Spanish spelling has the pleasant characteristic of being more or less phonetic. This means that if you know how to pronounce the letters of a word, it's relatively easy to sound out the word itself.
Besides having a very small number of vowel sounds and a high predictablity of exactly what sound is represented by each letter, Spanish has a very clear set of rules about where a stress normally falls, and exceptions are noted with an "acute accent mark" ("´") over the vowel of the stressed syllable. Normally, words that end in a vowel, or in n or s, have the stress on the next-to-last syllable (muchacho = "mu-CHA-cho"); all other words without an explicit accent mark are stressed on the final syllable (hospital = "os-pee-TAL"). There are no secondary stresses within words.
- like 'a' in "father".
- like 'ay' in "hay".
- like 'ee' in "see".
- like 'o' in "rope".
- like 'oo' in "hoop".
- like 'ee' in "see".
- like 'b' in "bed" (but no aspiration) at the beginning of a word and after 'm': boca. An approximant (a soft vibration sound almost like English 'v') elsewhere. See v below.
- follows the same pronunciation pattern as in English. In most cases it is pronounced like 'k' in "kid": calle, doctor. When followed by 'e' or 'i', it is like 's' in "supper" (Latin America) or 'th' in "thin" (Spain): cine.
- like 'ch' in "touch": muchacho
- like 'd' in "dog" at the beginning of a word; like 'th' is "this" between vowels: dedo, pronounced "DAY-thoh"
- like 'f' in "fine": faro
- when followed by 'e' or 'i', like a throaty 'h' (general = heh-neh-RAHL), otherwise like 'g' in "go" (gato). In the clusters "gue" and "gui", the 'u' is silent (guitarra), unless it bears a diaeresis, as in "güe" and "güi" (pedigüeño).
like 'Gu' in McGuire or 'w' in "wire" (agua, agüita)
- silent: hora= OR-ah
- like 'ch' in German "auch" (though it is often approximated well enough with English 'h'): jamón. Same sound as g followed by 'e' or 'i'.
- like 'k' in "kid": kilo
- like 'l' in "love": lápiz
- like 'y' in "you" or, occasionally (in some parts of Latin America), like the English 's' in "measure": lluvia.
- like 'm' in "mother": mano
- like 'n' in "nice", and like 'n' in "anchor": noche, ancla
- like 'ny' in "canyon": cañón, piñata
- like 'p' in "pig": perro
- like 'q' in "quiche" (always with a silent "u"): queso, pronounced KAY-so. See k above.
- Spanish has two 'r' sounds both of which are different from their counterpart in English. Some effort should be made to approximate them, to help listeners distinguish between perro ("dog") and pero ("but")... or perhaps to understand you at all.
single flap r (ere)
- Always written "r", this sound is created by putting the tip of the tongue up against where the front of the roof of the mouth meets the upper teeth, very similar to the action English speakers make to pronounce l or d. To an English-speaking ear, it may sound a bit like a combined "d-r".
Particular care should be taken when r appears after a consonant, e.g. in the word otro ("other"). tr is a particular sound in English, which will not be recognized in Spanish. One must separate the two sounds out, as in wha(t) (r)ubbish, clicking the r properly.
rolled r (erre)
- Written "r" at the beginning of the word, or after "l", "n", or "s" (ropa, enredo); written "rr" between vowels (cerro). It's a multiply vibrating sound. Whereas all English speakers can learn to tap out a single r it seems that many adult non-Spanish speakers simply do not have the ability to vibrate the tongue in the way needed to pronounce rr; in this case, pronouncing it like a Spanish r or fumbling out a d-r might be better understood than pronouncing it like an Enlgish r.
- like 'ss' in "hiss": sopa
- like 't' in "top": tapa
- like 'b' in "bed" (but no aspiration) at the beginning of a word and after 'm': vaca, pronounced BAH-kah. An approximant (a soft vibration sound almost like English 'v') elsewhere. To distinguish v from b when spelling, one says "vay chica" or "bay grande" to indicate which; native Spanish speakers may not hear the difference between "vee" and "bee".
- like 'w' in "weight" in English words, whisky, pronounced "WEESS-kee"). Like 'b' in "bed" in Germanic words.
- like 'x' in "sex" (sexo). Like 'ss' in "hiss" at beginning of a word (xilófono). Like a throaty 'h' in the words México, mexicano, Oaxaca, and oaxaqueño.
- like 'y' in "yes": payaso. Like 'y' in "boy": hoy. At the beginning of the word, it will sometimes be pronounced more like an English 'j': yo no se, pronounced "joh noh say".
- like 's' in "supper" (Latin America), like 'th' in "thin" (Spain): zorro. See c above.
Most diphthongs can be approximated by blending the first vowel into the second in a single syllable.
- like 'eye': baile
- like 'ow' in "cow": causa
- like 'ay' in "say": reina, rey.
- like 'oo' in "food" euro = "OO-row"
- like 'ya' in "Kenya": piano
- like 'ye' in "yes": pie = "PEE-yeh"
- like 'yo': dio
- like 'ew' in "few": ciudad = "see-you-THAHD"
- like 'oy' in "boy": soy
- like 'wa' in "wallet": cuatro
- like 'we' in "well": puedo
- like 'wee' in "ween": ruido
- like 'ooy': cuido = "coo-wee-dough"
- like "wa" in "water": averiguo
Accents and stress
Word stress can affect the meaning of the word and generally follows these rules:
- If a word is marked with an accent, then that syllable receives the stress.
- o Additionally, if the accent marks a diphthong a syllable break occurs between the two vowels of the diphthong.
- If a word is NOT marked with an accent, then
- if the word ends in a consonant other than N or S, the stress occurs on the last syllable.
- if the word ends in a vowel, N or S, the stress occurs on the next to last syllable.
- círculo (SEER-koo-loh) → circle circulo (seer-KOO-loh) → I circulate circuló (seer-koo-LOH) → (s)he/it circulated estás (ehss-TAHSS) → you are estas (EHSS-tahss) → these origen (oh-REE-hehn) → origin orígenes (oh-REE-hehn-ehss) → origins ciudad (syew-DAHD) → city ciudades (syew-DAH-dehss) → cities
An accent can also be used to differentiate between words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings:
- mí → me tú → you él → he mi → my tu → your si → if el → the sí → yes