Accents

Over the past three years I have heard every complaint under the sun about how ridiculous accent marks are.  Here I will clarify how they work and why you need them.

First of all, accent marks indicate stress on a syllable that isn’t usually stressed.  There are two general rules for this.

  • The second to last syllable is stressed if the word ends in a vowel, an S, or an N.  For example, Gano (GAH-noh) has the stress on the A, but has no accent mark.  That is because it ends in an O.  If the stress was on the O, as in Ganó (Gah-NOH), the O would need an accent, as shown.
  • The last syllable is stressed if it ends in any consonant other than N or S.  Ganar (Gah-NAHR) has the last syllable stressed like Ganó, but there is no accent because the last letter is an R.

The above rules  apply in most cases, but not all.  Two and three letter words can get complicated.  The rules also change with words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, as the difference is often only an accent mark.

  • De vs. Dé
    De means “of” while Dé is a form of Dar (to give).
  • El vs. Él
    El is masculine “the,” Él is “he.”
  • Si vs. Sí
    Si means “if.”  Sí means “yes.”
  • Te vs. Té
    Te is “you.”  Té means “tea” (as in the drink).

Accents are also used when asking a question, even though the question words all follow the first rule of accents.  The best example is Qué.  Unaccented, Que means “than,” “who,” “whom,” “that,” “which,” or “whether.”  Accented it means “what” because it will always be part of a question.

To my knowledge, the only other accent rule is for the word meaning “or.” Ó is used as “or” only when numerals are on both sides of it.  If the number is written out, there is no accent.

  • Uno o dos
  • 1 ó 2

Diphthongs

We use diphthongs all the time and don’t think about it.  So why does it always throw people for a loop when they try to pronounce a Spanish word with a diphthong?  I can’t answer that.  I can give you a cheat-sheet of diphthong pronunciations.

AI is pronounced like the English word “eye”

EI is pronounced like Spanish E

OI is pronounced like the “oy” in English “boy”

UI is pronounced like English “we” but the W sounds more like “ooh”

AU is pronounced like the “ow” in “owl”

EU is pronounced as a combined “ay” and “ooh” sound

IA is pronounced like the “eo” in English “neon”

IE is pronounced as a combined “ee” and “ay” sound but the Y is clipped

IO is pronounced like English “eo” in “video”

IU is pronounced like the English word “you” with a slight stress on the “ooh”

UA is pronounced as a combined “ooh” and “ah” sound

UE is pronounced as a combined “ooh” and “ay sound

UO is pronounced as a combined “ooh” and “oh” sound

Diphthongs only apply if the two consecutive vowels do not have accents on either vowel.  If a vowel is accented before or after another vowel they are pronounced as separate sounds.

Umlauts

Umlauts (Ü) are rarely seen in Spanish.  They are used in a few words with GUE or GUI phrases.  The umlaut changes the U’s sound to the English W.  For example, in the word averigüé, the pronunciation would be “GWAY” at the end instead of “goo-AY.”  The difference is very subtle and would probably go unnoticed in conversations.  Just remember that they do exist and when you are spelling the words with umlauts, try not to forget them.

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