Consonants

Consonants in Spanish are generally pronounced like English consonants. Here are some useful rules to follow to eliminate any spelling difficulties.

In English, instances of a double bb, nn, ss, ff, and so forth, are common. Spanish, on the other hand, does not have many words with double consonants of the same consonant letter. You can find exceptions to this rule, however, with words containing ll, rr, cc, and nn; for example, diccionario, carro, connotación, and llave. Only the single letter f is used to make the f sound in Spanish. The Spanish never use ph to produce the f sound, and the letter p is always pronounced like the p in “papa.” If the English word has ph or a double f, the Spanish cognate will always use one f; for example, fotografía, físico, and terrífico.

There are some important exceptions to the “no double letter” rule. The ll that occurs in Spanish is technically not a double l but rather a single letter that is pronounced like the consonant y in “yellow.” In some South American Spanish‐speaking countries, the sound of ll sounds like a combination of the sound of sh and the letter j in English. A single l sounds like the letter l you hear in English words.

Note: On April 27, 1994, the Spanish Language Academies voted and eliminated ch and ll as separate letters of the Spanish alphabet. Many pre-1994 dictionaries, however, are still in use, and apparently the real Spanish‐speaking world continues the thousand‐or‐so‐year habits of the language because ch and ll are still frequently listed as separate letters and, for example, still occupy one box in a crossword puzzle.

Another letter in Spanish that looks like a double letter is the rr. This letter is intended to elicit the rolling sound that is difficult for many who are learning Spanish as a second language. You should roll your tongue when you see the letter rr within a word, or when a single r is the first letter of a word.

A spelling change is sometimes necessary when two words become one. For example, the r in Costa Rica is rolled because it is the first letter of a word. The adjective for a native of Costa Rica, however, is only one word, so the rr is used in costarricense to produce the rolling r and maintain the pronunciation.

The only true double consonant in Spanish occurs when two c's are used to produce the x sound. In words like diccionario and acceso the first c is hard because it is followed by a consonant and the second c is soft because it is followed by i or e.

Dictionary placement

When looking for a word that starts with ll in the dictionary, don't forget that the Spanish side of some dictionaries will list words beginning with ll after the words beginning with a single l. This will also occur with the letter ch, which is also considered a single letter in Spanish and, in most dictionaries, may be found in its own section after the c section. Ch is easily pronounced (like the sound in “charm” or “Charles”), but, unlike English, ch is always pronounced the same way in Spanish.

Dictionary listings may also confuse you when a word includes the Spanish letter ñ. The little squiggle over the n is called a tilde, and its use creates an entirely new letter that follows the n section in the dictionary. The ñ is pronounced like the ny combination in “canyon,” or the ni combination in “union.”

The letter c

The letters k and w do not occur in Spanish words unless the word has been borrowed from another language such as English or even Japanese. For example, el karate is considered a “Spanish” noun, even though the k is not a Spanish letter.

In Spanish, there are two ways to produce the sound of the English letter k. When the letter c is followed by an o, a, or u, it is pronounced like a k. The qu combination must be used to produce the k sound in front of an e or i. A word that the English borrowed from the Spanish, “mosquito,” has already prepared you to pronounce qu in Spanish without any w sound. Not like “quill,” but rather like “tequila.”

This rule results from the fact that the letter c has “issues.” When followed by o, a, u, or any consonant, it is pronounced like the c in “cat,” “coat,” or “cut.” When c is followed by e or i, it is pronounced like the c in “certain” or “cinder.”

The letter g

The letter g in Spanish behaves very much like the letter c in that the letter that follows the g determines how it is pronounced. The reason the g in “go” is pronounced differently than the g in “germ” is because there is a “hard g” and a “soft g” sound. In English and in Spanish, a g that is followed by e or i is generally soft, and any g that is followed by o, a, or u is hard.

The pronunciation of the hard g is the same in both languages. The g in gato, gorila, or gusto sounds exactly like the g in “goal,” “gallant” or “gum.” As in English, if a Spanish g is followed by an e or i, it is pronounced soft. However, the soft g in Spanish sounds like the English letter h. The g in gemelo or gitano sounds like the English h in “home” or “head.”

The letter u is placed between the g and e or between the g and i to produce a hard g sound in front of an e or i. Guerra is pronounced “ gay-ra,” and guido is pronounced like “ gree-do” without the r. The u itself is not pronounced because the intent of the u is to produce the hard g sound. This is an exception to the rule that all vowels are always pronounced. You are probably already familiar with the words guerrilla and guitarra; these words can serve as examples in your head to help you avoid the urge to say gway or gwee when you see the gue and gui combinations.

If the gway or gwee sound is desired, the German symbol called an umlaut (a double dot over the u: üw) is used to indicate that the u should be pronounced like a w even if it is in between a g and an i or a g and an e. Pronounce the word “bilingual” and then say bilingüe with the same gw sound.

The letter j

The letter j is always pronounced like the h in “hi” or “hollow.” It is difficult to predict whether to use a g or j when you need to produce a word with the sound of the English h followed by an e or i. For example, jirafa and jefe are spelled with a j and giro and general are spelled with a g. Focus on whether to use a j or a g when you first learn to spell the word. Words with the h sound in front of o, a, or u ( jota, Japón, and julio) are always spelled with a j because a g would not produce the h sound at all when followed by these letters.

The letter h

The Spanish letter h is always silent and is generally at the beginning of the word if used at all. There really is no way to predict when a word will begin with a silent h, so be sure to focus on the spelling of words that you learn beginning with an h.

The letter d

The letter d basically sounds like an English d but is a bit softer in Spanish. At the end of a word, it is not stressed as it is in English. Say the word “paid” out loud and hear the strength of the d at the end. It almost creates its own syllable. In Spanish, any d at the end of the word is barely pronounced. Say ciudad without the d at the end and you'll sound like a native. Remember, the lack of double consonants makes spelling easy. The d sound is always a single d in any Spanish word.

The letter t

Another letter that is softer in Spanish than English is the t. It is especially soft when followed by an r: The sound of the tr in triple would sound more like tl. Try to say tratar without moving your tongue away from the back of your teeth. If you say the t as you would in English, you will have a slight accent but will be easily understood. Don't forget that the t will never be doubled when spelling Spanish words.

The letters b and v

Many uneducated Spanish speakers have difficulty determining whether to use a b or v when spelling a word. Both sound like a combination of bv. To make the sound, start out making the b sound and slur it into the v sound. English speakers usually forget to pronounce the two letters the same, so their instinct is to spell vivir or beber correctly because, in their minds, the first word still sounds like it begins with a v and the second word still sounds like it begins with a b. This pronunciation error is helpful with spelling, but until your b's and v's sound like some mixture of both, you'll have an English accent. One helpful point about the similarity of b and v in Spanish: Sometimes, it can be easy to recognize a word that is similar to English if you imagine the word with a v instead of a b, or vice versa. For example, the verb gobernar means to govern.