The Spanish alphabet:  27 letters, 5 vowels, 33 sounds. Tips to pronounce each letter like a native.

You might have heard that, in Spanish, we pronounce the words as they’re written.

It’s not true.

Some people may disagree and say “Spanish is a phonetic language” -and it is. However, less than half of the letters of the Spanish alphabet are pronounced the way they’re written.

In other words, there’s more than one way to pronounce most of the letters, like letter B, letter C or letter N.

When we study a foreign language we start with the alphabet but very few of us learn how to pronounce the sounds of that language.

Working on the sounds of Spanish and its articulation point is essential to hold a fluent conversation without forcing people to put too much effort into it.

Do you want to master the sounds of the Spanish alphabet?

When you pronounce Spanish, your mouth muscles are tenser than when you speak in English.

The Spanish alphabet

Learning how to pronounce every single dialect of Spanish would be confusing for you and would take much more time so I’m going to focus on Castilian Spanish -the standard European Spanish.

The table below shows:

  • The letters of the Spanish alphabet and their names (first column).
  • Examples of Spanish words that contain a specific sound (third column).
  • The last column explains some hacks to pronounce the Spanish letters.
  • In the second column, you will find English words which contain the specific sound for that letter -if it exists- or a similar one – if the sound doesn’t exist in English- like happens with the Spanish vowels. When the sound isn’t exactly the same, you will find this symbol [∼].

In the second column, you’ll find a symbol in blue colour as well.  These symbols are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Each symbol represents a specific sound -which is usually common in more than language. These symbols make easier reading and pronouncing any foreign language. Maybe you’ve already seen some of them-some are common to both English and Spanish.

 

a

a

∼ fun, fine alfabeto, casa, amiga

b

be

HARD

∼ bus, bean

chamber, embrace

1. At the beginning of the word.

barco, beso, bien

2. -mb-

hambre, cambio

The letter B has a dry sound and it’s softer than the English B -it doesn’t explode.

The sound is produced just when your lips get open.

SOFT

[β]

In the middle of the word.

abrir, hablar, abuelo

The lips are not hermetically sealed.

The sound is produced by letting escape from the mouth a trickle of air.

c

ce

HARD

[k]

∼sock, fake

ca, co, cu

vaca, color, cuando

The letter C has a dry sound and -like letter B- doesn’t explode either: it’s a voiceless sound so you could pronounce it even if you hold your breath.

It’s produced just when your throat gets open.

SOFT

[θ]

thing, tooth

ce, ci

hacer, cielo

The sound is produced by the air getting out of your mouth, between the teeth and the tongue.
[ʧ]

chair, coach

ch

ocho, chica, coche

d

de

HARD

(between SOFT D and T)

  1.  At the beginning of the sentence.
  2. After a pause.
  3. In order to emphasize.
  4. After L or N.

¿De dónde vienes, Aldo?

The letter D has a dry sound.

Your tongue, relaxed, touches your upper teeth and palate at the same time. The sound is produced when it’s separated from them.

TIP: the tip of your tongue doesn’t touch your palate.

Try putting the very tip of your tongue in between your teeth, like if you were biting it.

SOFT

[ð]

this, those

In the middle of the sentence or word.

Me dieron dos diamantes.

Tu padre dice que después de desayunar.

Your tongue should be in the same position as in SOFT C but, this time, the sound is produced by the throat. If you touch it you should notice that it vibrates.

e

e

∼ went, pay elefante, edad, este

f

efe

fox, affair feo, frío, África
[v]

view, voice

-fg-

Dafne, Afganistán, afgano

g

ge

HARD

[X]

(raspier English H)

ge, gi

geografía, enera

The letter G sounds like the letter J in Spanish.

The sound is close to the English H.

TIP: Pronounce the English H but lift your tongue a little bit, just as if you were going to pronounce the letter K.

SOFT

gas, go, gate

engage, English

1. At the beginning of the sentence (ga, go, gu)
gas, gol, gubernamental

2. –ng–

engrasar, engordar

Throaty sound.

The Spanish SOFT G  doesn’t have the touch of /k/ -like the letter G in English.

SOFTER

[ɣ]

In the middle of the word (ga, go, gu).

pagar, algo, agua

The feeling in your throat/back palate should be similar to caress the hairs in your arm, without actually touching the arm. Imagine you have hair in your palate and you have to caress it.

The sound is produced when your tongue moves away from the palate.

h

hache

No sound ahora, hielo, humo It only has a sound in words borrowed from other languages, like hamster or hockey.

i

i

∼ need, you indio, limón, mira

j

jota

[X] caja, traje, con, abajo, jugar The letter J sounds like HARD G.
∼ home, horse At the end of the word.

reloj

It sounds a bit stronger than English H.

k

ka

∼ car, kiwi koala, kiwi, kilómetro The letter K sounds like HARD C.

l

ele

lady, flight luego, lila, ala It doesn’t sound like in ball, or cable.
[lʲ] Before [ʧ].

colcha, colchón, salchicha

Your tongue touches your front teeth.
[l̪] Before T and D.

alto, aldea, oculta

Your tongue touches your front teeth.
[l̟] Before [θ].

alzar, calcio, calcetín

Your tongue touches your front teeth.
[ʝ̞] , [ʤ]

jeans, Jimmy

-ll-

lluvia, olla, calla

The double L sounds like Spanish Y.

m

eme

mountain, mum montaña, madre, mirar

n

ene

name, now nido, andar, nana
[n̟] Before [θ].

once, quince, concierto

The tip of your tongue appears between your teeth.
[ŋ]

bang, English

Before [k] or G.

ancla, engordar, encontrar

[ɴ] Before [X].

enjaular, ángel, con jamón

You should put your tongue further back. Its position is the same when you pronounce letter J but your throat must be closed so the air comes out through your nose.
[ɱ] –nf–

enfriar, confiar, infravalorar

The letter N is pronounced with your upper teeth and lower lip (like the letter F).

ñ

eñe

[ɲ]

∼ similar to “ny”

uña, mañana, niño The letter Ñ has only one sound -it isn’t the same as “ny” or “n+i” (two sounds). Letter Ñ sounds like French “gn”.

The middle part of the tongue touches the whole middle palate. The tip of the tongue doesn’t touch it.

The sound is nasal and it’s produced when you separate your tongue from the upper palate*. Before the actual sound -when your tongue is still touching the palate- you will hear a nasal N. You should keep that nasal sound when your tongue moves away from the palate.

o

o

∼ mall, talk oso, color, oro

p

pe

up, cap pelo, pantalón, piano The letter P doesn’t have the puff of air which characterizes the English P, like in the word pinguin.

q (+u)

cu

[k]

kitchen

que, qui

queso, pequeño, quiero, aquí

The letter Q sounds like HARD C.

This letter is always followed by “ue” or “ui”. The letter U isn’t pronounced.

r

erre

bitter caro, horno, arpa The letter R sounds like “tt” in American English.
(trilled sound)

[ɾ]

1. At the begining of the word.

rueda, rojo, rubio

2. After L, N and S.

sonreir, alrevés, Israel

3. Between volwels (rr)

carro, perro, turrón

 

To pronounce trilled R your tongue must be relaxed: it is the air what produces the sound, not your tongue.

Your tongue touches your palate, not your front teeth.

TIP: Call me crazy but it’s easier to get the sound if you do a headstand.

s

ese

see, soon seta, salir, fiesta

t

te

∼ football tener, tienda, tren To pronounce the letter T your tongue touches the upper front teeth -when pronouncing the Spanish D the tongue’s in the same position.

TIP: try touching your lower teeth too.

u

u

∼ moon, wet luna, cuerda, uno

v

uve

HARD

bus, bean

chamber, embrace

1. At the beginning of the word.

vela, viejo, video

2. -nv-

envidia, envío, invitado

The letter V is pronounced like HARD B.
SOFT

[β]

In the middle of the word.

avión, uva, Eva

It sounds like SOFT B.

w

uve doble

kiwi, web Words borrowed from other languages.

kiwi, waterpolo, Hawai

brown, brave Proper names -mostly German.

Wagner, Wamba

It’s pronounced like the letters V and B.

x

equis

sea, saw At the beginning of the word.

xilófono, xenofobia

The letter X sounds like S.
taxi, flexible In the middle of the word.

taxi, oxígeno, saxofón

It’s the only Spanish letter which is pronounced like 2 sounds: [k] + [s]

y

ye

[ʤ]

jeans, injection

  1. At the beginning of the word or after a pause.

ya, yo, yate

  1. -ny-

cónyuge, inyección, inyectar

The letter Y sounds like Spanish “ll”.
[ʝ̞] In the middle of the word.

yoyó, vaya, ayer

TIP: Try to say jeans without crushing your tongue against the palate.
yes, me, At the end of the word.

jersey, buey, rey

Sounds like the Spanish vowel I.

z

zeta

[θ]

throw

za, zo, zu

zapato, buzón, zumo

The letter Z is pronounced like SOFT C.
Before consonant.

hazme, hallazgo

It sounds between SOFT C and SOFT D.

The most common mispronounced letters

  • P
  • R
  • Vowels
  • C, K
  • B, V
  • D, T
  • G, J

When you pronounce jo, ju your tongue is further back than when you pronounce ja, je, ji, ge and gi (because letters O and U are produced close to the uvula).

4 curiosities about the Spanish alphabet

Extincted letters

It seems that double letters tend to disappear from the Spanish language.

1. Double L or elle (ll) and che (ch)

When I studied the alphabet at school, double L (ll) and che (ch) were part of it. Nowadays they aren’t considered letters anymore but digraphs (2 letters) so they have disappeared from the alphabet. Since last century -this sounds weird- the Spanish alphabet has 27 letters.

2. Double N (nn): the origin of the letter Ñ

Centuries ago, people wrote in parchments. They were very expensive so ancient scribes needed to save as much space as possible when writing. The best option to do so was to make the words shorter removing some letters.

Old Spanish had double N (nn) so ancient scribes decided to remove one of them. For the readers to know they had removed one N, they wrote the letter N with a mark (~) on top of it. This new letter became so popular that in the XIV century the letter Ñ became official.

Letters of the alphabet which has changed their name

3. Letters Y and I

Currently, the name of this letter is “ye”, but at school, I learned that we should call it “i griega” (Greek i). And the letter I was called “i latina” (Latin i), currently known as “i”.

4. Letters B and V

Since I can remember, we called this letter “be” in Spain. However, it wasn’t an official name. In Latin America, they used to call it “be grande” or “be larga” (big B or long B) and letter V was known as “ve chica” or “be corta” (small or short V). Now the name of these two letters is the same everywhere: “be” and “uve”.