Spanish course (I): The alphabet. The basics.

If you follow this blog, by now you have learned a bunch of new words and expressions. Well, you learned how to write them, but… How on Earth are they pronounced? Why didn’t I provide some kind of phonetic transcription for each of them?

Here comes the good news: Once you’ve learned some simple rules, the pronunciation of any Spanish word becomes predictable. Furthermore, most of the letters of the Spanish alphabet have only one possible pronunciation, regardless of their position in a word.

Behold the Spanish alphabet:

a b c ch * d e
f g h i j k
l ll * m n ñ o
p q r s t u
v w x y z

*Note: for simplicity, I’m including the digraphs ch and ll, but since 2010 they are not officially considered letters of the alphabet anymore.

I’ve informally classified them in five groups:

  • In blue: vowels: a, e, i, o, u.
  • In green: consonants whose sound is (nearly) identical to their English counterparts: b, ch, d, f, k, l, m, n, p, q, s, t, w, x.
  • In black: consonants that doesn’t sound like you would expect, but are familiar to the English ear anyway, just written differently: h, v, z.
  • In red: consonants whose sound doesn’t (formally) exist in English: j, ñ, ll.
  • In magenta: consonants that have more than one possible sound (depending of their position in the word or the letter they go with): y, c, g, r.

Let’s begin with the vowels.

The vowels

There are only five vowel sounds in Spanish:

Vowel Roughly like in… Letter name
a bath a
e pet e
i grief i
o dork o
u rude u

There are two main differences with English vowels:

  • There is no distinction between short and long vowels. In essence, all of them are short. If one of them sounds long, it’s because one of two reasons:
    • Because of emphasis (mmmm… chocolaaate)
    • Because there are really two vowels, not one, like in ¡léelo! (“read it!”).
  • Spanish vowels are always “pure” (unchanging) vocalic sounds. A common mistake is to pronounce no as in English, that is, rhyming with “toe”. Another is to pronounce the letter e as [ei], which, for example, makes vente (“come here”) sound like veinte (“twenty”).

Easy consonants

The following consonants should pose no problem for you, as they are pronounced the same as in English: b, ch, d, f, k, l, m, n, p, q, s, t, w, x.

More precisely:

Letter Roughly like in… Letter name
b bet be
ch chat che
d dot de
f fit efe
k skip ka
l let ele
m mat eme
n net ene
p spot pe
q squid cu
s sit ese
t stop te
w wit uve doble
x extra equis

Spanish consonants are always unaspirated. Aspirated consonants are those pronounced with a little puff of air. For example:

Aspirated Unaspirated
kin skin
pool spool
top stop

So, in particular, the letters k, p, and t are always pronounced unaspirated (as in skin, spool and stop, respectively) regardless of their position in the word.

A few notes:

  • qu: Almost always, the letter q appears in the combinations que and qui. In those cases the letter u is always mute (so they sound as [ke] and [ki], respectively). The only excepcions are (unfrequent) expressions borrowed from other languages, mainly Latin, such as quid pro quo [kuid pro kú.o].
  • s: The Spanish s is always voiceless, that is, the vocal cords don’t vibrate. So it’s always pronounced as in sin, never as in rose. In many dialects the letter s is pronounced aspirated, that is, like the h in hat, –or even disappears altogether– when it is located before another consonant or at the end of the word: agosto [a.gó / a.gó] (“august”), mes [mes / meh / me] (“month”).
  • w: The letter w is only used in words borrowed from other languages. Its pronunciation is the same as in English in words borrowed from English, such as waterpolo (“water polo”). In other cases (mainly derivatives of German or Visigoth proper nouns) it is pronounced like a /b/, like in wagneriano (“Wagnerian”).
  • x: Although it is “officially” pronounced [ks], as in “extra”:
    • In some cases, its pronunciation may be “relaxed” to a [gs] (roughly like in English: “exam”) or even to an /s/. Specifically, at the beginning of the word it must be pronounced as an /s/: xenofobia [ó.bia].
    • In some place names, and derivatives, like México, mexicano, Texas, texano, the x must be pronounced like a Spanish j (see later).

To be continued in The alphabet. Letters h, v, z… and j

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