3: Accents, Diphthongs, and Umlauts

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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.

2: Consonants and Vowels

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Yes, we already did the alphabet.  I realize this.  But just like the letter B in english isn’t pronounced “bee,” the Spanish B isn’t “bay.”  In this lesson I will use Spanish words, but as these lessons are intended for beginner Spanish students, most of the Spanish words will probably not be recognizable.

Vowels are always pronounced as the alphabet pronounces them.  To refresh, vowels are a, e, i, o, and u (ah, ay, ee, oh, and ooh).  There are no silent vowels in Spanish and these sounds will never change.  Remember, though, that a diphthong (two vowels strung together) is not a vowel.  I’ll cover diphthongs in the next lesson.

Consonants are every other letter in the alphabet.  The sounds of these letters can change depending on other letters in the word.  We’ll go in alphabetic order, skipping the vowels.

  • B is pronounced as a “buh” sound, but the “uh” is pretty much inaudible.  Bebé (bay-BAY) is a good example here.  The “ay” sound in this is not generated by the B, but by the following vowel, e.
  • C is a letter with dual pronunciation.  Like in English, it can have a soft “s” sound or a hard “k” sound.  In carro (Kah-RROH) the C is followed by an A; Whenever a C is followed by A, O, or U, it is pronounced as a hard C.  Rinoceronte (ree-noh-say-RON-tay) shows the C followed by an E; When C is followed by E or I, it is soft..
  • CH is one of the unique Spanish letters from lesson 1.  This is one of the letters removed from the alphabet.  The “chuh” sound is just like the English counterpart and, like the B, the “uh” should be virtually inaudible.  Charlar (CHAHR-lahr), meaning “to chat” is a fine example here.
  • D is also pronounced like the English D. Dolar (Doh-LAHR).
  • F is used far more often in Spanish than in English because we use the crazy “ph” to substitute for F rather frequently.  F is a regular letter and is the same as the English F.  Falta (FAL-tah).
  • G, like C, has two pronunciations and follows the same rules as C.  Gente (HEN-tay) follows the I/E rule and is soft, pronounced like the English H.  Ganar (Gan-AHR), following the A/O/U rule, is the same as the hard English G.
  • H is the only “silent” letter in Spanish, and is used primarily for spelling and gender purposes.  Helado (Ay-LAH-doh) would be written as “el helado,” not “la helado” because it is masculine and the ah sound followed immediately by the ay sound would be difficult to pronounce.  Remember that CH is one letter and not a C and an H!  Charlar doesn’t have a C or an H in it and if you tried to spell it aloud as “C-H-A-R-L-A-R” a Spanish speaker would likely be confused about the new word you had created.
  • J is the Spanish equivalent of English H.  Mujer (Moo-HAYR).  It’s hard to remember that if you hear an H it’s a J, but you will eventually get used to it.
  • K is the same as the hard C and is not used often.  K is seen most often in words borrowed from other languages.  Kárate (KAH-rah-tay), for example, is obviously not Spanish.
  • L is the same as English L.  Quelidón (Kay-lee-DOHN).
  • LL is one of the crazy double letters and one of the letters removed from the alphabet.  For beginning students, it will be most used in llamar (Yah-MAHR) and the forms of llamar.  Remember that the LL sound like the English Y, but the Spanish Y does not!  Like the J-H situation, the one that doesn’t look like it sounds like it!
  • M is the same as English M.  Tiempo (Tee-EHM-poh).
  • N is the same as English N.  Nunca (NOON-cah).
  • Ñ is another special letter.  The squiggle over the N is called a tilde.  The only tilde accented letters I have seen are Ñ in Spanish, Õ in Latin, and à in Portuguese.  It causes the N in Spanish to gain a Y sound at the end.  This can be tricky because the N sound and Y sound can actually be in separate syllables.  Niñeta (Neen-YEH-tah) is a perfect example.
  • P is the same as the English P.  Perfecto (Payr-FAYC-toh)
  • Q, like the English Q, is followed by a U and either an E or an I.  The only words having UA and UO are both borrowed words, and UU doesn’t exist.  Make sure you look at the next lesson, where I explain diphthongs, as Q is always followed by a diphthong.  The Q is pronounced as a K sound and, unlike the English Q, is not followed by a W sound.  Que (KAY).
  • R is the same as the English R, although many people are actually incapable of producing this sound.  If you have trouble with your R’s, you can substitute it with an L, just be careful not to emphasize the sound.  Rompar (Rom-PAR)
  • RR is the a rolled R.  The tip on rolling R’s can be found in the Tips category.  It is used some, but not with the frequency of other letters.  Erradicar (Ay-rrah[rolled]-di-CAHR).
  • S is, again, the same as the English S, and is similar to the R in that many people cannot produce S sounds.  It is not bad or wrong to replace an S sound with the English TH sound.  In fact, in Spain this is done very often.  All S sounds (the Z and the soft C) can be pronounced this way.  Estar (Ays [or th]-TAHR).
  • T is also the same as the English T.  Batalla (Bah-TAH-yah).
  • V, as I explained in lesson 1, has a sound that is really more of a combination of English B and V.  Just say a B sound instead of V.  Vengo (BAYN-goh)
  • W is used in words borrowed from other languages, like K.  It is pronounced exactly as the English W.  Windsurfista (Weend-soor-FEES-tah) is one of the few spanish words with a W in it.
  • X has dual pronunciation.  In some words, like Extraño (Eks-TRAHN-yoh), the X produces the same sound as the English X.  In others, such as México (MAY-hee-coh), it is pronounced as a Spanish J or English H.
  • Y is a strange letter that is an oft used word by itself.  I haven’t actually seen it used very often except by itself.  The word Y will be explained in later lessons.  Hoy (OYEE) is a good example of it used in a word.  The pronunciation is a bit hard to explain because it sometimes has a light English Y sound followed by a long E or Spanish I sound.  Both “parts” of the sound are together and don’t generate their own syllable like Ñ can.
  • Z is pronounced as an English S.  It never takes on the buzzing tone the English Z has.  Zapato (Sah-PAH-toh).

As you can see, the language can be tricky.  English FAR more difficult than Spanish.  This guide should help you pronounce words accurately the first time you see them and without needing to hear them aloud.  I will always put the pronunciation for a word the first time it’s used in a lesson until the lessons get more advanced.  The vocabulary lists will also always have pronunciations.  If anything in this doesn’t make sense, talk to me about it via email or comment and I will edit the lesson to clarify it if I can.

Remember! The key to learning a new language is to practice it!  It would be silly to pronounce all these letters as letters, so practice saying the example words.  Also, not everyone will need the explanations.  If you find them boring or pointless, just work on the words.  The words explain just as much as the explanations and are easy to see because the only bolded things in the list are the letters at the beginning and the example portion about the letter.

1: El Alfabeto (The Alphabet)

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This video is how I learned the alphabet, and I never forgot it.  It repeats three times in this video.  I would watch the video several times.  The first couple of times sing the call back (that’s the second time each set is sung).  Then try singing it with the main singer.  Then see if you can remember it on your own.  I usually sing both parts to myself when I use it, so don’t worry if you can’t get it with just one part an your own!  Below the video is the alphabet and how each letter is pronounced, in case you need to look at it!

Did you notice there are four extra letters that our alphabet doesn’t use?  Yep!  According to the Royal Spanish Academy, CH, LL, and Ñ, and RR are all their own letters because they have their own unique sounds.  Spanish usually doesn’t use double letters except in cases where the sound is actually made twice.  This lesson and video includes CH and LL as letters because English never uses them and for they are still regarded by many people as single letters, even though the Academy removed them from the alphabet.  LL and RR are found in all kinds of places, keep an eye out for those tricky little guys!

A (ah)

B (bay)

C (say)

CH (chay)

D (day)

E (ay)

F (efay)

G (hey)

H (ah-chay)

I (ee as in “see”)

J (hota)

K (ka)

L (elay)

LL (eyay)

M (emay)

N (enay)

Ñ (enyay)

O (oh)

P (pay)

Q (ku or coo)

R (eray)

RR (eray, but you roll the r in this letter)

S (esay)

T (tay)

U (ooh)

V (V’s are tricky!  The sound isn’t like the English V, it’s kind of a blend between bay and vay.  All V’s are pronounced almost as a B sound)

W (dohblay vay/bay [like the V in the alphabet, although W is rarely used in Spanish])

X (ehkees, or eh-keys)

Y (ee gree-ehga)

Z (sayta)