In English, an accent can either refer to how one speaks, based on socio-geographic influences, such as where one was born or how one was educated. Alternatively, an accent can refer to the marks above some letters of the alphabet such as á, é, í, ó, and ú
. Something the English language doesn’t have. It is this type of accent we will be focusing on today.
But before we get into it. I do want to quickly touch on the other type of accent (geographical) and explain how that tends to affect things in Spanish. Just like as in the English language, depending where you live, and any number of other social factors may well influence the type of Spanish you hear. Whilst there is no right or wrong Spanish accent, it’s important to understand if you continue to say things with your own English accent, you may struggle to be understood. If you have any doubts about this, it’s worth going back over the ABCs and make sure you’re able to pronounce every letter correctly with a Spanish sounding lilt. This is particularly important with vowels.
So what are accented letters? For simplicity let's just call them characters not found in the 26 letters of the English alphabet. We'll discuss the first two briefly, and then look at the remaining five together.
The accented letters are: ñ, ü, á, é, í, ó, and ú
Ñ | la eñe
We saw the Ñ (la eñe) in the previous post about pronouncing our ABCs. As Ñ is considered a letter in its own right, and different from the N. We really don’t need to worry much about it other than how to pronounce it. Remember, it has a NY
sound like in the English word “canyon”.
Ü | la diéresis sobre la U
Next the character is the Ü, which is a normal U with two dots above it. It has exactly the same sound as a normal U. It is also extremely rare. I don’t mind admitting, I’d been living and studying in Spain for quite some time before I even noticed it existed!
So why does the Ü exist if it sounds exactly the same as a normal U? If we remember back to our explanation of how a normal U sounds. It is in fact silent when sandwiched between the letters G and E or G and I. Therefore, we can say the Ü exists to be used in situations, when you do not want the U sound to be silent. Examples are “antigüedad, vergüenza, argüir, pingüino”
. In all these cases the Ü sounds like a regular Spanish U sound, and not a silent one.
Á É Í Ó Ú | las letras con acentos
Now that we’ve dealt with Ñ and Ü, we can move onto the others. You will notice all 5 vowels can be written with or without an acute accent. This is the only type of accent there is. Unlike French where the accents can be, acute, grave or circumflex, in Spanish there is only the acute. Also, unlike French an accent can only appear once per word in Spanish. Vowels with accents, also sound identical to those without.
So, if an accent doesn’t change the sound, what does it do?
In the Spanish language, all words have a natural point where you stress or emphasise the word. This is somewhat of a different concept when comparing to English. In English we do stress words, and whilst I accept there are rules to how one stresses English, they are extremely complicated and most native speakers do not really know them. Furthermore, not all English speakers even agree on how words are stressed. In English, most word stress is learned from experience.
In any case, however you stress a word in English, providing it’s pronounced well, you will be understood. Therefore, the stressing of words in English could be seen as largely unimportant with regards to simply communicating. By contrast, in the Spanish language, how a word is stressed is VERY important, as it can change the word you’re saying, and therefore the meaning. And rather like the mispronunciation of letters, a poorly stressed word will leave you equally misunderstood.
There are only 2 rules to how a word is stressed in Spanish which we will discuss below. However, as you can imagine, just 2 rules could be somewhat limiting. This is where our accented characters come in. They are simply used to override the normal rules of stressing the word. So, by using a single accent above a vowel, you are changing where you naturally stress and emphasis the word.
The two rules for stressing Spanish words are: Rule 1: For words ending in N, S or a vowel, always stress the penultimate syllable. Rule 2: For words ending in any consonant expect for N or S, always stress the last syllable.
All Spanish word must follow those two simple rules for stressing words unless there is an accented vowel. Thus the addition of accented vowels to the Spanish alphabet allows for more desirable sounding word constructions than using just those two rules for stressing and placing emphasis on words.
For the avoidance of doubt: Two identically spelt versions of a word can exist in Spanish, with and without an accented vowel. These are completely different words and have completely different meanings. They are spelt exactly the same way expect for a single accent, which simply changes or emphasises more strongly where to stress the word. Examples being: “como, cómo” or “esta, está”
An exception to this is “cuando, ¿cuándo?”
. In this case both words mean "when"
. When used as a question an accent is added to the A. Another example is: “donde, ¿dónde?”
, both words mean "where"
, but when used as a question we add an accent to the O.
The following sound clips will demonstrate how to stress some Spanish words, based on the two rules above. Then we will contrast these with some accented words which overide the rules.
limonada, bolsa, todo, azules
animal, azul, estoy, doctor
débil, limón, exámenes, inglés
That's about it for accents. Hopefully you will agree, they are in fact fairly easy to understand. Don't worry if it takes a little while to get the hang of the last and penultimate syllable rules. But take the time to practice whenever you can. As the sooner this become second nature the more natural your Spanish will sound.