Spanish Diphthongs & Triphthongs – How to recognize and pronounce them + Examples
Diphthong, triphthong, hiatus… These strange words sound complicated.
Why are they so important?
Why do you think you need to know how to recognize them? Actually, you don’t need it; unless you want to pronounce Spanish correctly, of course!
And I guess that’s why you’re here.
Before you continue reading I recommend you to take a look at this article on how to pronounce the Spanish vowels so that you squeeze the 100% of this post.
Cause today I bring you heavy artillery.
Well, actually I don’t. I mean, I bring artillery but it’s toy artillery because I’m going to make it so simple that even a 9-year-old child could understand how Spanish diphthongs and triphthongs work.
I didn’t want to make this post very thick, so I’ve divided it into 2 parts:
- Diphthongs and triphthongs (this post)
- Hiatus (next post)
Are you ready for the first part?
Table of contents
- 1 Diphthongs
- 2 Triphthongs
- 3 Summary
- 4 Exercise
Spanish diphthongs are quite different from English diphthongs so before telling you how to pronounce Spanish diphthongs, I will explain to you:
- What’s a diphthong
- The differences between English and Spanish diphthongs and
- How to recognize Spanish diphthongs.
What is a diphthong
A diphthong is formed by two vowels, which are pronounced within the same syllable.
In English, the word loan only has one syllable: it’s pronounced /ləʊn/.
In Spanish, the word aire has 2 syllables -the first one is formed by 2 vowels: it’s pronounced /ai.re/.
More examples of Spanish diphthongs:
muela, tenéis, avión, cuando, veinte, tienda, puerta.
Differences between English and Spanish diphthongs
- Single yolk eggs.
Guess how many yolks there are inside the eggs. One in each egg, right? So 2 eggs = 2 yolks.
Good. That’s what happens with Spanish vowels: 1 vowel (egg) = 1 sound (yolk).
Example: In the words ir and mini the letter I is always pronounced as one sound.
I know that sometimes you can find 2 yolks in one egg. Great! That’s what happens with English vowels: 1 vowel (egg) may have 1 or 2 sounds (yolks).
Example: In the word king the letter I is pronounced as one sound but in the word ice the letter I is pronounced /aɪ/ (two sounds).
So in English, you can form a diphthong with only one vowel but in Spanish that’s impossible. 1 vowel = 1 sound, so you need 2 vowels to form a diphthong.
Example: The word no.
In English, it’s pronounced as a diphthong: /nəʊ/. Double yolk! (1 vowel = 2 sounds).
In Spanish, this word could never be a diphthong because it’s pronounced as it’s written: /no/ (1 vowel = 1 sound).
- No empty eggs.
In English, the egg can be empty as well. No yolk inside.
Example: The word good.
It has two vowels, but they’re pronounced as one.
In the Spanish language, there aren’t empty eggs. Every single egg has a yolk inside so all of the vowels are pronounced -except the letter U, in words with gue, gui, que, qui. But that’s another story and you already knew it.
In short, this is the difference between English and Spanish diphthongs:
♣ Spanish diphthongs always have two (written) vowels –gue, gui, que, qui; are an exception.
♣ English vowels may be pronounced as two sounds -like in my-; as one sound-like in yes-; or may have no sound at all -like the letter E in little.
How to recognize Spanish diphthongs
First step: Recognize the vowels
To understand how diphthongs work you should know that there are two kinds of vowels -as you’ve already seen in the previous post (how to pronounce the Spanish vowels).
The space between your tongue and your palate will tell you what kind of vowel it is.
Open vowels: a, e, o.
To pronounce these vowels your tongue should be placed in the lower -or mid- part of your mouth. They are called strong vowels as well because, in diphthongs and triphthongs, open vowels are pronounced stronger.
Example: The word estáis.
The diphthong is formed by the vowels a+i, but the emphasis is on the open vowel (a).
Close vowels: i, u.
You don’t need much room in your mouth to produce its sound so your tongue is placed close to the palate. They’re known as weak vowels too because, when there’s a diphthong or a triphthong, they are pronounced softer.
Example: hacia, puerta.
The letter I (in the word hacia) and the letter U (in the word puerta) are weaker. The letters A and E are the protagonists of the syllable.
If I say “ve hac
ia la p uerta” -without pronouncing the closed or weak vowels-, people will understand more easily than if I only pronounce the closed or weak vowels.
Lots of theory, right? Let’s make it easier to remember with the following story.
Story (part 1): Paco doesn’t know that he lives with a mouse
In the picture, you can see Paco, the strong elephant behind the open door, and Milu, a weak and hungry mouse.
Their names aren’t a coincidence.
The elephant Paco represents the open-strong vowels (a, e, o).
Milu represents the close-weak vowels (i, u).
As you can see, Paco is huge. He takes most of the attention and space (and food!). He’s the king of the house (syllable) and doesn’t know that Milu is living with him.
Poor Milu, he’s weak and hungry -look at his teeth! He’s so weak that he can’t go very far. He wants to pursue his own path but he needs to stay close to Paco, to eat his leftovers and get a bit of energy when Paco doesn’t realize. But this energy isn’t enough. There are very few leftovers and Milu needs urgently a big piece of cheese (accent mark).
The open -or strong- vowel (Paco) is the protagonist of the syllable so we pronounce it with more emphasis than the closed vowel (Milu).
Example: Pierna, piel
In both words, the open vowel (E) is pronounced stronger and the letter I sounds weaker: piEr.na, piEl.
Remember that open vowels are the most important part of the syllable, but this doesn’t mean that they are the most important part of the word.
Example: Cambio, cambió
The two words have the same diphthong (i+o) -in both cases, the letter O is pronounced with more emphasis than the letter I. However most important part of the word (accent) is different in the two words:
But this isn’t the point of this post. If you want to read more on how to accent Spanish words, click on the link.
Story (part 2): When Paco isn’t at home
Sometimes, when Paco goes for a walk, Milu invites his girlfriend into Paco’s home. But only sometimes -you’ll know why when you read the second part of this post (hiatus). They are only two little mice so the two of them have plenty of space in Paco’s house.
That’s exactly what happens with Spanish diphthongs.
Second step: Only 1 question
Now you know that Spanish diphthongs always have two written vowels and that you should identify them (open/close) but how can you recognize that those two vowels should be pronounced in the same syllable?
All the Spanish diphthongs have, at least, one close vowel without accent mark (i, u). All of them. The other vowel can be any.
Examples: ciencia (cien.cia), puedo (pue.do), viento (vien.to), cuerpo (cuer.po), aceituna (a.cei.tu.na).
On the following image, you can see how to form diphthongs and some examples with each combination.
There are 2 possibilities:
- 2 close vowels (i/u):
(i + u) : Viuda, ciudad.
(u + i) : Fuimos, cuidado.
- 1 open vowel (a/e/o) and 1 closed vowel (i/u):
(i/u) + (a/e/o) : Fiesta, camión, guapo.
(a/e/o) + (i/u) : Caimán, náufrago, Ceuta.
Beware of these letters
- The letter H doesn’t impede the formation of diphthongs, because we don’t pronounce it.
Ahumado = ahu.ma.do.
- The letter Y works as a vowel when it’s at the end of a word so, in that case, it can form diphthongs as well.
Hay, voy, ley.
For English natives, it’s very natural to pronounce diphthongs where they aren’t, mainly at the end of the words:
- the letter O is often pronounced as /əʊ/.
Diablo → diabləʊ
Pequeño → pequeñəʊ.
- the letter E is pronounced as /ei/.
Este → estei
Verde → verdei.
This is something that comes naturally to English native speakers, but remember that we (Spaniards) pronounce very similar to the way we write. In any case, we’d skip sounds, never add extra ones! (Yeah, we love to talk fast so that no one understands).
If a diphthong is the combination of two vowels pronounced within the same syllable then, what is a triphthong?
Great! 3 vowels, side by side, pronounced in the same syllable.
Story (part 3): Paco comes back home
Milu and his girlfriend are at home when suddenly Paco comes back. The two mice run towards the corners of the room so that Paco can fit in it.
The 3 of them form a triphthong.
The vowels which form triphthongs are always the same: close + open + close – or what is the same: (i/u) + (a/e/o) + (i/u). None of the two close vowels have an accent mark (cheese), you’ll see why in the next post (hiatus).
Examples of Spanish triphthongs:
buey = buey
criéis = criéis
Paraguay = Pa.ra.guay
limpiáis = lim.piáis
actuáis = ac.tuáis
- 2 vowels pronounced in the same syllable.
- Contains at least 1 close vowel (i, u) without an accent mark.
Examples: viernes, bueno, cuando, cianuro, hacéis.
May have no open vowel.
Examples: viudo, cuidar, diurno, muy, fuimos, ciudad.
- 3 vowels pronounced in the same syllable: (i/u) + (a/e/o) + (i/u).
- Close vowels (i, u) never carry an accent mark.
Examples: limpiéis, cambiáis, buey.
That’s it. A piece of cake, isn’t it?
If you want to know when you should pronounce vowels in different syllables, you can read this post Spanish hiatus.
Choose the group of words which contains only diphthongs:
♣ Possible answers:
a) abuelo, zoo, miel
b) puedo, viento, bahía
c) cien, ahumado, tiempo
d) viaje, soleado, pie
Answer in the comments below ⇓⇓⇓