Where did the Spanish ‘v’ go? Do you pronounce it like a b, a v or…?

Some of the phonological (sound) patterns of Spanish can seem at first sight an insurmountable challenge for a student learning this language. For lots people who are just starting to learn Spanish, and who are native English speakers, it’s a bit of a shock to find out about the inherent differences that exist between the sounds patterns they know compared to some of the sounds used in the Spanish language. Some of these contrasting sound patterns include the pronunciation in Spanish of the letters b and v.

As a native Spanish speaker I was never fully aware of the nature of these sounds until I started teaching the language and students began to question mi pronunciation of these two letters during their Spanish lessons.

Spanish stopped using a clear differentiation between b and v a long time ago. However it still has two ‘b’ type sounds, but none of them is pronounced as the English v. It can be very helpful to have in mind from the outset, that there is only one of these two sounds which is actually shared in both languages. This sound is the one represented by the letter b as used in English. The letter v as used in a Spanish word does not sound as the English v !

Using the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols, the Spanish letters b (‘be’) and v (‘uve’) are both represented by either /b/ or /B/. Therefore you must notice that the letters b or v can sound either /b/ or /B/ depending on where they are found in a word. As a result of this, neither of the two letters can exclusively be represented by only one of these two phonetic symbols.

The letters b or v, are pronounced /b/ in words with structures as those found in vino, beso or banco. But when these two letters are found in words such as oveja, cabra or abeja, their pronunciation uses /B/. This sound doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, so the student very often requires expert help from a language professional in order to achieve acceptable pronunciation ability.

In general terms, achieving the right pronunciation of /B/ is not a very hard task to accomplish. In most cases native English speakers learning Spanish can acquire an acceptable pronunciation of the /B/ sound quite quickly during the initial stages of their learning process or later by direct imitation of native Spanish speakers.

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About L. A. Pinel

I'm the founder and Director of Tres Culturas Spanish Language Studio, a specialist Spanish language school in Melbourne, Australia. As a teacher of Spanish I view the study of issues about the nature of the Spanish language in particular and of applied linguistics in general with great passion. I’m also an avid language learner, my other languages are Italian, Portuguese and French; at the moment I'm studying Latin and Mandarin Chinese.

Posted on November 4, 2007, in Foreign Language Learning, Language, Language learning, Phonetics & Phonology, Second Language Learning, Spanish, Spanish Language Learning. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’m curious. When you say /B/, are you referring to a voiced bilabial fricative or a bilabial trill? I thought it was a slight point of ambiguity.

  2. I am having a hard time distinguishing the sounds in the word “sabe.” Specifically does the “b” have a “v” sound phonetically?
    Thanks,
    Ron

  3. Hola Ron,

    As I explain above, the phonetic “V” does not longer occur in the ordinary speech of native Spanish language speakers. There are only two types of “b”, as presented in the post above.

    Saludos,

    Luis

  4. Hi there, why did the Spanish drop the V sound, and not the French or Italians? Thank you :)

  5. Hola Joseph,

    Languages adopt or drop sounds due to a variety of reasons too academic and complex to fully explain here. Comparing the nature of the sounds of one language with another can also be a hard task as each language is a separate entity by itself. In general terms, a group of people who speak a given language make use of linguistic features according to their particular circumstances.

    What remains quite clear is that many centuries ago, Castilian Spanish speakers, little by little started to adopt the sounds /B/ & /b/ as a substitutes to v /v/, and even b /b/ in many cases. (See my post above). This phenomenon is neither bad nor good; it just is.

  6. Viva Espana will NEVER sound as Biba Espana, no matter where you are a native of. We are taught there is a “B” labial, and a “V” labio-dental. And the alphabet is sounded as …ere, erre, ese, te,u, Ve, equis……..

  7. Tom Nightingale

    That was a very long winded way to say very little.

    >> Essentially both “b” and “v” in Spanish are pronounced like “b” in English.

    >> [Example "vino" is like "bino"].

    Then add the details for those interested.

  8. L.A.Pinel, I would like the history and your reply of “it just is” doesn’t answer the question, hence I will keep researching.

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