Pronouncing Spanish based on the written word is much simpler than pronouncing English based on written English. This is because, with few exceptions, each letter in the Spanish alphabet represents a single sound, and even when there are many possible sounds, simple rules tell us which is the correct one. In contrast, many letters and letter combinations in English represent multiple sounds (such as the ou and gh in words like cough, rough, through, though, plough, etc.).
Letter-sound correspondences in Spanish
The table below presents letter-sound correspondences in the order of the traditional Spanish alphabet. (Refer to the article Spanish orthography in Wikipedia for details on the Spanish alphabet and alphabetization.)
|IPA||Pronunciation of the letter (English approximation)|
|A a||a||a||Like a in father|
|B b||be, be larga, be alta||b||Like b in bad.|
|β||Between vowels, the lips should not be fully closed when pronouncing the sound (somewhat similar to the v in value, but much softer).|
|C c||ce||θ/s||Before the vowels e and i, like th in thin (most of Spain) or like c in center (Parts of Andalucía, Canary Islands and Americas).|
|k||Everywhere else; like c in coffee|
|Ch ch||che||tʃ||Like ch in church.|
|D d||de||d||Does not have an exact English equivalent. Sounds similar to the d in day, but instead of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, it should touch the teeth themselves.|
|ð||Between vowels, the tongue should be lowered so as to not touch the teeth (somewhat similar to the th in the).|
|E e||e||e||Like e in ten, and the ay in say.|
|F f||efe||f||Like f in four.|
|G g||ge||g||Like g in get.|
|ɰ||Between vowels (where the second vowel is a, o or u), the tongue should not touch the soft palate (no similar sound in English, but it's somewhat like Arabic ghain).|
|x||Before the vowels e and i, like a Spanish j (see below).|
|H h||hache||Silent, unless combined with c (see above). Hu- or hi- followed by another vowel at the start of the word stand for /w/ (English w) and /j/ (English y). Also used in foreign words like hámster, where it is pronounced like a Spanish j (see below).|
|I i||i||i||Like e in he. Before other vowels, it approaches y in you.|
|J j||jota||x||Like the ch in loch, although in many dialects it may sound like English h.|
|K k||ka||k||Like the k in ask. Only used in words of foreign origin - Spanish prefers c and qu (see above and below, respectively).|
|L l||ele||l||Does not have an exact English equivalent. It is similar to the English "l" in line, but shorter, or "clipped." Instead of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, it should touch the tip of the teeth themselves.|
|Ll ll||doble ele, elle||ʎ/ʝ||Pronounced, mostly in Northern Spain, like gl in the Italian word gli. Does not have an English equivalent, but it's somewhat similar to li in million. In other parts of Spain and in Latin America, ll is commonly pronounced as /ʝ/ (somewhat similar to English y, but more vibrating). In Argentina and Uruguay it can be like sh in "flash" or like the s in the English "vision".|
|M m||eme||m||Like m in more.|
|N n||ene||n||Like n in no. Before p, b, f and v (and in some regions m) sounds as m in important. For example un paso sounds umpaso. Before g, j, k sound (c, k , q), w and hu sounds like n in anchor: un gato, un juego, un cubo, un kilo, un queso, un whisky, un hueso. Before y sound (y or ll), it sounds like ñ, see below.|
|Ñ ñ||eñe||ɲ||Like gn in the Italian word lasagna. As it's always followed by a vowel, the most similar sound in English is /nj/ (ny) + vowel, as in canyon, where the y is very short. For example, when pronouncing "años", think of it as "anyos", or an-yos. To practice, repeat the onomatopoeia of chewing: "ñam, ñam, ñam".|
|O o||o||o||Like o in more, without the following r sound.|
|P p||pe||p||Like p in port.|
|Q q||cu||k||Like q in quit. As in English, it is always followed by a u, but before e or i, the u is silent (líquido is pronounced /'li.ki.ðo/). The English /kw/ sound is normally written cu in Spanish (cuanto), although qu can be used for this sound in front of a or o (quásar, quórum).|
|R r||ere, erre||ɾ||This has two pronunciations, neither of which exist in English. The 'soft' pronunciation [ɾ] sounds like American relaxed pronunciation of tt in "butter", and is written r (always written r).|
|r||The 'hard' pronunciation [r] is a multiply vibrating sound, similar to Scottish rolled r (generally written rr). 'Hard' r is also the sound of [r] at the start of a word or after l, n or s.|
|S s||ese||s||Like s in six. In many places it's aspirated in final position, although in Andalusia it is not itself pronounced, but changes the sound of the preceding vowel. (See regional variations). In most parts of Spain, it's pronounced as a sound between [s] and [ʃ].|
|T t||te||t||Does not have an exact English equivalent. Like to the t in ten, but instead of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, it should touch the teeth themselves.|
|U u||u||w||before another vowel (especially after c), like w in twig.|
|In the combinations gue,gui and qu, it is silent unless it has a diaresis (güe, güi), in which case it is as above: w (only in the combinations güe and güi and not in the combination qü).|
|u||Everywhere else, like oo in pool, but shorter.|
|V v||uve, ve, ve corta, ve baja||b, β||Identical to Spanish b (see above). The pronunciation "v" is regarded as an over-cultism.|
|W w||uve doble, doble ve, doble u||b, β, w||Used only in words of foreign origin (Spanish prefers u). Pronunciation varies from word to word: watt is pronounced like bat or huat, but kiwi is always pronounced like quihui.|
|X x||equis||ks||Like ks (English x) in extra. In some cases it may be pronounced like gs or s.|
|ʃ||In words of Amerindian origin, like sh in she.|
|x||Note that x used to represent the sound of sh, which then evolved into the sound now written with j. A few words have retained the old spelling, but have modern pronunciation /x/. Most notably, México and its derivatives are pronounced like Méjico.|
|Y y||i griega, ye||i||It sounds as a vowel [i]: a. when it is a word itself (y /i/, meaning "and" in English), b. at the end of a word like in rey /rei/ ("king"), c. in the middle of a compound word like in Solymar (sol y mar /so.li'mar/, meaning "sun and sea"), d. at the beginning of a word followed by a consonant in words or names that have retained an old spelling (Yfrán /i'fɾan/).|
|ʝ||It sounds as a consonant [ʝ] in any other position: reyes /'re.ʝes/, yeso /'ʝe.so/. This standard pronunciation for y as a consonant does not have a perfect English equivalent, but it is somewhat similar to English y (just more vibrating). In Argentina and Uruguay y is pronounced similar to the English sh (/ʃ/) in she, or /ʒ/ (like English s in vision).|
|Z z||zeta, ceda||θ, s||Always the same sound as a soft c i.e. either /θ/ (most of Spain) or /s/ (elsewhere). See c for details.|
One letter, one sound
Pronouncing Spanish based on the written word is much simpler than pronouncing English based on written English. Each vowel represents only one sound. With some exceptions (such as w and x), each consonant also represents one sound. Many consonants sound very similar to their English counterparts.
As the table indicates, the pronunciation of some consonants (such as b) does vary with the position of the consonant in the word, whether it is between vowels or not, etc. This is entirely predictable, so it doesn't really represent a breaking of the "one letter, one sound" rule.
The University of Iowa has a very visual and detailed explanation of the Spanish pronunciation.
Here is another page with links to the audio files of the letters.
Local pronunciation differences
In Spanish there are two levels of stress when pronouncing a syllable: stressed and unstressed. To illustrate: in the English word "thinking", "think" is pronounced with stronger stress than "ing". If both syllables are pronounced with the same stress, it sounds like "thin king".
With one category of exceptions (-mente adverbs), all Spanish words have one stressed syllable. If a word has an accent mark (´; explicit accent), the syllable with the accent mark is stressed and the other syllables are unstressed. If a word has no accent mark (implicit accent), the stressed syllable is predictable by rule (see below). If you don't put the stress on the correct syllable, the other person may have trouble understanding you. For example: esta, which has an implicit accent in the letter e, means "this (feminine)"; and está, which has an explicit accent in the letter a, means "is." Inglés means "English," but ingles means "groins."
Adverbs ending in -mente are stressed in two places: on the syllable where the accent falls in the adjectival root and on the men of -mente. For example: estúpido → estúpidamente.
The vowel of an unstressed syllable should be pronounced with its true value, as shown in the table above. Don't reduce unstressed vowels to neutral schwa sounds, as occurs in English.
Rules for pronouncing the implicit accent
There are only the following rules for pronouncing the implicit accent. The stressed syllable is in bold letters:
- If a word ends with a vowel or with n or s , the next-to-last syllable is stressed.
- cara (ca-ra) (face)
- mano (ma-no) (hand)
- amarillo (a-ma-ri-llo) (yellow)
- hablan (ha-blan) (they speak)
- martes (mar-tes) (Tuesday)
- If a word ends with a consonant other than n or s, the last syllable is stressed.
- farol (fa-rol) (street lamp)
- azul (a-zul) (blue)
- español (es-pa-ñol) (Spanish)
- salvador (sal-va-dor) (savior).
- A syllable usually contains exactly one vowel. If there are two adjacent vowels, they count as two distinct syllables if both are one of a,e and o. If, however, at least one of them is i or u, they count as only one syllable. If, according to the two rules above, that syllable is stressed, the first of the two vowels is stressed if it is one of a, e and o, while the second vowel is stressed if the first one is one of i and u.
- correo (co-rre-o) (mail)
- hacia (ha-cia) (in the direction of)
- fui (fu-i) (I was) (Note that this word has only one syllable.)
Any exception to these rules is marked by writing an acute accent (máximo, paréntesis, útil, acción). In those exceptions, the stressed syllable is the one where the acute accent (called tilde in Spanish) appears.
The diéresis ( ¨ )
In the clusters gue and gui, the u is not pronounced; it serves simply to give the g a hard-g sound, like in the English word gut (gue → [ge]; gui → [gi]).
However, if the u has a the diaeresis mark (¨), it is pronounced like an English w (güe → [gwe]; güi → [gwi]). This mark is rather rare.
- pedigüeño = beggar
- agüéis (2nd person plural, present subjunctive of the verb aguar). Here, the diaeresis preserves the u (or [w]) sound in all the verb tenses of aguar.
- argüir (to deduce)
- pingüino = penguin