IPA Pronunciation Guide - Spanish

Spanish pronunciation and spelling

1 Pronouncing European Spanish

The pronunciation of European Spanish is generally quite clear from its spelling and the notes below should be sufficient for an English speaker to understand what written Spanish actually sounds like. Because Spanish pronunciation is so regular you will find that in Part I of the dictionary (Spanish into English) most of the headwords are not transcribed phonetically in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Any words that do have a phonetic transcription are pronounced in a way that you would not expect, such as reloj [re’lo] for example, or they have been taken from another language and given a Spanish sound, often while keeping the original spelling.

The pronunciation described below could be called ‘educated’ Castilian. Pronunciation often heard in the Spanish regions, for example Andalusia, has not been covered.

2  Placing the stress

There are simple rules for placing stress on Spanish words:

If a word ends in a vowel, or in n or s (often an indication of the plural of verbs and nouns respectively), the penultimate syllable is stressed: zapato, zapatos, divide, dividen, dividieron, antiviviseccionista, telefonea, historia, diluviaba.

If the word ends in a consonant other than n or s, the last syllable is stressed: verdad, practicar, decibel, virrey, coñac, pesadez.

C  If the word needs to be stressed in some way contrary to rules A and B, an acute accent is written over the vowel to be stressed: hablará, guaraní, rubí, esté, rococó, máquina, métodos, viéndolo, paralítico, húngaro. The same syllable is stressed in the singular and plural forms of each word, but an accent may have to be added or suppressed in the plural: crimen, crímenes, nación, naciones. There are a few exceptions to this rule, e.g. carácter, caracteres, and régimen, regímenes. Only in a few verb forms does the stress fall further back than the antepenultimate syllable: cántamelo, prohíbaselo.

3   Dividing syllables

You will have seen in 2 A above that in cases like telefonea and historia not all vowels count equally when dividing and stressing syllables. The convention is that a, e and o are ‘strong’ vowels while i and u are ‘weak’. Bearing this in mind we can apply four rules:

Where there is a combination of weak + strong vowels, forming a single syllable (called a diphthong), the stress falls on the strong vowel: baila, cierra, puesto, peine, causa.

In a combination of weak + weak vowels, again forming a diphthong, the stress falls on the second element: ruido, fuimos, viuda.

C Where two strong vowels are combined they are pronounced as two distinct syllables, the stress falling according to rules A and B in section 2 above: ma/es/tro (three syllables), con/tra/er (three syllables), cre/er (two syllables).

Any word that has a combination of vowels whose parts are not stressed according to the above rules is given an acute accent on the stressed part: creído, período, baúl, ríe, tío.

Note that in cases where IPA transcriptions are given for Spanish words, the stress mark [‘] is inserted in the same way as explained for English.

4  Spanish letters and their sounds

All the examples given below are pronounced as in British English.

Vowels

Spanish vowels are pronounced clearly and quite sharply, and unlike English are not extended to form diphthongs (e.g. side [saɪd], know [nəʊ]). Unstressed vowels are relaxed only slightly (compare English natural [‘nætʃrəl] with Spanish natural [natu’ral]). Stressed vowels are pronounced slightly more open and short before rr (compare carro with caro, perro with pero).

a [a] Not so short as a in English pat, batter, but not so long as in rather, bar pata

amara

e [e] In an open syllable (one which ends in a vowel) like e in English they, but without the sound of the y. In a closed syllable (one which ends in a consonant) the sound is shorter, like the e in set, wet me

pelo

sangre

peldaño

i [i] Not so short as i in the English bit, tip, but not so long as in machine iris

filo

o [o] In an open syllable (one which ends in a vowel) like o in the English note, but without the sound of [ʊ] which ends the vowel in this word. In a closed syllable (one which ends in a consonant) it is a shorter sound, but not quite so short as in the English pot, cot poco

cosa

bomba

conté

u [u] Like u in the English rule or oo in food. Silent after q and in the groups gue, gui, unless marked by a diaeresis (argüir, fragüe, antigüedad) luna

pula

aquel

pague

y [i] When used as a vowel – i.e. in the conjunction y meaning ‘and’, as well as at the end of words such as voy, ley – it is pronounced like i

 

Diphthongs

(Single syllables consisting of two vowels. See also section 3 above)

ai, ay [ai] like i in the English side baile

hay

au [au] like ou in English sound áureo

causa

ei, ey  [ei] like ey in the English they reina

rey

eu [eu] like the vowel sounds in the English mayyou, without the sound of the y deuda

feudo

 oi, oy [oi] like oy in the English boy oiga

soy

 

Semiconsonants

There are two semiconsonants in Spanish which appear in a variety of combinations as the first element. Not all the combinations are listed here.

i, y [i] like y in the English yes, yacht
(See also the note under y in the list of consonants)
bien

hielo

yunta

apoyo

u [w] like w in the English well huevo

fuente

agua

guardar

 

Consonants

b, v These two letters have the same value in Spanish. There are two distinct pronunciations depending on position and context:
[b] At the start of the breath group and after the written letters m and n (pronounced [m]) the sound is like the English b bomba

boda

enviar

[β] In all other positions the sound is between an English b and v in which the lips do not quite meet (called a bilabial fricative, a sound unknown in English) haba

severo

yo voy

de Vigo

c  This letter has two different values:
[k] c before a, o, u or a consonant is like the English k in keep, but without the slight aspiration which accompanies it calco

acto

cuco

[θ] c before e, i is like the English th in thin. In parts of Andalusia and Latin America this is pronounced like s in English same, and is known as seseo. In words like acción, sección both types of c sound are heard [kθ] celda

hacer

cinco

cecear

ch [tʃ] like ch in the English church mucho

chorro

d This letter has three different values depending on position and context:
[d] At the start of the breath-group, and after l, n the sound is like the English d dama

aldea

andar

[ð] Between vowels and after consonants other than l, n the sound is relaxed and similar to the English sound th [ð] in this. In parts of Spain and in casual speech it is further relaxed and even disappears, especially in the –ado ending pide

cada

pardo

sidra

In the final position, the second type of [ð] is further relaxed or completely omitted. In eastern parts of Spain this final d may be heard as a t verdad

usted

Madrid

callad

f  [f] like the English f in for fama

fofo

g This letter has three different values depending on position and context:
[x] Before e, i it is the same as Spanish j (see below) Gijón

general

[g] At the start of the breath group and after n the sound is that of the English g in get gloria

rango

pingüe

[γ] In other positions the sound is as in the second type above, but it is fricative and not plosive haga

agosto

Note that in the group gue, gui the u is silent (guerra, guindar) except when marked by a diaeresis (antigüedad, argüir). In the group gua all the letters are sounded (guardia, guapo)
h always silent
j [x] a strong guttural sound not found in the English of England, but like the ch of Scots loch, Welsh bach, or German Aachen, Achtung.
It is silent at the end of a word (reloj)
jota

jején

baraja

k [k] like the English letter k in kick, but without the slight aspiration which accompanies it kilo
l [l] like English letter l in love lelo

pañal

ll [ʎ] similar to the English lli in million. In parts of Spain and most parts of Latin America it is pronounced as [j] and in other parts as [ʒ]. The pronunciation as [j] is rapidly becoming more widely accepted in Spain. calle

ella

lluvia

millón

m [m] like the letter m in English made mano

mamá

n [n] like the letter n in English none, but before v is pronounced as m, the group making [mb] (e.g. enviar, sin valor) nadie

pan

pino

ñ [ɲ] similar to the English sound ni [nj] in onion uña ñoño
p [p] like English letter p in put, but without the slight aspiration which accompanies it.
It is often silent in septiembre, séptimo
padre

patata

q [k] like English k in kick, but without the slight aspiration which accompanies it. Always written in combination with u, which is silent. que

quinqué

bosque

quiosco

r  [r] a single trill or vibration stronger than any r in the English of England, but like the Scots r. It is more relaxed in the final position and is silent in parts of Spain and Latin America. Pronounced like rr at the start of a word and also after l, n, s. coro

quiere

rápido

real

rr [rr] strongly trilled in a way that does not exist in English torre

burro

irreal

s Two pronunciations:
[s] Except in the instances mentioned next, it is like the letter s in English same casa

Isabel

soso

[z] Before a voiced consonant (b, d, g, l, m, n) it is usually pronounced like s in English rose, phase desde

asgo

mismo

asno

t [t] like English t in tame, but without the slight aspiration which accompanies it título

pata

v see b
w found in a few recent loanwords only; usually pronounced like Spanish b, v or like an English v, or kept as English w wáter

week-end

wolframio

x There are several possible pronunciations:
[ks] [ks] Between vowels, x is pronounced like English x in box [ks] máximo
[gs] like gs in big stick [gs] examen
[s] In a few words the x is pronounced between vowels like English s in same, but not by all Spanish speakers exacto

auxilio

[s] Before a consonant x is pronounced like English s in same, but not by all Spanish speakers extra

sexto

y [j] as a consonant or semiconsonant, y is pronounced as in English yes, youth. In emphatic speech in Spain and Latin America this is similar to j in the English word jam [ʤ].
In Argentina, Chile etc this y is pronounced like the s in English leisure [ʒ]
mayo

yo

mayor

ya

z [θ] like the English th in thin. In parts of Andalusia and Latin America this is pronounced like the English s in same, and is known as seseo zapato

zorro

zumbar

luz

 

5  Additional notes on pronunciation

A  The letter b is usually not pronounced in groups with s such as obscuro, substituir. In practice, such words are generally written oscuro, sustituir etc and this is the spelling under which they are treated in the dictionary.

B  With one exception there are no real double consonants in Spanish speech. cc in words like acción is two separate sounds [kθ], while ll and rr have their own values (see table).

The exception is the nn group found in words with the prefix in-, e.g. innato, or occasionally con-, sin– as in connatural, sinnúmero. In these cases the n is pronounced double [nn].

C  When taking loanwords from other languages the majority of Spanish speakers will adapt the pronunciation of these words, usually while keeping the original spelling. For some examples of this, see the main dictionary text under chalet, jazz and shock.

D  No well-established Spanish word begins with what is called ‘impure s’, i.e. s plus a consonant as an initial group. When Spanish speakers have to pronounce a foreign word or name they will almost always add an initial e-sound, so that Smith becomes [ez’miθ] or [es’mis]. More recent anglicisms tend to be written in Spanish as slip, slogan etc, but are pronounced [ez’lip] and [ez’loɣan], while more established English loanwords are written esnob, esplín etc and are pronounced accordingly.

6  The letters of the Spanish alphabet

a [a] j [‘xota]  r [‘ere]
b [be] (in LAm

[be’larγa])

k [ka] rr* [‘erre]
c [θe] or [se] l [‘ele] s [‘ese]
ch* [tʃe] ll* [‘eʎe] t [te]
d [de] m [’eme] u [u]
e [e] n [‘ene] v [‘uβe] (in LAm [be’korta])
f [‘efe] ñ [‘eɲe] w [‘uβe ‘doβle] (in LAm [‘doβle be])
g [xe] o [o] x [‘ekis]
h [‘atʃe] p [pe] y [i’γrjeγa]
i [i] q [ku] z [‘θeta] or [‘seta]

 

The gender of the letters is feminine: ‘¿esto es una c o una t?’ You also say ‘una a’ and ‘la a’, ‘una h’ and ‘la h’ (i.e. you do not apply the rule as in un ave, el agua).

*Though not strictly letters of the alphabet, these are considered separate sounds in Spanish.

Pronouncing Latin American Spanish

The pronunciation of Latin American Spanish varies widely from place to place, so the following notes are intended to give a general picture only. As a rule, the Spanish spoken in the upland areas of Latin America is similar to Castilian Spanish, while the lowland and coastal areas have many features of Andalusian pronunciation. Vowel sounds are all roughly the same, but there are differences in the way consonants are pronounced. These are listed below:

1  The Castilian [θ] sound (like the th in the English word thin) which is written c or z is pronounced as various kinds of s [s] throughout Latin This is known as seseo.

2  At the end of a syllable or a word, s is a slight aspiration, e.g. las dos [lah’doh], mosca [‘mohka], but in parts of the Andes, upland Mexico and Peru the [s] sound is retained as in Castilian Spanish.

3  The Castilian written ll [ʎ] (like lli in the English word million) is pronounced in three different ways in Latin America. In parts of Colombia, all Peru, Bolivia, N. Chile and Paraguay it remains [ʎ]. In Argentina, Uruguay, upland Ecuador and part of Mexico it is pronounced [ʒ]. In the remaining areas it is pronounced [j]. When this last kind [j] is in contact with the vowels e and i it disappears altogether, and one finds incorrect written forms such as gaína (for gallina) and biete (for billete).

4  In all parts of Latin America you will often find confusion between the letters l and r: clin (for crin), carma (for calma) etc.

5  Written h is silent in Castilian, but in parts of Mexico and Peru this h is aspirated at the start of a word, so you may find incorrectly spelt forms such as jarto (for harto) and jablar (for hablar). Compare halar/jalar and other cases in the main dictionary text.

Spanish Spelling

1  Use of capitals

As in English, capital letters are used to begin words in the following cases:

  • for the first letter of the first word in a sentence
  • for proper names (but see also below)

María, el Papa, el Rey, la Real Academia Española, Viernes Santo, el Partido Laborista, Dios

Note that where the article is an integral part of the proper name, it also begins with a capital – El Escorial, La Haya, La Habana – but where the article is generally or optionally used with the name of a country, it does not begin with a capital – la India, la Argentina

  • for abbreviations of titles:

Sr., D., Excma

In the following cases usage differs from English:

  • names of days and months

lunes, mayo

  • the pronoun yo, unless it begins a sentence
  • while capitals are used for names of countries, they are not used for the adjectives derived therefrom:

Francia, but francés

Similarly, adjectives derived from proper names do not begin with a capital:

… en los estudios lorquianos, las teorías einsteinianas

  • in the titles of books, films, plays etc, only the first word begins with a capital letter:

Lo que el viento se llevó, Cien años de soledad

  • points of the compass begin with lower case:

norte, sur etc

(though they are capitalized if part of a name: Korea del Sur)