Don’t you wish someone would just give you some basic characteristics of Spanish that would simplify pronunciation and writing? Well, here it is. Before you try to figure it all out on your own, I prefer to give you 10 things that will make it much easier for you to write and pronounce Spanish, even before you actually learn the language.
Spanish stems from Vulgar Latin and uses the Roman, otherwise known as Latin, script consisting of 26 letters, each with an uppercase and lowercase version. Spanish has an added ñ, called eñe, making it a total of 27 letters. Even though ch, ll, and rr were considered letters in the past, the Real Academia Española labelled them obsolete as of 2010. The letters k and w are only used for loanwords, words directly incorporated from another language, as opposed to translating them. Karate and internet are examples of loanwords.
What does this even mean? Spanish is pronounced as it is written on the page. There aren’t any silent letters or phantoms. It is straightforward. In fact, even if you come across a word for the first time and have no idea what it means you will still know how to pronounce it once you have a few basic rules down, such as…
There are only five vowel sounds in Spanish: a, e, i, o, u. That means only five sounds to memorize. Don’t try to make Spanish sound like English; just learn the five basic (and only) vowel sounds. Compared to to English, which according to The National Institute of Education has between 16 (American English) and 20 sounds (British English), this makes Spanish much easier to learn.
A dipthong is formed when a strong vowel (a, e, o) is combined with a weak vowel (i, u), or when two weak vowels are together. When you see two vowels next to each other, one strong (a, e, o) and one weak (i, u) or two weak vowels, all you have to do is combine the two vowels into one syllable and pronounce it together. Take the word “aula” (classroom). It has a strong vowel and a weak one. These two vowels will be pronounced as one with a strong a and a softer u. The word “maestra” (teacher), on the other hand, has two strong vowels, which means each vowel is pronounced separately. The word is broken into ma-es-tra, as opposed to aula, which is au-la. You cannot break up a diphthong unless there is an accent over one of the vowels.
Unlike other languages such as French or Italian, Spanish has only one type of accent, an acute accent, over the vowels: á, é, í, ó, ú. A note on accent marks: there is only one accent mark per word.
The accents placed over letters, including acute accents, are known as diacritics or diacritical marks. Spanish applies an acute accent over the vowels, but there are no accents of any kind over consonants except the tilde over the n, resulting in ñ. Aside from the acute accents over the vowels and the ñ, Spanish has only one other diacritic: the diaeresis over the u, resulting in ü. The ü is only found accompanied by the word g to show when the u is pronounced. In the word guerra (war), for example, the u is not pronounced. In the word güera (meaning blonde, in Mexico), the u is pronounced because the diaeresis is present. In other words, the only diacritics in Spanish are the acute accent marks over vowels, the tilde over the n, and the diaeresis over the u.
The main way to show possession in Spanish is by using the preposition de (of). “María’s book” becomes “el libro de María.” The only contractions in Spanish are for the prepositions a or de followed by the definite article el: a + el = al; de + el = del.
Ella va a el hospital = Ella va al hospital = She is going to hospital.
Salgo de el hotel mañana = Salgo del hotel mañana = I leave the hotel tomorrow.
With the exception of the letter h, Spanish does not have any letters that go unpronounced. Usually h is found at the beginning of the word, such as in hola (hello).
When a word ends in a vowel, n or s, the emphasis when you pronounce the word is placed over the second to last syllable. My name, Irma, for example, is pronounced IR-ma.
If a word ends in a consonant other than n or s, the emphasis is on the very last syllable. The verb hablar is pronounced ha-BLAR.
Don’t you love it when rules actually make sense? All of the above is strictly observed in Spanish. When a word breaks the main pronunciation rules (see #9 and 10), the acute accent mark is used to show you where to emphasize.
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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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