How to recognize and pronounce Spanish Diphthongs & Triphthongs – with 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.
Yep. I call it “toy” because I’m going to make it so simple that even a 9-year-old child could understand how to recognize Spanish diphthongs, triphthongs and hiatus.
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
- 1.1 What is a diphthong
- 1.2 Differences between English and Spanish diphthongs
- 1.3 How to recognize Spanish diphthongs
- 1.4 Beware of these letters
- 1.5 Common mistakes
- 2 Triphthongs
- 3 Summary
- 4 Exercise
Spanish diphthongs are quite different from English diphthongs.
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 them.
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: is pronounced as /ləʊn/.
In Spanish, the word aire has 2 syllables and the first one is formed by 2 vowels: is pronounced as /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.
Yes, I know it. Sometimes you can find 2 yolks in one egg. Great! That’s what happens with English vowels: 1 vowel may have 1 or 2 sounds.
Example: In the word king the letter I is pronounced as one sound but in the word ice the letter I is pronounced as two sounds.
So in English, you can form a diphthong with only one vowel but in Spanish, one vowel isn’t enough. Since 1 vowel = 1 sound, in Spanish, you need 2 vowels to form a diphthong.
Example: The word no.
In English, it’s pronounced as a diphthong. Double yolk! (1 vowel = 2 sounds).
In Spanish, this word could never be a diphthong because it’s pronounced as it’s written. (1 vowel = 1 sound).
- No empty eggs.
In English, the egg can be empty as well. No yolk inside. (2 vowels = 1 sound).
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
Recognize the vowels
The space between your tongue and your palate will tell you what kind of vowel it is.
Open vowels: a, e, o.
These vowels need its own space in the mouth to be pronounced so your tongue is 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).
Closed 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 than the open vowels – unless they have an accent mark, but we’ll cross that bridge in the second part of the article.
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
Paco is the strong elephant behind the open door. Milu is 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 closed-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 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 (tilde or accent mark).
Story (part 2): When Paco isn’t at home
Sometimes, when Paco goes outside, 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 to feel comfortable.
Until Paco comes back (the story continues below).
That’s exactly what happens with Spanish diphthongs.
The open -or strong- vowel (Paco) is the protagonist of the syllable so we pronounce it stronger and with more emphasis than the closed vowel (Milu) -which is weak and depends on the open vowel. At least for now!
Example: Pierna, piel
In both words, the open or strong vowel (E) takes the leadership of the syllable and the letter I sounds weaker:
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). However the accent or most important part of the word 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.
An infallible trick: recognize diphthongs with 2 questions
Now you know that Spanish diphthongs always have two written vowels, but how can you recognize that those two vowels should be pronounced in the same syllable?
All the Spanish diphthongs have, at least, one closed vowel without accent mark (i, u). All of them. The other vowel can be any.
ciencia (cien.cia), puedo (pue.do), viento (vien.to), cuerpo (cuer.po), aceituna (a.cei.tu.na).
On the previous image, you can see how to form diphthongs and some examples with each combination. There are 2 possibilities:
- 2 closed vowels (i, u):
- 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.
Two extra letters to pronounce Spanish diphthongs like a pro
Perfection is in the small details.
Closed vowels (i, u) when followed by any other vowel (a, e, i, o, u, y), change slightly their sound and they become even closer:
- The letter I sounds more like the Spanish letter Y [ʝ̞]. The sound is similar to the letter Y in yes.
miel = mʝ̞el
baile = baʝ̞.le
viudo = vʝ̞u.do
- The letter U sounds more like the letter W in kiwi.
agua = a.gwa
muy = mwi
bueno = bwe.no
But you what? I’ve good news for you: you already know how to do this!
You and all the English native speakers do the same when you speak, so you don’t even have to care about this because you already do it in naturally.
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 /ou/.
Diablo → diablou
Pequeño → pequeñou.
- 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: closed + open + closed -the two closed vowels without an accent mark (cheese)- or what is the same: (i/u) + (a/e/o) + (i/u)
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 -and at least one of them is i/u (without an accent mark).
Examples: viernes, bueno, cuando, cianuro, hacéis.
- Diphthongs can have no open vowels.
Examples: viudo, cuidar, diurno, muy, fuimos, ciudad.
- 3 vowels pronounced in the same syllable. (i/u) + (a/e/o) + (i/u). Closed vowels (i, u) never carry an accent mark.
Examples: limpiéis, cambiáis, buey.
That’s it. A piece of cake, isn’t it?
You can continue reading the second part of this article (Spanish hiatus) and learn how to pronounce vowels in different syllables.
Could you say whether there’s a triphthong in the word huíais and why?
a) There’s a triphthong.
b) There isn’t any triphthong.
Answer in the comments below ⇓⇓⇓
Answer to the previous question:
“The vowel A sounds like…”
a) The A in father.
b) The A in cap.
c) The U in up.
d) None of them is correct because all the Spanish vowels sound different from English vowels.