The Spanish alphabet:  27 letters, 5 vowels, 37 sounds. Tips to pronounce each letter like a native and IPA

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 English words which contain that specific sound or a similar one – if the sound doesn’t exist in English. When the sound isn’t exactly the same, you will find this symbol [∼] (second column).
  • Examples of Spanish words for that specific sound (third column).
  • Some hacks to pronounce the Spanish letters (last column).

The blue symbol in the second column 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.

LETTER EXAMPLES (English) EXAMPLES (Spanish) HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE LETTER

a

a

[a] 
∼ fun, fine
alfabeto, casa, amiga Click to see how to pronounce the Spanish vowels.

b

be

HARD [b] 
∼ 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 [d] 
(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 viene 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

[e] 
∼ went, pay
elefante, edad, este  

f

efe

[f] 
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 [g] 
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

 

[i] 
∼ need, you
indio, limón, mira  
[j] 
∼ yellow, yes

When there is a diphthong.
viuda, viento, adiós

 

j

jota

[X] caja, traje, con, abajo, jugar The letter J sounds like HARD G.

k

ka

[k] 
∼sock, fake
koala, kiwi, kilómetro The letter K sounds like HARD C.

l

ele

[l] Before vowels.
luego, lila, ala
It doesn’t sound like in ball or cable. Your tongue doesn’t touch your front teeth at all.
[lʲ] Before [ʧ].
colcha, colchón, salchicha
Your tongue is a little closer to your front teeth than the previous [l] but it doesn’t touch them.
[l̪] Before T and D.
alto, aldea, oculta
Your tongue is closer to your front teeth than the previous [lʲ] and may (barely) touch them.
[l̟] Before [θ].
alzar, calcio, calcetín
Finally, your tongue touches your front teeth.
[ʝ̞] , [ʤ] 
jeans, Jimmy
-ll-
lluvia, olla, calla
The double L sounds like Spanish Y.

m

eme

[m] 
mountain, mum

montaña, madre, mirar

-nv-
envase, envidia, invitado

 

n

ene

[n] 
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

[o] 
∼ mall, talk
oso, color, oro  

p

pe

[p] 
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] 
∼sock, fake

que, qui 
queso, pequeño, quiero, aquí

The letter Q sounds like HARD C. It’s always followed by “ue” or “ui” but the letter U is never pronounced.

r

erre

[r] 
bitter, butter (Am. EN)
caro, horno, arpa The letter R sounds like “tt” in American English.
 [ɾ]
(trilled sound)

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

[s]
see, soon
seta, salir, fiesta  

t

te

[t] 
∼ 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

 

[u] 
∼ moon, wet
luna, cuerda, uno  
[w] 
∼ kiwi, web

When there is a diphthong. <br>abuelo, huevo, agua

 

v

uve

HARD [b] 
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

[w] 
∼ kiwi, web
Words borrowed from other languages. whisky, waterpolo, Hawai  
[b] 
brown, brave
Proper names -mostly German.
Wagner, Wamba
It’s pronounced like the letters V and B.

x

equis

[s] 
sea, saw
At the beginning of the word.
xilófono, xenofobia
The letter X sounds like S.
[ks] 
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
2. -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.
[i] 
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.
[ð] 
this, those
Before consonant.
hazme, hallazgo
It sounds like SOFT D.

 

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”.

Exercise

Could you say how to pronounce the bold letters in the following sentence?

Diego dice que viene en dos minutos.

 Possible answers:
a) [d], [ɣ], [d], [v], [d]
b) [ð], [g], [ð], [b], [d]
c) [ð], [g], [d], [v], [ð]
d) [d], [ɣ], [ð], [b], [d]

Answer in the comments below ⇓⇓⇓

(Click here to see the answer)

How many of the 37 sounds did you know? What sound do you find the most difficult?