Lesson 2: Spanish Pronunciation and Spelling
Even if one's main interest is reading, some treatment of pronunciation is
necessary. Many words differ only in minor aspects of their pronunciation, such
as hablo (I speak) and
habló (he/she/it/you spoke). A
knowledge of pronunciation makes some verb problems go away: it explains, for
example, why the verb hacer (to do or make) has a z in its third
person singular preterit form, hizo (he/she/it/you did or made).
Also, most students learning to read Spanish want to know how to pronounce
it correctly. Thus, we will include an overview of the features of Spanish
pronunciation most problematic for English speakers and most relevant to
learning to read. Spanish pronunciation is much closer to the written form of
the language than is that of English or French, which makes the learner's task
easier. Letters not discussed below have the same or nearly the same
pronunciation as English.
You can click on any Spanish word in this lesson to hear its pronunciation.
With the letters z and c before e or i,
as discussed below, the pronunciation used
is that which distinguishes them from the s: the pronunciation of Spain,
sometimes called "Castilian Pronunciation."
Each sound file (each word) is approximately 50K in size. That is to say,
each word is longer than the entire text of this lesson. There are ways
to shrink the files, but then you'd have to have different software to hear
them. This is why there may be delays, depending on the speed of your
connection and the congestion of the network.
- Throughout, the word "accent" refers to a written accent mark.
The "accented syllable" as used in English, that is the syllable that
receives the emphasis or stress, is called "the stressed syllable."
All accented syllables are stressed, but not all stressed syllables are
- Spanish has only one type of accent mark: the acute accent. It is a
diagonal line (´), written on top of the stressed
vowel. (The accent is only used on vowels.) With an i, the accent takes
the place of the dot (í).
- The written accent has no effect on alphabetical order.
- The accent mark is not considered part of the word's spelling. It may be
present in the singular of a word, but not in the plural (nación -
naciones), or in some verb forms but not in others (hablo-habló, estar -
- Sometimes the accent serves to distinguish homonyms (este - esté, si
- sí). This will be discussed in
a future lesson.
- The tilde (~), written only over the n, and
the two dots over the u, discussed below, are not accent
- Each Spanish word has one and only one stressed syllable.
- If a word has a written accent mark, it is found over the
Since Spanish words have only one stressed syllable, they have only one accent
mark, if any.
- Word stress, for words without a written accent mark, is always
determined working from the end of the word forward. It is the last
syllable, the next to last syllable, two syllables
before the last, not the first syllable, etc. In addition, it
depends on the concluding letter of the word.
- Words without a written accent mark, ending in a vowel, n, or
s, are stressed on the next to last syllable:
- All other words - that is to say, words without a written accent mark,
not ending in a vowel, n, or s -are stressed on the last
- Syllable Definition. W
hen two vowels are juxtaposed (next to each other), one needs to know whether
they form one or two syllables.
- The rule is: an i or u without a written accent mark will
combine with an adjacent vowel to form a single syllable. The other
vowel (the one adjacent to the ior u) receives the spoken
- historia (The i and the
a combine, so the to is the next-to-last syllable, and therefore
- puede (The u and e
combine, forming one syllable, so the ue is the next-to-last syllable
and therefore stressed. The e is the major vowel in the syllable,
receiving the spoken stress.)
- peruano (The u and a
combine; the word has three syllables; the a receives the spoken
- Otherwise, adjacent vowels are in separate syllables.
- Vowels in Spanish follow the standard
continental (European) pronunciation, shared by French, Italian, and other
- a like the a of father: mañana.
- e like the e of weigh or the a of late:
- i like the i of machine: país.
- o like the o of no: como.
- u is like the English u in lunar: luna. It does not have the y sound that
the u has at the beginning of a word in English (use,
- The vowels are always pronounced the same way. Each a in
mañana is the same, not varying like the o's in English
tomorrow. Vowels are never silent (except the u of gu and
- The differences in vowels and word stress means that many
cognateswords that are similar to English wordsare pronounced quite
differently. Try to pronounce each of the following, then click on them to
check your answers:
- Consonants with
- The following consonants are identical or close to their English
pronunciation: d, f, k, l, m, n, p, t.
- The b and v are pronounced identically in
Spanish. The sound is a weak b, in which the lips do not quite
close: burro, vaca.
- Ll. There are regional variations, but
the most common pronunciation is as a y.
- Ñ of mañana. (See Lesso
- H is silent (except in ch, pronounced as in English).
- Y is a vowel only in the one-letter word y (and).
Otherwise it is a consonant pronounced the same as in English: ya, yo,
- R is quite different from English. The tongue touches the roof of
the mouth in back of the front teeth: pero.
It is closer to a t or d than to the English r.
- At the beginning of a word, the r is trilled: rosa, rey,
- The rr, found only in the middle of words, represents the
same trilled sound as the initial r: perro, ahorrar,
ferrocarril. Note the difference between pero and perro.
- Qu is always pronounced like k (never kw, as
it is in Italian and English).
- S. In English s has two sounds: an unvoiced sound
(loose, safe), and a voiced sound, the same as z (lose,
rose, words). In Spanish the s always has the former (unvoiced) sound
(rosa, cosas). The
sound of English z does not exist in Spanish.
- In contrast, Italian has a voiced s: : the same word, casa,
is pronounced with a z sound in Italian, but an s sound in
- J. The Spanish j has a sound like the ch in the
Scottish loch or in the German Achtung. It is a gutteral sound
like a gargle:
- José (not pronounced
- The sound of j in the English word judge or the Italian
oggi does not exist in Spanish.
- Z. The differences in pronounciation of the letter
z (and with it the c before
e or i; see below) are
commonly referred to as the difference between "Latin-American
Spanish" and "Castilian Spanish." However, Spanish spelling
reflects the pronunciation of Spain (Castile).
Link to additional comments
about "Castilian Spanish" and "Latin-American Spanish."
- In Spain, z is pronounced like a th. Zapato, zócalo, zona,
zorro, cazar as pronounced in Spain.
- In Spanish America, z is pronounced identically with the s.
However, the difference in spelling is important. Zapato, zócalo, zona, zorro,
cazar as pronounced in Spanish America.
- The z is never pronounced like the English z (zone).
- The letter x.
- X is pronounced like j, or sometimes sh, in
- Otherwise, the X is identical or very close to English:
- Consonants whose
pronunciation changes depending on the vowel which follows.
- Before a, o, u, or at the end of a word, c is
pronounced like a k:
- Before e or i, the c is
pronounced like z (in Spain as th, in Spanish America as
- In English, the c also changes its pronunciation depending on
whether it is followed by (1) a, o, u or (2) e, i: cat, coal,
cute, celebrate, nice.
- Before a, o, u, the g is pronounced with the
hardg sound of English golly:
- Before e, i, the g has the same pronounciation as the Spanish
- In English, the g also changes its pronunciation depending on
whether it is followed by (1) a, o, u or (2) e, i: gal, goal, gum,
- Gu. While the gu is not a single letter, the
combination functions like the c or the g.
Recapitulation: consonants whose pronunciation changes depending on the
Sound before a, o,
u, or at the end of a word
Sound before e, i
like k: coche (this is also the sound that English
c has before a, o, u)
like the z, however that
is pronounced: cero,
the same as English, a
hard g sound: gato,
like the Spanish j: gelatina, gitano
gw: guapo, guante
hard g sound:
(does not occur)
||How written, before a, o, u, or at
the end of a word
||How written, before e, i
hard g sound
g: rogar; siga
th (pronounced as s in Spanish
z: venza, haz
j: cojo, reloj
g: coger; or j:
c: buscar, coñac
Depending on the initial vowel of the ending, the sound preceding if varies
in its writing. Remember: the important point is how the sound is
written under the changed vowel context.
The following includes endings which change their initial vowel. Following
the indication of the different ending, see if you can find the spelling of the
new form, and find it in your dictionary. Then click on each for the correct
- veces: remove ending -es
- averigüé: ending is
-ar instead of -é.
- luces: remove ending -es
- chiquito: ending is -o
instead of -ito.
- mosquito: ending is -a
instead of -ito.
- vaquero (English buckeroo):
ending is -a instead of -ero.
- venza: ending is -er instead
- surja: ending is -ir instead
- cargue: ending is -ar instead
- acerqué: ending is
-ar instead of é
Here are the answers to this exercise.
The following are the names of coujntries as spelled in Spanish, and in
parentheses the names of the inhabitants of these countries. As we discussed in
adjectives (such as mejicano) derived from proper nouns
(México) are not capitalized in Spanish.
- España (español)
- México (mejicano)
- Guatemala (guatemalteco)
- El Salvador (salvadoreño)
- Belice (beliceño)
- Honduras (hondureño)
- Nicaragua (nicaragüense)
- Costa Rica (costarricense,
- Panamá (panameño)
- Colombia (colombiano)
- Venezuela (venezolano)
- Ecuador (ecuatoriano)
- Perú (peruano)
- Bolivia (boliviano)
- Chile (chileno)
- Paraguay (paraguayo)
- Uruguay (uruguayo)
- Argentina (argentino)
- Cuba (cubano)
- República Dominicana
- Puerto Rico (puertorriqueño)
- Guinea Ecuatorial (?)
- Estados Unidos
- Madrid (madrileño)
- Sevilla (sevillano)
- Granada (granadino)
- Buenos Aires (bonaerense)
- Yucatán (yucateco)
- Galicia (gallego)
- Jalisco (jaliciense)
- Xalapa (jalapeño)
on finding dictionary entries:
averiguar (Note that the gü, which writes the gw sound
before e, has changed to gu, since the following vowel is an
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