In the previous lesson, we described the Spanish consonant sound system. Here, we will cover all the consonant letters and their related sounds, one at a time.
- b and v represent one phoneme, which we have symbolized [b]. However, there are several slightly different but predictable variants in the articulation of this sound. This variation has nothing to do with whether the correct spelling in a word is with b or v. The labio-dental or bilabial fricative (not a complete momentary stop of the air) variant occurs between vowels,and the completely stopped variant may occur at the beginning of words after pause (not in the middle of a phrase). Here, whether a b or a v is written, is basically a literacy question–the student must remember how the word looks. These sound the same:
haber — to have, to exist
a ver — let's see
- c before e and i, as well as s and z, all spell [s] in the varieties of Latin American Spanish. Reading is not a problem, but correct ortografía requires familiarity with the written form of words, a knowledge of European Spanish, or, in some cases, the ability to predict spelling from a knowledge of word origins and cognates.
cinta — ribbon
cinto — belt, girdle (compare English "cinch")
- c before a, o, and u always represents [k]
- d, and f are the only spellings for the [d] and [f] sounds. Check out [link] for some tips about d pronunciation.
- g represents a sound like English [g], but to have this value before i and e, the letter u must be inserted. Note here that if u after g is written with an “umlaut” (two dots on top, ü), the u is sounded and the g retains its [g] sound.
gana — win
guerra — war
guitarra — guitar
goma — rubber, eraser
gusano — worm
vergüenza — shame
- g before e and i directly,like the letter j, represents a sound like the “h” in English “he”, but a little harsher. In our consonant sounds chart, we have symbolized this sound as [h]. Here are some examples:
gigante say [higante] — giant
jinete say [hinete] — horseman
gerente say [herente] — manager
jerarquía say [herarkiya] — hierarchy
- h, the letter, represents no sound. Its presence or absence in ortografía is a literacy matter and mostly a result of word history. Its presence may indicate a syllable boundary. Before the letter u, it may be a spelling for [w].
hueco — hollow
huipil — a traditional dress
bahía (ba-í-a) — bay
dehesa (de-e-sa) — pastureland (Don't make make a glottal stop—a catch in the throat—between the two "e"s; just keep going and increase the stress slightly on the second "e")
- j represents the same sound as the g before i and e, which we have transcribed with the symbol [h] in the sound inventory. j can occur before all the vowels.
jarra — jar
jefe — boss
jirafa — giraffe
jota — the letter "j", (not one) iota
jugo — juice
The learner must acquire the ortografía of ji, gi, and je, ge as a literacy matter. Going from reading to sound is not a problem.
- k, the letter, is little used. It occurs only in borrowed words and scientific terms.
kiosco — kiosk
kilo(-) — kilo, thousand
karate — karate
- l represents a sound similar to English “l”, but with the tongue higher and more flattened (think English “clear”).
- ll, the doubled letter, represents a separate phoneme in European Spanish, and in very formal speech in some Latin American dictions. It is a palatalized l-sound, something like you might hear in English “million”. For such speakers, these words sound different:
callo — (I am) quiet
cayo — cay, small island
Generally, for Latin American speakers, they are collapsed into [y]; the ortografía must be acquired as a literacy matter.
- m is like English in all positions.
- n always represents [n], but the sound is predictably different, depending on what sound follows. Between vowels, the sound is like English, but before consonants, as at the end of a syllable when the following syllable begins with a consonant, we hear assimilation to that consonant.
- ñ represents a palatalized n-sound, something like what you hear in English “onion”.
- p always represents [p]. Unlike in English, it is never aspirated produced with a puff of air upon release of the lips.
papa — potato (may sound a little like baba to an English speaker).
- q as in English is always followed by the letter u, but together they represent the [k] sound before e and i.
queso [keso] — cheese
quiso [kiso] — (s)he wanted
- r represents a sound made by a flap of the tongue against the alveolar ridge above the teeth–a sound famously unlike English r, but more like the middle sound in “ladder”, spoken quickly.
- rr — the double letter sequence, represents a distinct sound, in that the contrast between -r- and -rr- can distinguish word meanings. Consider these often-cited pairs:
caro — expensive
carro — car
pero — but, however
perro — dog
In these words, the -rr- is more prolonged than the sound represented by a single -r-. We usually call it a trilled sound. The place of articulation is the same for both. This contrast occurs only between vowels, so that even though you may hear words beginning or ending with a vigorous trill (listen to television and radio announcers!), only a single r is ever written in those positions. Why, then, is [rr] not included in the list of phonemes? Listen again to:
pero — but
perro — dog
In pero, the [e] is high, like the vowel sound in English mate, said quickly. However, in perro the [e] is somewhat lower, almost like the vowel in English pet. We can say that pero has a syllable division pe-ro, while perro has a syllable division per-ro. Listen for small systematic differences between the vowels in open (ending in the vowel) and closed (ending in a consonant) syllables. Here is an example of this vowel difference when the syllable-final consonant is not the same as the syllable-initial consonant beginning the next syllable:
pera pe-ra — pear
perla per-la — pearl
Perhaps this discussion is over-long,but we want to make a strong case for the reliability of the Spanish alphabet as a guide to the sound system. There are only two true digraphs (in which two letters represent a single sound), ch and ll. By contrast, -rr- is not a digraph but rather a consonant cluster.
- s always represents [s], although its pronunciation varies in context more than English [s]. In the everyday speech of some varieties of Spanish it may even disappear into a voiceless puff of air in word-final and syllable-final position (probably not something the learner should try). Remember that s, c, and z represent the same [s] phoneme for most speakers of Latin American Spanish.
- t always represents [t]
- v Remember that this letter represents the same phoneme as the letter b does. If you are spelling out a word (deletreo), v is called:
be corta — short b, and the letter b is called
be larga — tall b
- w the letter, is rare, as we mentioned in the beginning of this article, as is…
- x also mentioned above.
- y represents a consonantal sound somewhat like the first sound in English yes. Remember that y represents the same sound as -ll- for most speakers of varieties of Latin American Spanish. For the learner in this case the choice is a literacy matter for correct ortografía.
- z always represents a voiceless sound [s], never like English zoo. It may be noted that in some varieties and speaking styles a voicing of [s] may be heard before a syllable beginning in a voiced consonant. The main point is that for learners of varieties of Latin American Spanish, c (before e and i), z, and s all represent the sound [s], and which one to write is a literacy matter. These words sound the same:
cazar — hunt
casar — marry
So you can see, there are no sound-decoding problems for English-speaking learners. The relatively few spelling problems for writers are the same for both English-speaking learners and native Spanish speakers of Latin American varieties of Spanish. That is why we transcribe our textual materials with conventional Spanish ortografía.
For practice, try these lists of open syllables, just the way a six-year-old beginning to read might learn them. Read across the rows. (Later, you can practice going down the columns.)
|ba (va)||be (be)||bi (bi)||bo (vo)||bu (vu)|
|sa (za)||se (ce)||si (ci)||so (zo)||su (zu)|
|ja||je (ge)||ji (gi)||jo||ju|
|ya (lla)||ye (lle)||yi (lli)||yo (llo)||yu (llu)|