As with any language, Spanish is subject to variations across geographic areas and social strata. These variations include differences in accent, vocabulary and grammatical structures. In this article we will have a look at some of the major differences in its pronunciation. A number of audio clips of native speakers from around the Spanish-speaking world all reading the same piece of text are included for comparison.
The diagram below illustrates the major components of the human vocal apparatus. This will be useful to refer to when the production of various sounds is described below.
Distinción, seseo and ceceo
The sound [θ] occurs in English as, for example, the th in thin and is described in phonetic terms as a voiceless interdental fricative1. This means that it is produced by restricting the flow of air with the tongue between the teeth and with no sound produced by the vocal folds. (Compare this with its voiced counterpart [ð]2, occurring as the th in the.)
The sound [s] occurs as the s in sun and is described as a voiceless alveolar fricative3, which means that the air flow is restricted between the tongue and the upper alveolar ridge (the gum ridge behind the upper teeth).
In some varieties of Spanish these two distinct sounds both occur, with [θ] corresponding to the letter z, or c before an e or an i. This is termed distinción. In other dialects the two sounds have merged together, giving seseo where they have become [s] and ceceo where they have become [θ].
Broadly speaking, distinción is found in northern and central Spain, seseo in the Canaries, parts of southern Spain and virtually all of Latin America, and ceceo in certain areas of southern Spain4.
In accents exhibiting distinción, cien and sien, for example, are pronounced differently, whereas in seseante and ceceante accents they are not.
Lleísmo and yeísmo
The sound [ʎ], which does not naturally occur in English, is termed a palatal lateral approximant5. This means that it is produced by air escaping sideways over the tongue when the middle (lamina) or back (dorsum) is brought close to the hard palate. Traditionally this sound corresponded to the letter elle, or doble l, (ll) in Spanish: a pronunciation known as lleísmo. Replacing the sound with that associated with the letter y, however, is known as yeísmo, and this is prevalent in most of Latin America and parts of Spain. In Spain yeísmo is widespread among the younger generation, even in traditionally lleísta areas.
Note that in Spanish [ʎ] should not be pronounced as [li]6. There is some regional variation in the way that y (and ll in yeísta accents) is pronounced in Spanish:
- [ʝ] voiced palatal fricative7. Produced by a restricted airflow down the centre of the tongue with its middle or back raised against the hard palate and the vocal folds vibrating.
- [j] palatal approximant8 — y in yes. Produced by an airflow down the centre of the tongue with its middle or back raised against the hard palate and the vocal folds vibrating. The airflow is not restricted to the same extent as it is with [ʝ].
- [ʃ] voiceless postalveolar fricative9 — sh in shirt. Produced with the tip (apex) of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge directing the airflow over the edge of the teeth without the vocal folds vibrating.
- [ʒ] voiced postalveolar fricative10 — s in treasure. Produced in a similar manner to that of [ʃ] but with the vocal folds vibrating.
Pronunciation of y / ll as [ʃ] or [ʒ] is known as sheísmo and zheísmo, respectively, and is characteristic of Rioplatense Spanish11 (spoken mainly in the River Plate regions of Argentina and Uruguay).
Another feature characteristic of certain accents is where the letter s at the end of a syllable is pronounced as [h] or even dropped completely. [h] is known as the voiceless glottal fricative12, and corresponds to the h in hat. In Spanish this pronunciation of s is called the ese aspirada, and the phenomenon ‘comer las eses’. This is common, for example, in Caribbean, Rioplatense and Southern Spanish accents.
When the letter x occurs at the start of word (e.g. xilofón) it is normally pronounced as [s]. In other positions it is pronounced as [ks] in Latin America, but in informal speech in Spain this is usually softened to become [s].
Note that in certain Mexican place names, such as México and Oaxaca, the letter x represents a voiceless velar fricative13, [x]. This is the sound now associated in Spanish with the letter j (although in certain dialects, such as Caribbean Spanish and those of parts of southern Spain, for example, this is pronounced as [h]). This spelling comes from Spanish transcription of the Náhuatl language at a time when the letter x represented the sound [ʃ]. During the sixteenth century, however, this sound shifted to [x] and later revisions to Spanish spelling introduced the rules that the latter be represented by j and [ks] by x. Nevertheless, the original spelling was retained in certain proper nouns. And in fact the original [ʃ] sound is still present in a number of Central American place names, such as Xela, Xetulul and Xocomil in Guatemala.
‘b’ and ‘v’
In English the letter v is pronounced as a voiced labiodental fricative14, [v] (e.g. the v in vet). This means that it is formed with the bottom lip under the upper teeth. It is normally stated that this sound does not exist in Spanish and also that the letters b and v are pronounced identically, a phenomenon known in Spanish as betacismo. Their pronunciation depends on the position of the letter: after a pause or after m or n (the latter then being pronounced as an m), the pronunciation is [b], which is a voiced bilabial plosive15 (b in bad, for example, in English); otherwise the pronunciation is [β], which is a voiced bilabial fricative16. (Note that in some dialects it is only pronounced as a fricative when it occurs between vowels.) This sound does not occur in English and is made in a similar manner to [v] but with the both lips in front of the teeth and brought close together but not quite touching.
The standard pronunciation is therefore [b] in words such as también and enviar, and [β] in words such as abeja and llave.
This is, however, an area where there is some debate, as the sound [v] does occur in certain dialects of Spanish (a pronunciation known as labiodentalismo). The reasons for its existence are said to include:
- Survival in certain areas of pronunciation from old Spanish
- Influences of other languages, such as Catalan, French and English
- Hypercorrection as a reaction against popular styles of speech
- Teaching children that [v] is the ‘correct’ pronunciation of v in order to make spelling easier.
It has been noted, for example, that in the Dominican Republic there is no distinction made in popular speech between the pronunciation of the letters b and v, whereas in formal speech, such as that employed in the media, there is17.
One study18, analysing the speech of a number of Cuban students, found occurrences of [v] (together with [β] and [b]) corresponding to the letter v and also occasionally the letter b. Another more recent study19 involved a group of native speaking instructors of Spanish from a variety of countries at the University of Southern California. In that study it was found that in the speech samples analysed b was never pronounced [v], but overall the letter v was pronounced as [v] 40% of the time. This pronunciation was not systematic, and, among other factors, a correlation was found between its prevalence and the speakers’ number of years of residence in an English-speaking country.
Audio clips of a number of native Spanish speakers all reading the same piece of text are provided below for comparison. Listen carefully and see how many of the features described above you can detect. Note, however, that as the recordings are of a text being read, the speech is very likely to be more formal than that used in everyday conversation. One contributor commented, for example, that she was conscious of forcing the s at the end of words that in spontaneous speech she would have dropped.
El cazador de libros se sentía feliz al encontrar en una casa señorial de Zaragoza una colección de cien publicaciones científicas insólitas.
—Yo no veo ningún caballo —le dije a ella al llegar a la llanura lluviosa. Yo sé que viajar instruye mucho pero ayer en la calle de Nueva York, con el billete en el bolsillo, nunca me lo habría imaginado así.
Todos los tesoros oscuros de las islas estaban en la sala de subastas. En el primer lote había dos cisnes negros, unos sigilosos gatos de dimensiones gigantescas y tres muñecos enmascarados.
El boxeador extraño se exasperó al tomar el examen exigente en Extremadura. Se consideraba un excelente experto, pero a su parecer fueron muy ortodoxos y exudaron una exquisita inflexibilidad.
Veintinueve vacas hambrientas vuelven a comer hierba, mientras las abejas zumban por todas partes. Bebiendo un vaso de vino y sentado en un banco cercano, el hombre descubre la clave. Desde ahora sabe qué hacer en verano y en invierno también.
Instructions: use the map below to navigate the audio clip collection. You can click and drag to pan the map and use the control on the left to zoom. Clicking on a map marker will bring the list of associated recordings into view in the panel below the map. You can then click on a link to open the audio clip or right click on it to download it as an MP3 file.
International Phonetic Association
Downloadable PDF chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
Paul Meier Dialect Services
Interactive IPA chart with audio samples for all of the sounds.
Spanish Pronunciation 101
A blog on Spanish pronunciation, aimed primarily at native English speakers and written by Martín Ventola, a teacher of Spanish Pronunciation from Buenos Aires.
Université de Lausanne — Introduction to Phonetics
Introductory online course on phonetics. Includes comprehensive descriptions of how all sounds in the IPA are produced together with accompanying audio clips.
The University of Iowa — Fónetica: Los sonidos del Español
Animated anatomical diagram showing production of the various sounds in Spanish by the vocal apparatus, with accompanying sound samples and descriptions of how the sounds are articulated.
The University of Iowa — Dialectoteca del Español
Audiovisual library with speech samples from a diverse range of native Spanish speakers.
Spanish dialects and varieties
Many thanks to all those who very kindly provided voice recordings for this project:
And thanks also to Peggy Patterson.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_dental_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_dental_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_alveolar_fricative ↩
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andalusian_Spanish for a map showing ceceante regions of Andalucía. ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palatal_lateral_approximant ↩
- Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, http://buscon.rae.es/dpdI/SrvltConsulta?lema=ll ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_palatal_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palatal_approximant ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_postalveolar_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_postalveolar_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rioplatense_Spanish ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_glottal_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_velar_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_labiodental_fricative ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_bilabial_plosive ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_bilabial_fricative ↩
- Saborit, J, Estévez, I, El español de la República Dominicana, http://www.geocities.com/saborit72/fonetica.html?200813 ↩
- Isbasescu, Cristina (1968), “Sobre la existencia de una fricativa labiodental sonora [v] en el español cubano”, Actas del III Congreso de la Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas
- Stevens, John J (2000), “On the Labiodental Pronunciation of Spanish /b/ among Teachers of Spanish as a Second Language”, Hispania, Vol. 83, No. 1, 139–149