People often say Spanish is an easy language to learn.
But is it really as straightforward as all that?
In this guest post, I invite the team at Okodia to examine the peculiarities of Spanish spelling.
You'll learn about some of the trickier rules that might trip you up, and how to get them right every time, without the need for a Spanish spell check!
Let's get into it…
If you're learning Spanish, you've got one big advantage over those learning other languages.
What is that advantage?
Spanish, for the most part, is pronounced exactly how it's written.
In fact, once you know the Spanish alphabet, you already know how to pronounce almost every single word in the language.
What's more, with the exception of the double r, or doble erre, which can be difficult for some Spanish learners to pronounce, Spanish phonetics are generally accessible to native speakers of many other world languages: English, German, Arabic, Japanese, to name a few.
Spanish even has some fun symbols like these:
¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?
Nos vemos mañana.
Even if you don't know much Spanish, you can probably manage to intelligibly pronounce the words above.
These symbols actually give you a real helping hand as a learner of Spanish.
For example, with the upside down question mark and the upside down exclamation mark, you don't have to wait until the end of a sentence to know if it is a exclamation or if it is a question!
And the great thing about the accent marks is that they show you exactly where the stress falls on a word, so there's no guesswork involved like in English.
But is Spanish really that simple?
Well, let's have a look!
No and Ñoño
The tilde above the ñ creates the letter énye. How do you pronounce it? Think of how you would say the word for this particular party item…
If you said, pinata, you've got some work to do.
But likely, you already knew it's piñata and you probably didn't have any trouble pronouncing the ñ. It's pretty close to the same way English speakers say the ny consonant cluster in the word canyon or cañón in Spanish.
Think you've got your ñ down?
Have a go at this Spanish tongue twister, or trabalengua, and see how you get on!
En este año el niño Nuñez engañó
al ñoño Noreña con la piñata de antaño.
Cuando el ñañigo Coruña encañonando el rebaño
en la cañada, con saña, lo enseñaba a cortar caña.
Vikini or Bikini?
While the distinction between v and b may seem obvious to a native English speaker, it's less obvious to a native Spanish speaker.
Because the letters b and v are both pronounced with a hard b sound in Spanish.
Native Spanish speakers don't typically ask, cómo se deletrea… (How do you spell…) but it's not uncommon for them to ask, ¿se escribe con b o con v? (Do you write it with b or v?)
Take the Spanish word for I go as an example: voy
Voy is pronounced with a hard b sound, so it sounds like like boy in English.
To reduce your English accent, be sure to pronounce all v's as b's: boy a la biblioteca (I'm going to the library).
The Spanish words baca (luggage rack) and vaca (cow) are pronounced exactly the same, but clearly have two very different meanings!
Can you say civilizaciones?
The letters s, c, and z can also be a source of trouble, and even leave native speakers reaching for the dictionary.
In most Spanish speaking countries, c and z are pronounced like an s so picking the correct consonant isn't always straightforward.
Check out these words…
c i e n c i a
s i e s t a
c e r v e z a
s e n t a r s e
c a n c i ó n
r e v i s i ó n
People from most Spanish-speaking countries will pronounce every c, z, and s in these words in exactly the same way!
Fortunately, a Spanish spell check catches most of these mistakes!
But just like in English, sometimes misspelled words go unnoticed!
c a s a r o c a z a r
Both words can be pronounced the same, but do you want to marry him or hunt him? 🙂
Foreign letters k and w
The letters k and w are only used for writing foreign words in Spanish.
For example, the cute hopping marsupial in Australia is called a walaby in Spanish.
This animal name is borrowed from English so the English letter w is kept.
But notice that the spelling is not exactly the same as it is in English, wallaby. Spanish has removed one l to maintain the l sound, since the double ll produces a y sound in Spanish.
Now, how would you spell the name of the colour of this item of clothing?
The Spanish write this colour, kaki with k because it's borrowed from Urdu, khākī, which means ‘dust coloured‘. Note, caqui in Spanish is also accepted as correct spelling.
And what about this summer time swimwear?
If you said either bikini or biquini… you're right!
Silent Letter: h
You probably already know that hola isn’t pronounced ho-la. It’s pronounced ‘o-la. But if you write ola without the h, it means wave (like an ocean wave) in English.
If you write hola with the h, of course it means hello.
There are a few other examples of homonyms in Spanish, but most of the time the meaning is so different it’s easy to understand the meaning from context.
Rolling Your Rs
The double r is ubiquitous in the Spanish language. This sound often takes some work for language learners not used to rolling their R’s.
Once you've cracked producing the sound, here's a tongue workout for you…
Erre con erre cigarro
erre con erre barril
rápido ruedan los carros
cargados de azúcar del ferrocarril
Even native tongues get tied with this one, but it’s excellent practice to get those erres flying 🙂
Something you’ll see an abundance of in Spanish are little accent marks above the vowels: á, é, í, ó, ú
Accents marks let you know which syllable is stressed in a word.
That is, instead of having to guess where it falls (like in English), the accent marks are actually an excellent aid to pronounce Spanish well.
But while they’re super helpful for reading, writing is a different story.
Sometimes, even if you know how to pronounce a word, it can be hard to remember which vowel the accent goes on … or if it’s needed at all!
The 4 Rules of Spanish Accents
1. There are only 3 places an accent can go
- Last syllable
- Second to last syllable
- First vowel / syllable
2. When the stress falls on the last syllable
If the word stress falls on the last syllable, the accent mark is only written if the stressed syllables end in -n, -s, or a vowel (a, e, i, o, u).
canción, parchís, Panamá, tomé, caí, comió, Belcebú
3. When the stress falls on the second to last syllable
If the word stress falls on the second-to-last syllable, the rule is reversed. That is, words that end in a -n, -s, or a vowel, don't need an accent.
ámbar, árbol, álbum, abuela, abanico, canica
The name María is an interesting exceptions to this rule.
Notice, without the accent mark the sound of -ia mushes together like mar-ya. The accent sign is written to prevent the diphthong which would occur otherwise.
4. When the stress falls on other syllables
If the word stress occurs on the third-to-last syllable, an accent mark is always needed.
tarántula, esdrújula, sobreesdrújula, fantástico.
The exception is adverbs ending in -mente…
anualmente, cabalmente, casualmente
However, if the accent occurs on the fourth-to-last syllable, you need the accent once more…
súbitamente, estúpidamente, dramáticamente
So, as you can see, Spanish isn't all plain sailing!
The good news is a Spanish spell check can really help you out, and over time you will start to remember where the accents go so you won’t even have to remember all these rules!
The Okodia Technical Translation team would like to encourage you to learn Spanish because it’s a beautiful, rich language, within your reach. Almost 500 million really cool people speak it.
¿So, what are you waiting for?
Main image: Petipoa