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The pronunciation of Spanish

Symbols used in this dictionary

The pronunciation of Spanish words is directly represented by their written form and therefore phonetic transcriptions have only been supplied for loan words which retain their original spelling.

The phonetic symbols used in Spanish pronunciations given in the dictionary are listed below. Each symbol is followed by an example and a brief description of the sound, where possible by approximating it to an English sound. These approximations are intended only as a guide and should not be taken as strict phonetic equivalents.

1 Consonants and semi-vowels

Symbol
Example
Approximation
/b/
boca /′boka/
vaso /′baso/
English b in bin but without the aspiration that follows it.
/β/
cabo /′kaβo/
ave /′aβe/
Very soft bilabial sound, produced with the lips hardly meeting.
/d/
dolor /do′lor/
English d in den, but articulated with the tip of the tongue against the upper teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge. There is no aspiration.
/ð/
cada /′kaða/
arde /′arðe/
English th in rather.
/f/
fino /′fino/
English f in feat.
/g/
gota /′gota/
English g in goat.
/Ɣ/
pago /′paƔo/
largo /′larƔo/
Very soft continuous sound produced in the throat like /g / but without the sudden release of air.
/J/
mayo /′maJo/
llave /"Jaβe/
English y in yet, pronounced slightly more emphatically when at the beginning of an utterance. For regional variants see points 7 and 14 of General Rules of Spanish Pronunciation below.
/j/
tiene /′tjene/
English y in yet. Only found in diphthongs and triphthongs.
/k/
cama /′kama/
copa /′kopa/
cuna /′kuna/
que /ke/
quiso /′kiso/
kilo /′kilo/
English c in cap but without the aspiration that follows it.
/l/
lago /′laƔo/
English l in lid, without the vocalic resonance it often has in American English.
/m/
mono /′mono/
English m in most.
/n/
no /no/
English n in nib.
/ŋ/
banco /"baŋko/
English ng in song.
/ɲ/
año /′aɲo/
Like gn in French soigné, similar to the ni in onion, pronounced with the tongue flat against the palate.
/p/
peso /′peso/
English p in spin (rather than the aspirated p in pin).
/r/
aro /′aro/
árbol /′arβol/
A single flap with a curved tongue against the palate, similar to the voiced pronunciation of tt in pretty, better which is common in American English.
/rr/
rato /′rrato/
parra /′parra/
A rolled ′r′ as found in some Scottish accents.
/s/
asa /′asa/
celo /′selo/(Latin-American-Spanish)
cinco /′siɲko/ (Latin-American-Spanish)
azote /a′sote/ S(Latin-American-Spanish)
English s in stop. Some speakers of Peninsular Spanish use a sound which tends toward /ʃ /, articulated with the tip of the tongue slightly curved back.
/θ/
celo /′θelo/(European-Spanish)
cinco /′θiĐko(European-Spanish)/
azote /a′θote/(European-Spanish)
English th in thin. Not used in Latin American Spanish.
/t/
todo /′toðo/
English t in step (rather than the aspirated t in toy). Pronounced with the tongue against the front teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge.
/tʃ/
chapa/′tʃapa/
English ch in church but without the aspiration that follows it.
/w/
cuatro /′kwatro/
English w. Only found in foreign words or diphthongs and triphthongs.
/x/
jota /′xota/
general /xene"ral/
gigante /xi"Gante/
ch in Scottish loch or German auch.
/z/
desde /′dezθe/
English s in is. Only occurs in some dialects of Spanish.

2 Vowels

The five Spanish vowels are uniformly pronounced throughout the Spanish-speaking world but none of them corresponds exactly to an English vowel.

It should be noted that Spanish vowels are not noticeably weakened when in unstressed positions as they are in English. They have the same quality as stressed vowels. The slight variations that can be heard are allophonic i.e. they are determined by their context, but never serve to distinguish one word from another (e.g. the /e/ in perro is slightly more open than that in pero but it is the difference between /rr/ and /r/ that distinguishes the noun from the conjunction).

Symbol
Example
Approximation
/a/
casa /′kasa/
Shorter than a in father, slightly more open than u in cup.
/e/
seco /′seko/
English e in pen.
/i/
fin /fin/
Shorter than English ee in seen, longer and more closed than English i in sin.
/o/
oro /′oro/
Shorter than English o in rose, and without the /℧/ sound. When in a syllable which ends in a consonant, it is closer to British English o in dot.
/u/
uña /′uɲa/
Shorter than English oo in boot, longer and pronounced with more rounded lips than English oo in foot.

The symbol /∧/, (the English u in cup), has also been used in the transcription of certain words which maintain their English pronunciation

3 Diphthongs and triphthongs

These are combinations of the above vowels and the semi-vowels /j/and/w/:

 

  • cuando /′kwando/

  • tiene /′tjene/

  • indio /′indjo/

  • fui /fwi/

  • actuáis /ak′twajs/

4 The stress mark

When phonetic transcriptions of Spanish headwords are given in the dictionary, the symbol ′ precedes the syllable that carries the stress:

footing /′futin/

For information about where other words should be stressed, see section 2 Stress .

General rules of Spanish pronunciation

1  Consonants

 

  • 1.  B,V The letters b and v are pronounced in exactly the same way: /b/ when at the beginning of an utterance or after m or n (barco/′barko/, vaca/′baka/, ambos /′ambos/, en vano /em′bano/) and /β/ in all other contexts (rabo /′rraβo/, ave /′aβe/, árbol /′arβol/, Elvira /el′βira/).

  • 2.  C is pronounced /k/ when followed by a consonant other than h or by a, o or u (acto/′akto/, casa/′kasa/, coma /′koma/, cupo /′kupo/). When it is followed by e or i, it is pronounced /s/ in Latin America and parts of southern Spain and /θ/ in the rest of Spain (cero /′sero/, /′θero/; cinco /′siŋko/, /′θiŋko/).

  • 3.  D is pronounced /d/ when it occurs at the beginning of an utterance or after n or l (digo /′diƔo/, anda /′anda/, el dueño /el′dweɲo/) and /ð/ in all other contexts (hada /′aða/, arde /′arðe/, los dados /loz′ðaðos/). It is often not pronounced at all at the end of a word (libertad /liβer′ta(ð)/, Madrid /ma′ðri(ð)/).

  • 4.  G is pronounced /x/ when followed by e or i (gitano /xi′tano/, auge /′awxe/). When followed by a, o, u, ue or ui it is pronounced /g/ if at the beginning of an utterance or after n (gato /′gato/, gula/′gula/, tango /′taŋgo/, guiso /′giso/) and /Ɣ/ in all other contexts (hago /′aƔo/, trague /′traƔe/, alga /′alƔa/, águila /′aƔila/). Note that the u is not pronounced in the combinations gue and gui, unless it is written with a diaeresis (paragüero /para′Ɣwero/, agüita /a′Ɣwita/).

  • 5.  H is mute in Spanish, (huevo /′ weβo/, almohada /almo′aða/) except in the combination ch, which is pronounced /tʃ/ (chico /′tʃiko/, leche /′letʃe/).

  • 6.  J is always pronounced /x/ (jamón /xa′mon/, jefe /′xefe/).

  • 7.  LL The pronunciation of ll varies greatly throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

    (a) It is pronounced rather like the y in English yes by the majority of speakers, who do not distinguish between the pronunciation of ll and that of y (e.g. between haya and halla). The sound is pronounced slightly more emphatically when at the beginning of an utterance.

    (b) In some areas, particularly Bolivia, parts of Peru and Castile in Spain, the distinction between ll and y has been preserved. In these areas ll is pronounced with the tongue against the palate, the air escaping through narrow channels on either side. (The nearest sound in English would be that of lli in million).

    (c) In the River Plate area ll is pronounced /Ʒ/ (as in English measure), with some speakers using a sound which tends toward /ʃ / (as in shop).

    When phonetic transcriptions of Spanish headwords containing ll are given in the dictionary, the symbol /J/ is used to represent the range of pronunciations described above.

  • 8. Ñ is always pronounced /ŋ/.

  • 9.  Q is always followed by ue or ui. It is pronounced /K/, and the u is silent (quema /′kema/, quiso /′kiso/).

  • 10.  R is pronounced /r/ when it occurs between vowels or in syllable-final position (aro /′aro/, horma /′orma/, barco /′barko/, cantar /kan′tar/). It is pronounced /rr/ when in initial position (rama /′rrama/, romper /rrom′per/). The double consonant rr is always pronounced /rr/.

  • 11.  S is pronounced /s/ but it is aspirated in many dialects of Spanish when it occurs in syllable-final position (hasta /′ahta/, los cuatro /loh′kwatro/). In other dialects it is voiced when followed by a voiced consonant (mismo/′mIzmo/, los dos /loz′ðos/).

  • 12.  V see 1 above .

  • 13.  X is pronounced /ks/, although there is a marked tendency to render it as /s/ before consonants, especially in less careful speech (extra /′ekstra/, /′estra/, or in some dialects /′ehtra/, see 11 above).

    In some words derived from Nahuatl and other Indian languages it is pronounced /x/ (México /′mexiko/) and in others it is pronounced /s/ (Xochlmllco /sotʃi′milko/).

  • 14.  Y (a) When followed by a vowel within the same syllable y is pronounced rather like the y in English yes (slightly more emphatically when at the beginning of an utterance). In the River Plate area it is pronounced /Ʒ/ (as in English measure), with some speakers using a sound which tends toward /ʃ/ (as in shop).

    When phonetic transcriptions of Spanish headwords containing y are given in the dictionary, the symbol /J/ is used to represent both pronunciations described above. (b) As the conjunction y and in syllable-final position, y is pronounced /i/.

  • 15.  Z is pronounced /s/ in Latin America and parts of southern Spain and /θ/ in the rest of Spain.

2  Stress

When no phonetic transcription is given for a Spanish headword, the following rules determine where it should be stressed:

 

  • 1. If there is no written accent:

    (a)  a word is stressed on the penultimate syllable if it ends in a vowel, or in n or s:

    arma /′arma/

    mariposas /mari′posas/

    ponen /′ponen/

    (b)  words which end in a consonant other than n or s are stressed on the last syllable:

    cantar /kan′tar/

    delantal /delan′tal/

    libertad /liβer′ta(ð)/

    maguey/ma′Ɣei/

    perdiz /per′dis/ (in Latin America) /per′diθ/ (in Spain)

  • 2. If a word is not stressed in accordance with the above rules, the written accent indicates the syllable where the emphasis is to be placed:

    balcón /bal′kon/

    salí /sa′li/

    carácter /ka′rakter/

    hágase /′aƔase/

    It should be noted that unstressed vowels have the same quality as stressed vowels and are not noticeably weakened as they are in English. For example, there is no perceptible difference between any of the e’s in entenderé or between the a’s in Panamá.

3  Combinations of vowels

A combination of a strong vowel (a, e or o) and a weak vowel (i or u) or of two weak vowels forms a diphthong and is therefore pronounced as one syllable. The stress falls on the strong vowel if there is one. In a combination of two weak vowels, it falls on the second element:

cuando /′kwando/ (stressed on the /a/)

aula /′awla/ (stressed on the /a/)

viudo /′bjuƔo/ (stressed on the /u/)

A combination of two strong vowels does not form a diphthong and the vowels retain their separate values. They count as two separate syllables for the purposes of applying the above rules on stress:

faena /fa′ena/ (stressed on the /e/)

polea /po′lea/ (stressed on the /e/)

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