Diacritic notation is the easiest part of the Spanish language that English speakers consistently botch. This is, I think, due to high school language teachers' physiological aversion to elegant and consistent logic. If you drop the stupid heuristics, Spanish orthography is actually simple. A person who knows how to pronounce a word knows unambiguously how to write it, and a person who knows how to write a word knows unambiguously how to pronounce it.

This is a guide for where to put acute accents on Spanish letters (á í ú é ó). Read this and -- provided you know a dash of Spanish and provided I'm not a drooling illiterate moron who kids himself with a pathetic unfounded belief in his own communicative ability -- you'll never choke on the accents again.

Categorizing words according to pronunciation

In order to learn the correct use of diacritics, we need background on the inner workings of the Spanish language. There are three fundamental prototypes for Spanish words.

An aguda word is sharp because its last syllable holds vocal stress; noun examples include mitad and ca, and all plain infinitive verbs (conocer, manejar, existir) are aguda. A llana word is plain because its penultimate syllable is stressed, like most Spanish words; noun examples include árbol and palabra, and most present tense conjugated verbs (conoces, manejamos, existe) are llana. An esdrújula or sobresdrújula word is simply a word where stress comes before the second-to-last syllable; for our purposes they can be conflated; noun examples include árboles and esdrújula, as well as all verbs with multiple connected pronouns (cuéntamelo) and most adverbs (cilmente).

What accent marks are

You probably know by now that accented vowels always carry stress. Why, then, aren't all stress syllables marked with an accent? In brief, accent marks serve two discrete purposes. First, they differentiate extremely common homographs such as qué/que (what / that). Second, they indicate special pronunciation for words that do not follow the mores of Spanish stress.

If a native Spanish reader has somehow failed to learn the word "tree" (education is going downhill these days, isn't it?) and sees the unaccented word arbol written somewhere, he will pronounce it as an aguda (arbol). However, the word arbol is commonly pronounced as a llana (arbol). So, in order to let our developmentally-challenged Spanish reader know the stress belongs over the a, we need to place a little diacritic notch over the "a" (árbol). All non-homograph-purpose accents (qué/que) exist for this reason: to indicate a break from the common sense pronunciation of a word. This is why so many imported words (tefono, oja) have stress accents. They don't follow the normal flow of Spanish. Accents are, however, important even for Spanish-rooted words. The esdrújula word término means "the end"; the llana word termino means "I end"; the aguda word terminó means "he ended". The absurd complexity of Spanish verb conjugation relies on stress. Because of this linguistic heritage, stress accents are vital.

Determining where to place a diacritic and where not

Correct placement of stress accents only requires that you recognize when a word breaks the common pronunciation rules. If you have been listening to Spanish for a while, this will be snap. The rules are:

  1. A word should have llana stress (second to last syllable) if it ends in n, s, or a vowel
  2. A word should have aguda stress (last syllable) if it ends in a consonant besides n or s.

Whenever a word breaks these rules, whenever the stress doesn't meet these rules, use a diacritic over the stressed vowel. By definition, all esdrújula and sobresdrújula words require a diacritic mark. Otherwise, check the last letter against the stress. "Hard" consonant endings should be aguda (sharp); "soft" endings like vowels and humming consonants (think "nnnn" and "hssss") should be llana (plain). Otherwise place an accent. That's all there is to it.

Things that confuse learners

The system I describe above is cake by the standards of English. Then why do English learners have so much trouble with diacritics?

The answer is that learners do not pronounce Spanish correctly and have difficulty seeing written patterns because of it. I'll leave my remarks on the pathetic state of language education for another day, but suffice to say teachers avoid forcing students to learn the real, correct Spanish language for fear it will overwhelm their students, who science has proven have cadbury eggs for brains. In the long run, this impedes more than it helps. Here's the lesson you should have had on the third day of Spanish class:

  • Nearly every vowel is pronounced in Spanish. Nevertheless, not all sounds in Spanish are created equal.
  • Spanish has two types of vowel: weak and strong (fuertes y débiles). A weak vowel, if alone, will stand. However, if placed next to another vowel, it will absorb into that vowel and form a single-syllable sound called a diphthong (diptongos).
  • The weak vowels are u and i, and the strong vowels are a, e, and o. Thus the word fuerte (strong) has only two syllables (fuer|te), but the word marea (tide) has three (ma|re|a).
  • In regards to stress: diphthong syllables that require an accent should be marked on the strong vowel (past tense of "to live" is vivió). However, if stress is directly on the weak vowel, the diphthong is broken and counts for two syllables. This is the difference between hacia (two syllables, means "towards") and haa (three syllables, means "used to do").

Many new learners fail to see the logic because they haven't been taught diphthongs properly. They see iglesia, where in their minds the stress is on the third syllable back, and then they see conoa, where it is on the second back. "Crazy voodoo! Two pronunciations and markings for the same layout!" they exclaim, and then convince themselves accents aren't important anyway. Spanish orthography will make sense when the basics of Spanish pronunciation are clear; after than they're a cinch. Iglesia ends in a vowel so it's llana; ia is a diphthong so "e" is the penultimate syllable and no accent is needed. Conoa is also a llana, but in this case unnatural stress is required to break the diphthong: accent needed.

Other notes

There are more types of diacritic marks, of course. The ue in the word vergüenza (shame) is different from the ue in fuerte ("gweh" sound versus "geh"). Also, you have to memorize the homograph diacritics and remember to tilde your ñ's and all that jazz. However, an understanding of acute accents brings you halfway out of the dark voodoo forest. A little practice and active reading will guide you the rest of the way.

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