You might be surprised, but I know it from experience: for a Spanish speaker, learning to correctly pronounce English can be a real pain. Just an example: How can the “ough” in “tough”, “though”, “thought”, “through” and “thorough” have so many different pronunciations? It just doesn’t make sense at all!
Fortunately for you, Spanish pronunciation is a lot easier: most of the letters of the Spanish alphabet have only one possible pronunciationeach. Exceptions are: c, g, r and y, which can have different pronunciations depending on their position in a word.
A Spanish phonemic pangram
But it can be even easier: What if I tell you that in a single sentence you can find every possible pronunciation of each letter of the alphabet? Well, I proudly present what could be called the first Spanish phonemic pangram ever (hmm, well, as far as I know):
La cigüeña gigante bebió ocho copas de whisky, más quince jarras llenas de fría cerveza rubia, y enseguida huyó en un taxi.
The giant stork drank eight glasses of whiskey, plus fifteen full mugs of cold pale ale, and escaped in a taxi right away.
Weird, isn’t it? Fine! In fact, its weirdness is a good thing, mnemonically speaking. Indeed, the more amusing and shocking a sentence is, the easier will be to memorize.
You can now play the following video to hear its correct pronunciation… But, as an exercise, I would suggest you to:
- Read the rest of this article,
- Try to guess the correct pronunciation by yourself,
- Read the sentence aloud the best that you can, and
- Only then, play the video and learn from your mistakes.
Composition of the Spanish alphabet
The Spanish alphabet has 29 letters (all of the English alphabet, plus ch, ll and ñ). You may have read that, since an agreement adopted by the Association of Spanish Language Academies in 1994, the digraphs ll and ch no longer belongs to the Spanish alphabet. That is not entirely true. That resolution only affected to the alphabetic ordering of words. The composition of the alphabet still remains exactly the same as in 1803, when ch and ll were incorporated.
|B||Be or Be larga||Bes or Bes largas|
|E||E||Es or Ees|
|Q||Cu||Cus or Cúes|
|R||Erre or Ere||Erres or Eres|
|V||Uve or Ve corta||Uves or Ves cortas|
|W||Uve doble or Doble ve||Uves dobles or Dobles ves|
|Y||I griega||Íes griegas|
These are some easy rules that will help you with the pronunciation of any Spanish word:
- There are five vowels in the Spanish alphabet, the same as in English: a, e, i, o and u. However, they have only one possible pronunciation each. To remember their sound, try this: “part, pet, pit, port, put”. Or also: “bath, bet, bit, bought, boot”. Note: in Spanish there is no distinction between short and long vowels as there is in English (e.g., as in “bit”/”beat”).
- The letter z may sound like s in “see” (Hispanic American accents) or like th in “thin” (standard Spaniard accent).
- The letter c sounds like the Spanish z (i.e, like s or th, depending on the country) when it comes before e or i, and like c in “cat” in any other case. Therefore,
ca, ce, ci, ic, co, cusounds exactly like
ka, ze, zi, ik, ko, ku.
- The letter q always sounds like c in “cat”. Almost always, it is followed by a silent u, and is used with i or e only. Exceptions are some Latin or foreign words such as
quid pro quo,
quark(quark), in which the
uis either not silent or not written at all. Rare exceptions apart,
ca, que, qui, co, cuand
ka, ke, ki, ko, kusound exactly the same.
- The letter j may sound like h in “hot” (Hispanic America) or like ch in the Scottish word “loch” (Spain).
- The letter g sounds like the Spanish j when it comes before e/i, and like g in “got” in any other case. So,
ga, ge, gi, ig, go, guand
ga, je, ji, ig, go, gusound exactly the same. Also:
- For g to sound like g in “got” before e/i, it must be followed by a silent u, as in
- But… what if we want to force the pronunciation of the u in gue/gui? Then, you must put a diaeresis (¨) over it, as in
- For g to sound like g in “got” before e/i, it must be followed by a silent u, as in
- The letter h is always silent. So,
ola(wave) have exactly the same pronunciation.
- The letter y sounds like j in “jet” when it is placed at the beginning of a syllable:
mayo(May), and like y in “very” in any other case:
- The letter ll also sounds like j in “jet”, although in some regions may have a sound similar to y in “yet”.
- The letter r sounds like tt in “matter” (with USA accent) when:
- it is not at the beginning of a syllable, e.g.,
tren(train), or when
- it is placed between two vowels:
In any other case it sounds as a strongly trilled r (again, Scottish style), i.e., at the beginning of a word, and after n, l, s, or some prefix:
- it is not at the beginning of a syllable, e.g.,
- The digraph rr is used to force a strongly trilled r between two vowels, e.g.,
- The letter w is only used in foreign words, and its sound resemble the original foreign sound. Basically, it may sound like a Spanish B (Wagner) or like an English W (Washington).
- The letter ñ represents a nasal palatal phoneme, which is a sound that does not exist in English. It is commonly said that ñ is pronounced like n in “canyon” or in “onion”. Unfortunately, that is just a useful approximation, at best. Actually, you could think of the ñ as a new variety of n. It is not like n in “son”, because you don’t use the tip of your tongue. It is not like n in “song” either, because you also do not use the back of your tongue. Ñ is a sort of middle term between those, that is, you should press the roof of your mouth with the middle of your tongue (the tip of it could simply rest behind your lower teeth). Only then, in this position, you could try a short /ny/ sound that sort of blends with the next vowel.
One last thing you should learn is how to identify the stressed syllable in any word you read. Three simple rules will suffice:
- If the word ends in a vowel, vowel+n or vowel+s, then the next to the last syllable must be stressed:
- Otherwise, the last syllable is stressed:
- If the word contains an acute accent mark, or tilde (´), then ignore the previous rules, as an accent mark always indicates the stressed syllable:
liBRÓ( (he/she/it) saved (sb from sthg) ),
Well, the truth is that sometimes the syllabification of a word does not seem obvious at all: how do I know it is
e-pi-SO-dio? Why not
Simply because I know that
io is always a diphthong, i.e., a sequence of two vowels that are pronounced in a single syllable. In order to identify diphthongs, you have to know some things:
- Spanish vowels can be divided into two phonetic groups: open (a, e, o) and close (i, u).
- The combinations (open vowel)+(close vowel) and (close vowel)+(open vowel) are always diphthongs, unless the close one has a tilde. So, are diphthongs:
ai, ái, au, áu, ei, éi, eu, éu, oi, ói, ou, óu, ia, iá, ua, uá, ie, ié, ue, üe, ué, io, ió, uo, uó. Some examples:
- Finally, any (close vowel)+(other close vowel) combination is a diphthong as well, i.e.:
iu, íu, iú, ui, úi, uí, üi, üí. For example:
Any other combination is called a hiatus, i.e., a sequence of two vowels which belong to separate syllables:
Note that, since
h is silent in Spanish, it cannot separate two syllables by itself. So, for example,
AHI is considered the same diphthong as
Practice makes perfect
Or, as we say in Spain,
la práctica hace al maestro (practice makes the master). There is a great difference between knowing the pronunciation rules of a language and actually being able to correctly pronounce a language. So, now that you know the rules, the next step is to practice, practice, practice.
You can begin by reading Spanish texts aloud: newspapers, websites or anything else that falls into your hands. It does not matter if you still do not understand a word. Here are some sentences to begin with:
La jirafa cazadora bebía gazpacho muy frío y cantaba bajo la lluvia.
El victorioso guerrero llevaba un hacha que pesaba nueve kilogramos.
Una ballena llamada Wagner emergió para respirar aire enriquecido con oxígeno.
Un frágil zorro pedigüeño viajó ayer en taxi.
Tu amigo japonés prepara agua, arroz y guindas en la cocina.
What do you think?
OK, that is all you have to know about the Spanish alphabet pronunciation. All you have to do is to internalize a couple of simple rules. Easy, isn’t it? Or not? Please let me know what do you think. And of course if you have any doubt, please don’t hesitate to leave comments and/or questions.
- The Alphabet Pronounced, Special Audio Edition, at RollingRs.
- Wikipedia article about the Spanish alphabet.
- Wikipedia article about the Spanish pronunciation.
- Even more Spanish Alphabet Resources, at Home Education Resources.
November 10, 2009
This is a wonderful resource. I am a non nativew speaker of Spanish and a Spanish teacher at high school level. I have studied extensively. I have one question and one little comment.
Why are the vowels called “Open” and “close?” I have also heard them refered to as strong and weak. I understand the rule. I just don’t understand the terms. My comment is that i think they should be “open” and “closed”
I would appreciate any explanation. Thank you.
November 12, 2009
That’s a good question, Sherri 🙂
Really I don’t know for sure, I suspect that it could be because in close vowels the tongue is placed “close” to the roof of the mouth. But, yes, it would also make sense to call them “closed vowels”. In fact, in Spanish they are called precisely so: “vocales cerradas”. Just my opinion, though.
Thanks for your comment!
June 3, 2010
What about: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”?
You’re welcome 😉
June 3, 2010
I need your help in searching for me a sentence that contains all the 26 english alphabetical letters. thanks and GOD bless
June 10, 2010
I’m currently using this article as a guide in my Spanish class.
Thanks for writing such a detailed article, although memorizing everything seems a little intimidating.
This article is very helpful and I really appreciate it! Thanks
June 11, 2010
Mewe, thanks a lot for your comment. I’m very glad to help. 🙂
June 21, 2010
Very nice post; thanks!
Do you have a source for the rules for when to trill the “r”? The rules given here are more complex than I remember from my high school Spanish.
Also, according to these rules, shouldn’t the “r” in “cerveza” be trilled? In the video, I was not able to hear a trill in that word.
June 24, 2010
Hi. I am spanish, I am going to try to explain you what are closed and opened vowels.
It’s very simple, if you have to open mouth, it’s opened, if you have to open just a little bit, it’s closed.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik1tWHym4Ic << Check this 🙂
September 3, 2010
[…] a little weird, verdad? … Anyway, the website, SpanishLearningHacks.com has more information on this particular sentence, and other great tips, so I highly recommend a […]
March 8, 2011
I didn’t see any rules for the letter “d.” To my ears (native English speaker) it seems the “d” in the word “nada” for example, sounds like a “th” as in the word, mother.
March 17, 2011
Where is the audio link on the Spanish Pronunciation rules site?
July 21, 2011
i wish i could speak your language but i can not speak why?………… because u do’nt speak in the english language so pls try and speak in the spanish language and give an answer to what u teach
November 28, 2011
This is good and i would appriciate for efforts but as time has been changed and I obserbed many years and I made some technique with the help of that any one can start speaking spanish in 19 days.
This seems magic but Its true : I have dont it.
January 3, 2012
[…] All the Spanish Alphabet Pronunciation in a Single Sentence Eme Emes M N […]
January 6, 2012
what is the one exception to the silent “h” I recently got this wrong on a spanish assignment in which I answered the “h” is ALWAYS silent and have searched my book, the internet and asked a fluently spanish coworker with no avail or answer. I am a bit inpatient when it comes to correcting my mistakes and since its an online college class assignments are still being submitted so I am not sure I will get an answer
February 27, 2012
Thank you very much for making this information available (what a great idea to use the video to check individual progress).
I have used your material as the basis for a summary document about pronunciation that I can use as a personal reminder.
One thing that I find difficult in sifting through the online materials is that many people refer to the same thing, with different names (the effect of sounds in speech, grramatical concept (eg. diptongo), graphical accents vs. stress etc. etc.
In you document you indicate that consecutive weak vowels will form a diphthong …. including … when one of the week vowels in the pair bears an accent mark (tilde). Point #3 under the topic of ‘syllabification you comment:
” ..Finally, any (close vowel)+(other close vowel) combination is a diphthong as well, i.e.: iu, íu, iú, ui, úi, uí, üi, üí. For example: HUI-da (escape), ciu-DAD (city).”
I know that when a closed (weak) vowel bears an accent mark in an “open/closed” vowel pair … this breaks the diphthong. (by effectively making it a pairing of “strong/Strong)”
However, it seems to me that accenting one weak vowel in a “week/week” pair would create a “strong/weak” combination which is a valid combination of vowels, which forms diphthongs.
My problem is that the information I have found on this is conflicting. (your document is the only one i have seen that deals with this in a specific way).
Q: in a weak/weak pairing of vowels … does an accent on one of the vowels remove the diphthong?
February 29, 2012
This is a awesome explanation of the spanish
alphabet! would love to see more!
March 4, 2012
re: Diphthong formed with two weak vowels.
From information I found on one site it appears that
(1) If the first of two weak vowels is accented – this breaks the diphthong.
(2) The diphthong is not broken if it is the second vowel in the weak/weak pair has the graphical accent.
(3) Both of these situations are rare. There are some examples of (2) eg. “je-suí-ti-ca.” The first situation (1) – does not seem to occur.
March 8, 2012
I expect you have already found an answer. But, i believe that the “d” does sound like “th” in “The” (but very soft) when it is at the end of a word or between vowels.
In the word “ciudad” I find that the “d” is hardly pronounced.
March 9, 2012
Excellent article! As mentioned, the ‘d’ between vowels carries a different phonetic value, equivalent to the english ‘th,’ as in ‘then.’ However, this ALSO occurs with b/v and g. The b/v is realized as a sort of buzzing, vibrating sound in which the lips don’t quite touch but come very close and the g is realized as a similar sound, executed at the very back of the throat (neither sound exists in English, they’re hard to describe). In the sentence you have, you are actually missing the “hard g” sound, which would occur at the beginning of a word or after a nasal (m or n). I humbly suggest that we say that this cigüena is “una cigüena guapa,” as that would cover all of the sounds in Spanish.
Again, this is an excellent article, and I plan on using all of this information for teaching.
April 5, 2012
Two driven jocks help fax my big quiz
March 5, 2014
Great piece. My only comment/correction at a quick glance would be in the portion pertaining to the vowels. I m not a native speaker, but Spanish is my second language and so I feel experienced enough to state that the Spanish “i” sound is more closely sounding to “ee” as in “free” than “i” in “pit” or “bit” as stated. Hence I feel this is not correct.
(portion I’m referring to):
•There are five vowels in the Spanish alphabet, the same as in English: a, e, i, o and u. However, they have only one possible pronunciation each. To remember their sound, try this: “part, pet, pit, port, put”. Or also: “bath, bet, bit, bought, boot”. Note: in Spanish there is no distinction between short and long vowels as there is in English (e.g., as in “bit”/”beat”).