Category Archives: Phonetics & Phonology

Is there a need in oral Spanish for using the Castilian Spanish sounds of letter z and the clusters ce/ci?

Letter z combined with any vowel and letter c in the clusters ce/ci are pronounced as [Ө] (the sound of th in the word thin) in Castilian Spanish. This sound is an intrinsic phonological feature of this language variety. American Spanish users do not normally use [Ө] in ordinary speech; these speakers replace the [Ө] with [s].

There are many reasons explaining why American Spanish users lack the phoneme [Ө] in their daily spoken language. It has been quoted that the main reason is related with the geographical origin of the people that first moved from Spain to the New World. Most settlers and bureaucratic aides in the colonial period came from southern Spain, an area where the sound [Ө] was not a native language feature.

In linguistic terms the sound [Ө], as used in Castilian Spanish for the combinations listed above, is a great asset if we take into account that the sound of a letter plays an important role in conveying meaning as well as for contributing to the enrichment of the phonological resources at the disposal of a given language.

In my teaching experience I have found quite challenging, for example, teaching about the difference between pairs like casa/caza or coser/cocer, without the help of [Ө]. A student learning Spanish as a second language may be confused when hearing a sentence such as ‘hoy voy de casa de caza’ or ‘mis pasatiempos favoritos son coser y cocer’, if the words here containing z and c are not pronounced with [Ө]. I usually explain to students that American Spanish speakers tend to use these kind of words in context  –or that they would normally explain further about what they mean –  therefore language misunderstandings are very unusual.

But when asked by my students about what would I recommend in relation with the problem presented by the necessity of distinguishing between [Ө] and [s] in situations such as casa/caza or coser/cocer, I tell them that they can always use the standard Castilian Spanish sound patterns. Most native Spanish language users should be able to understand and follow up the communicative process whenever [Ө] is used.

I’d like to write a few more paragraph about this subject matter, however, I’ leave that for another post.

The charming softness of the Spanish sound patterns

One of the nicest rewards of teaching a language is to be complemented by your students about aspects not directly connected to you as a teacher but to the language that they’re learning from you.

It happens to me quite often. One of such rewarding aspects relates to comments they make about the nature of the Spanish sounds; as it happened during the development of a lesson today, while going over the standard pronunciation of some words, one of my students mentioned to me how interesting and ‘nice to the ear’ are the Spanish sounds when spoken loudly.

Getting to a situation were a student can make comments about the nature of the sounds of the language they’re studying tells a lot about how well they’re making progress in mastering basic aspects of their learning process.

The student that I’m making reference to here has clearly been able to understand how consonant and vowels when combined to form Spanish words change according to certain inherent properties attached to a particular letter whether they are a consonant or a vowel.

Consonant letters in Spanish have a soft sound when they are used between two vowels – in the words abeja, guayaba, envergadura, ataviada, alabado or escalada for example, all the consonants between vowels, are pronounced in a very soft manner.

For the words from above, the sounds of the b of abeja, the v of ataviada and the d of envergadura lend to these words certain phonological properties that change their particular nature. This produces very soft oral structures that create a feeling of auditory softness when they are pronounced in a loud voice.

Understanding how the consonant sounds mix with vowels within the basic language structures – nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, etc, is for me a very delicate but appropriate area to start phonological work with any student that may be unfamiliar with the nature of the Spanish sounds.

Students can obtain great benefit in acquiring the standard basic aspects of Spanish phonology by focussing in an analytical way on the individual structure of the lexical repertoire that they are learning in the classroom, namely, to be observant about the way that any word is written and pronounced. To do this they need to have a good understanding of all the basic phonological properties attached to the sounds used in Spanish words.

As I have written elsewhere here, students must be able to relate and use the basic symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet in order to be able to succeed in their endeavour to become fluent, intelligible speakers of the charming Spanish language.

The pronunciation and written patterns of letter g in Spanish

Getting to know the correct way of pronouncing and using the different written patterns in which letter g is used can be an arduous task for the beginner learner of Spanish.  In my classroom experience I have found that most students can get quite confused about the correct pronunciation of the sounds represented by this letter. Most of their confusion tends to arise from their lack of a detailed knowledge regarding the phonological nature of g.

Letter g possesses three basic sounds: /g/ / γ/ and /x/ – represented here in the International Phonetic Alphabet (API) symbols. It requires a good amount of classroom work for the beginner student to get to correctly use these three sounds.

In general terms, /g/ is used when letter g is found in the written patterns: ga, go, gu, gue, gui, güe, and güi placed in initial positions like in gato, goma, gula, guerra, guiso, güero and güisquil. This sound can also be found in structures where the written patterns we are referring to here are preceded by a consonant sound as in the words ángulo, gorgojo or engalanar.

The sound / γ/ can be found in the written patterns that have been described above -  ga, go, gu, gue, gui, güe, and güi – when they are preceded by a vowel as in the words agarrar, egoísta, cigüeña and gigante.

Letter g is pronounced as /x/ when it is found in the written patterns ge and gi, like in the words gemela, ángel or ingeniero.

The /x/ sound for g as used by Spanish is mainly an unfamiliar sound connected with this letter, as for the majority of speakers of other languages learning Spanish, the phoneme /x/ is applied to other letters. On top of this learners must also come to terms with the sound of letter j in Spanish, which is also/x/.

The triple phonological values of the Spanish g – two of them quite often unknown for beginner learners – and the complexities of the written and sound patterns of the structures, in which they are found, contribute to make the learning of the correct usage of this letter quite difficult, according to my own classroom experience.

Students of the Spanish language at the beginner level need to learn to use these sounds with the help of a professional language teacher or a linguist that can provide them with sufficient oral practice and written exercises of each sound.

Without an early intervention, learners may acquire wrong phonological traits when making use of the sounds of g in their oral language. I have taught many students that even though they may be quite fluent in their spoken Spanish, still do repeatedly improper use of the sounds of this letter.

Getting to master the written patterns of letter g and their accompanying sounds, is without doubt one of the most difficult hurdles that the beginner learner needs to get through in order to be able to become a competent user of spoken and written Spanish.

Spanish Phonology – is neither hard nor dry

To achieve success in the learning process of a second language, students need to acquire a high level of understanding of the phonological features of the language they’re studying. This can be done in the medium to long term by direct and continuos exposure to the sounds patterns of that language; conversely they can endeavour to systematically study those patterns and their properties.

Phonetics and phonology are two aspects of the nature of language in relation to second language teaching and learning that I find extremely fascinating. There are so many aspects to consider when we focus on the true nature of the spoken language; I mean the type of speech used on daily basis by a given human group or what is also called a dialect of a language.

The study of the phonological patterns of the Spanish language can be seen from many angles. From the amount of sounds that exist in its language varieties or dialects, Spanish doesn’t have the sound complexities of English for example. Most of the sounds found in all Spanish dialectical forms, are quite easy to master for most second language learners.

Standard Spanish has very few sounds that may represent a major learning problem for most people studying it as a second language. These learners soon find out, for example, that in this language variety a prominent distinctive sound pattern is the one represented by letter z in combination with any vowel and c with e and i. This is perceived that way mainly because those phonological features of Spanish are not pronounced in the same manner in the Peninsular (European) and American Spanish dialectical forms.

As a matter of fact there are several distinctive sound patterns among the Spanish dialectical forms; however, the case mentioned above is one of the first sounds that students become more aware of or may be presented with in the language classroom. As soon as they start to find out more about the nature of the other sounds that are found in the American Spanish dialectical varieties, like the aspiration of s in final positions or the several pronunciations for ll, they realize that the phonology of this language rather than complex is rich and varied.

In my long experience as Spanish teacher to adults, I have always taught Spanish phonology based on a structured yet simple way which uses the International Phonetic Alphabet as the main methodological tool. However, I’ve always presented the subject based on a general or standard model, except in relation to the sound of z and c in the manner referred to above. It has only been through my own study and classroom practice that I have managed to get into the finer aspects of the phonology of my mother tongue.

A few moths ago I was trying to find some information about a particular sound and I came across a link containing an almost complete description of all the sounds patterns of the main dialectical varieties of Spanish. The link is by the University of Iowa.

It was only in one of those moments of hunger for learning that I decided to study what there was in the link. And to my amazement I came to understand quite a few other aspects of the Spanish phonology that weren’t still quite clear to me. The link presents the Spanish phonological patterns in a detailed and illustrated manner that provides audio-visual aids to understand the finer linguistic terms associated with the scientific study of language.

I found the information provided by the University of Iowa on the classification of the properties of the sounds of the Spanish language to be one of the most thorough analyses of the phonological patterns of this language that I’ve ever encountered. It provided me with a much defined panorama of this subject especially in relation to getting acquainted with the linguistic jargon associated with the complex nature of the phonetics and phonology fields.

I have added here a link to the excellent chart of the phonological properties of Spanish language provided by the University of Iowa. It’s not only easy to understand; it’s also an intellectually refreshing challenge for the student of Spanish as a second language, since it’s presented in Spanish!

The study of Spanish phonology can be a very fascinating endeavour for any person interested in getting a fuller understanding of this subject. This type of study, however, must go beyond a quick glance at the convoluted and often superficial explanations of the sounds of Spanish as given by most dictionaries or to just trying to make some sense of the complex range of  the phonetic symbols listed in the general IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) chart.

Two Pre-Roman phonological features adopted permanently by Spanish

The trilled (very marked and rolled) sound of the combination rr as found in perro, barro or tierra and in letter r as in dormir or tener, is one of the most difficult – if not the most difficult – sound encountered by most people learning Spanish as a second language.

Well, I must tell my students from now on not to blame the ancient Romans for their predicament, as this particular sound was brought into the developing Castilian tongue by Basque language speakers in medieval times.

I always thought of the trilled r as a feature of the Latin language that was inherited by Spanish. But just last night in ‘La Página del Idioma Español ‘ at, I read an article by Sergio Zamora in which he names this sound and the dropping of the phoneme represented by f in ancient Latin words but since then substituted by a silent h, in words like harina, hierro and humo, as two features of the Basque language adopted by Spanish very early in its gestation process.

Zamora points out that the suffixes rro, [rra, rre, etc] and the absence of the phoneme for f, were two clear traits of Basque before they were transferred as phonological features of Castilian Spanish.

Basque is an ancient Non-Roman language that has left its imprint in these two phonological properties still present in all modern Spanish varieties. These two language aspects made a significant contribution towards distinguishing Castilian Spanish from all the other languages derived from Latin such as Galician, Portuguese and Catalan that were developing simultaneously in the Iberian Peninsula.

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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