- h (hache)
- The letter h normally has no sound in Spanish, unless it's part of the consonant ch, and it's used for
orthographic purposes only.
- In the combination "hu"+vowel represents a w sound: hueso sounds weso.
- Similarly, in the combination "hi"+vowel, it represents a (English) y sound: hiena sounds yena
(not Spanish y; see Spanish y below).
- In foreign words it may souns as a spanish j: hámster.
- i (i)
- Sounds like e in the word he.
- In diphthongs sounds like y in the word Kenya.
- j (jota)
- Depending on the region, it may sound like h in the word hot or like ch in the word
- k (ka)
- Sounds as in k in the word ask. Is used in words of foreign origin (i.e. non Latin).
- l (ele).
- Does not have an exact English equivalent. It is similar to the English "l" in line, but shorter, or "clipped."
Instead of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, it should touch the tip of the teeth themselves.
- ll (doble ele, elle). Formerly was considered to be a letter, ordered after lz. Now the
international alphabetical order is used.
- Almost everywere it sounds like Spanish y (see below).
- In large parts of Spain, Bolivia and Peru, and in isolated places in other counries the tongue should touch the hard palate,
just like gl in the Italian word gli. Does not have an English equivalent, but it's somewhat similar to
li in the word million.
- m (eme)
- Sounds as m in the word more.
- n (ene)
- Normally sounds as n in the word no.
- Before p, b and v (and in some regions m) sounds as
m in the word important. For example un paso sounds umpaso.
- Before g, j, k sound (c, k , q), w and
hu sounds like n in anchor: un gato, un juego, un cubo, un kilo, un queso, un whisky, un
- Before y sound (y or ll), it sounds like ñ, see below.
- ñ (eñe)
- Sounds as gn in the Italian word lasagna. As it's always followed by a vowel, the most similar sound in
English is ny+ vowel, as in canyon, where the y is very short.
- In Argentina it's pronounced as Spanish ni + vowel.
- o (o)
- Sounds like o in the word more, without the following r sound.
- p (pe)
- Sounds as p in the word port.
- q (cu)
- It's only in the syllables that begin with que and qui, and sounds as q in the word quit
. The u between the q and the e or i is not pronounced. For example líquido
- In very few words it can be in the syllables qua (quásar) or quo
(quórum). Here the u is sounded. For the sound "kw" before a or o, however, the spelling cu is
- r (ere, erre). This consonant has two pronunciations: a "soft" one and a "hard" one. None of them exists in
- Simple flap (ere)
- Always written "r", and never occurs at the beginning of the word, it sounds like American relaxed pronunciation of
tt in "butter": cero, brazo.
- rolled r (erre). It's a multiply vibrating sound. Similar to Scottish rolled r.
- Written "r" at the beginning of the word, or after "l", "n", or "s" (ropa, enredo, alrededor, israelita).
- Written "rr" between vowels (cerro).
- s (ese)
- Sounds like s in the word six.
- In many places it's aspirated in final position.
- In Andalusia, in final position, it changes the quality of the preceding vowel. Los conos sounds a bit like law
- t (te)
- Does not have an exact English equivalent. Sounds similar to the t in the word ten, but instead of the
tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, it should touch the teeth themselves.
- u (u)
- Sounds like oo in the word pool, but shorter.
- Sounds like w in the word twig: cuatro.
- u is silent in gue, gui unless it has a diaeresis mark: güe, güi.
- v (uve, ve, ve corta, ve baja)
- It's pronounced the same as b since at least the XVIII century (some say it's much earlier, maybe the X
- w (uve doble, doble ve, doble u)
- It used only in words of foreign origin (wáter, watt, kiwi, etc.). It may be pronounced like
Spanish b or English w depending on the word (kiwi is pronounced as kihui, but watt
is pronounced as batt).
- x (equis)
- Sounds like x in the word extra.
- Also in words of Amerindian origin, usually localisms, it sounds like the English sh in the word she.
- In old Spanish spelling it sounded like English sh, which then evolved to current j (like in
Quixote, which in Spanish is now is written Quijote). This is mantained in words such as México or
mexicano (alternative spellings are Méjico and Mejicano).
- y (i griega, ye)
- In most places this letter sounds like English y, raising the tongue so it is in contact with the hard palate.
- In some places it's pronounced just as English y, but this is widely regarded as incorrect.
- In Argentina is pronounced similar to the English sh in the word she, or English j in the word
- In Chile is pronounced similar to English si in the word vision.
- z (ceta, ceda)
- In most of Spain it sounds like th in the word third.
- Elsewhere it sounds like a Spanish s (see above).
In Spanish, as in English, there are two tones when pronouncing a syllable: stressed and unstressed. In the English word
"thinking", "think" is pronounced at a higher tone than "ing". If both syllables are pronounced with
the same stress, it sounds like "thin king". The accent in Spanish (explicit and implicit) marks the stressed syllable.
It is very important to pronounce correctly the stress, as there are many words that are written with the same letters, being the
only difference between them the presence of the accent. For example: esta, that has an implicit accent in the letter
e , means "this (feminine)"; and está, that has an explicit accent in the letter a, means "is"; also
inglés means English, but ingles means "groins". A stress in the wrong syllable will also give a hard time to
the listener, as it will be difficult for him/her to understand what he/she hears. Recognizing the explicit accent is very easy,
as it's written with a ´ over stressed vowel. The implicit one can be mastered when the rules are followed.
Rules for pronouncing the Implicit Accent
There are only two (or one) rules for pronouncing the implicit accent, The syllable with the high tone is in bold letters:
- If a word has no accent, and ends with a vowel, n or s , pronounce the accent in the last but one
- cara (ca-ra> = face
- mano (ma-no) (hand)
- amarillo (a-ma-ri-llo) (yellow)
- If a word has no accent, and ends with a consonant, except n or s, pronounce the accent in the last
- farol (fa-rol) (street lamp)
- azul (a-zul) (blue)
- español (es-pa-ñol) (Spanish)
- salvador (sal-va-dor) (savior).
The Diaeresis (¨)
In the clusters gue and gui, u is not pronounced unless it has the diaeresis mark (¨). This mark is
somewhat rare, however.
- pingüino = penguin
- agüéis (2nd person plural, present subjunctive of the verb aguar). Here it's quite clear that the diaeresis
helps preserve the u sound in all the verb tenses of aguar.