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Okay, for all of you who want to act like you know Spanish, but have butchered all attempts to read out of a phrasebook you found, say, here, here's how to pronounce it generally.

First off, let's start with the vowels:

a is pronounced as in father and Mafia;
e is kind of between fetch and day; just think a pure "eh," but it is not "ay";
i is pronounced like people, weed, and beast;
o is like home, but rounder; again, think of a purer version of "oh";
and u is like boobs and peruse.
y is pronounced pretty much like the American "y," except when it's by itself, in which case it's pronounced "ee." However, in some South American countries, it's pronounced like leisure, a sort of "zh" sound.

Now for the diphthongs. In case you don't know what that is, it's the sound you get when you combine two or more vowels together. Really, when you think about it, the diphthongs define themselves, given the sounds of the constituent vowels. But anyway...

ai is pronounced as in right, pie;
ei is pronounced as in weigh (wow, look at all those silent letters in English *tsk*) and pay;
oi is pronounced like ska bands do it: "oy!" More generally, it's pronounced like boy and moist.
au is pronounced like rout and mouse;
and eu, as my dictionary best puts it, is "like the vowel sounds in English may-you, without the sound of the 'y.'"

Whenever u is the first vowel in a diphthong, it sounds more or less like the English w.

Yay, we're up to consonants!

For the most part, the consonants in Spanish are pronounced like their American equivalents, so I'll outline the exceptions here.
b is like our b, but a bit softer; the lips do not really come together all the way. This is the reason that the capital of Cuba, spelled "Habana" in Spanish, is spelled "Havana" on our maps.
c is pronounced like an English k if it comes before a, o, u, or a consonant; it is pronounced like an English s if it comes before e or i.
ch is pronounced like the English ch in "chips" and "channel."
g is a hard g, as in "girl," when it's before a, o, u, or a consonant. Note that if the g is followed by a u and an e or i after that, the u is silent, unless it has a dieresis above it (ü), where the u is pronounced like an English w. (Compare "guerra" (geh-rra) and "antigüedad" (ahn-tee-gweh-dahd), but also "guapo" (gwah-po).) If it's followed by e or i, it's pronounced just like the Spanish j.
h is always silent. Period. "Hoy" is pronounced just as if it were "oy." So don't pronounce the h!
j is pronounced like Bach or loch, but it has no real English equivalent. Think of an English h, then think of hocking up a loogie, and cross the two. That's about it.
ll (that's two L's) is pronounced like the Spanish y, only with a bit of a preceding l. See above.
ñ: just think of the Three Stooges saying "nyuk, nyuk"; that would be spelled in Spanish "ñak ñak," more or less. If that doesn't work, surely you've heard the correct pronunciation of piñata...
q always sounds like an English k, and is always followed by a u, which is always silent.
r is a strange beast to us Americans; it is a small flick of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, called in linguistic circles a "flapped r." Now say the word "better" for me really quick. If you said it like most Americans do, you made a flapped r right there in the middle of the word. This r is used for all r's in Spanish, save for the case of...
rr, which is pronounced like the people doing the "drumroll" at the house-lighting in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Just "trill the tongue"; there's really not a better way to describe it (none that I can think of, anyway).
w, found in only a few foreign words, is pronounced like an English v;
x is like the gs in "big sack," sort of a softer version of our x. Before a consonant, it's the same as a Spanish s.
z is like the English s, not like the English z.

Now, for the final piece of the pie: Accentuation.

In order to properly accent a word, you have to divide it up into syllables. It goes something like this: i and u are weak; everyone else (a, e, and o) is strong. This means that if you have a combination of two strong vowels, they are pronounced as separate syllables (as in pa|e|lla, tra|er). If you have a combination of a strong vowel and a weak vowel, they are combined, the strong vowel is the main one pronounced, and they are said in one syllable (as in sen-ti-mien-to, cin-cuen-ta). If you have two weak vowels, they are combined into one syllable and the second vowel is the main one pronounced (cui-da-do, viu-da).

So, now that you've got the syllables properly separated, remember this: The second syllable from the end is the accented one if the word ends in n, s, or a vowel (not counting y). Otherwise, the accent falls on the last syllable. So, given that, let's accent some words: hacer, hago, and edad, just to name a few.

Now, if you should see an accent mark in the word, you can just toss all those rules out the window and accent the syllable that the accent mark falls on. The accent of a word can change the meaning, so be careful! (Example: "esta" (ehs-tah) means "this," while "está" (ehs-tah) means "it is.")

Before I wrap this up, I suppose I should mention one other thing: native speakers tend to combine vowels between words. For instance, the phrase "primero y último" wouldn't be sounded out word by word, but would rather be said something like "pree-mehr-oh-yule-tee-moh." Do that for your first year Spanish class and earn bonus points. :)

Well, that's about all you can know about pronunciation from just looking at the words. Msg me if you have anything to add, and I know I've done at least something wrong here. Thanks in advance for your input.


Gritchka points out to me that I should note that this Spanish specifically refers to the Central and South American variety; the Spanish (Castillian) kind has some fundamental differences—most notably, the pronunciation of z and c, when they would normally be pronounced like s, like the English th.
The above excellent write-up is 100% correct... but only for one variety of Spanish and one variety of English. I offer some additional notes on Castilian, the standard form of the language of Spain. And in fact by Castilian I mean Standard Spanish, the form taught to foreigners - local varieties in Castile no doubt differ in places.

I know almost nothing in detail about Spanish dialects, so in what follows when I say "some dialects", I don't know whether it applies to Andalusian, Chilean, Mexican, or whatever.

The English can be disposed of quickly. For the rest of us who have three entirely different vowels in father, bodyguard, and Mafia, it's the vowel in father, or a little further forward, leaning slightly towards that in fatter.

The flapped r sound in the middle of American English 'water' has no counterpart in most varieties of English. It is like a very short d. But everyone has ample opportunity to study how Americans speak. (Note: it is not the -er sound of American 'water', a very different sound.)

The letter z always, and the letter c in the combinations ce, ci, is pronounced like English th in 'thin'. This is traditionally confined to Castille and not much else in Spain (in northern Galicia for one), and nowhere in Latin America as far as I know: so saying Valenthia, Barthelona, Andaluthia is a no-no if you want to be really accurate. Locals there have an s sound, not th. However, Excalibre tells me this th pronunciation is now quite widespread in Spain, and there are parts of Andalusia where s is also pronounced this way (ceceo).

J always, and g when in ge, gi, are the ch-sound of loch, chutzpah in Castilian and many other dialects, but in some they are like an English h.

LL is the ly-sound in standard Castilian and some other dialects, but is like an English consonantal y in other dialects.

The letters b and v represent the same sound. It is purely a historical spelling difference, based on what they came from in Latin. They are now the same. So Valencia is pronounced as if Balencia. (The Spanish Academy say, or used to say, they should be distinguished the way they are in other languages, but they're talking out of their sombreros.)

Now for the bit that is harder to explain. The stop consonants b, d, g each have two different pronunciations, depending on their position in the word. (They're allophones.) In this, (i) by b I mean v as well, exactly the same rules applying to both, as the same sound; and (ii) I exclude ge, gi.

At the beginning of a word (said in isolation) they are the hard explosive consonants of English, French, or Italian: Baleares, vamos (= bamos), Durango, Galicia. (Except that, minor point, d is dental where in English it's alveolar.)

They also have that explosive sound after the nasals m, n: también, duende, gringo.

Elsewhere, they have a much softer sound, an approximant, a weak fricative sometimes little more than a colouring of the vowels around it. So b = v resembles English w or a weak v; and d is a weaker form of the th in 'father'; and g has no equivalent in any variety of English (listen to Iñigo Montoya say his name). The past participle ending -ado is close to -ao. This property of these three consonants is generally applicable to all Spanish dialects, including all American ones.

The voiceless stops t, p, c are unaspirated: in English 'too, coo, poo' have a strong puff of breath, thoo etc. This is absent in (all forms of) Spanish, so tu might sound like du to English ears.

Finally, s before another consonant may be very weak, something like English h: so España may be heard as Ehpanya. This is somewhat so in Castilian and more strikingly so in some other dialects.

Where I have not mentioned anything, PMDBoi's write-up is fully applicable to Standard European Spanish.

Spanish with an Argentinan accent, although it is not exclusive to Argentina (it is found in a few other Central and Southern American countries), varies in only one aspect from the first write up.

The double-L ("ll" as in ella, llama, or estrella) is not pronounced y but rather a soft j with sort of an "sh" quality.


Just a bit of advice: if you are anxious not to sound like a "gringo" pronounce your ts like ds and your vs like bs. Those, as well as those mentioned above, are the details that will help you smooth your Spanish into a decent accent.

Spanish is a generally phonetic language, where each letter or digraph usually corresponds to one sound. Of course, there are many more rules than this, and English speakers should not go around pronouncing words as if they were speaking English. To speak proper Spanish, you have to follow the system of phonology, which I have attempted to outline here:

Consonants

  • B.../b/ or /β/. The voicing on the Spanish 'b' is more fortis than in English, where we barely voice our consonants. In all places except at the beginning of a phrase or after a nasal, 'b' is pronounced as a voiced bilabial fricative, which to untrained ears will sound sort of like a v-ish 'w.'
  • C.../s/ (/θ) or /k/.

    Before 'a' 'o' or 'u', 'c' is pronounced /k/. This is not the same sound as in English -- in English we aspirate all voicless stops, but in Spanish and most Standard Average European languages, these sounds are not aspirated, so that a Spanish /k/ may be mistaken for /g/ by an English speaker because the puff of air we associate with /k/, and because the English /g/ isn't very voiced anyway.

    After the front vowels 'i' and 'e', 'c' is pronounced /s/, unless of course you are speaking Castillian dialect and have a ceceo, whereby you would pronounce 'c' in this position as /θ/, like the English 'th' in 'thin'.

  • CH.../tš/ This digraph represents the affricate that it does in English, except not aspirated (see 'C'). In many Latin American dialects, this 'ch' is pronounced /š/, like the English 'sh'.
  • D.../d/ or /ð/ The rule on 'd' follows the same rule as for 'b.' The fricative version is like the English 'th' in 'then'. Another thing that should be pointed out is that all alveolar sounds (/d/ /t/ /s/ /l/ /r/ /n/) are pronounced more at the dental point of articulation, that is, the back of the teeth.
  • F.../f/ Well, 'f' is.../f/, just like in English, unless you happen to be in the Philippines, where it is /p/, but chances are you're not.
  • G.../g/, /γ/, or /x/.

    Before 'a' 'o' or 'u', 'g' follows the same rules for becoming a fricative as 'b' and 'd'. /γ/ is the voiced version of /x/, and doesn't really have an equivalent in most European languages.

    /x/ however, does have many equivalents, like the German 'machen' or Scottish 'loch'. In Spanish it is this sound, but usually much weaker. This pronunciation of 'g' occurs before 'i' or 'e'. If a word requires the combination /ge/ or /gi/, then it is spelled 'gu,' as in 'guerra' (/'gerra/), with the 'u' silent. If the sound /gwe/ or /gwi/ occurs, then it is spelled 'gü' so that 'bilingüe' is /bi'lingwe/.

  • H...silent. Though usually words that begin with /wV/ have an opening 'h' in spelling, such as 'hueso' (/'weso/)
  • J.../x/, which is explained under 'G.'
  • K.../k/ This letter is always /k/, which is described under 'C', and is only used in (relatively recent)loanwords
  • L...Like the 'l' in English, but see the note on alveolars under 'D'.
  • LL.../j/ (λ) (/ž/) For the most part, this digraph represents /j/, like the English 'y' in 'yoke'. In Castillian, it is pronounced with a lleísmo and contrasts with 'y.' This sound, /λ/, sounds like the English 'million'. Lastly, in many dialects, both 'll' and 'y' represent the sound /ž/, like the 's' in 'measure.' Even further along this track, in some dialects, both 'll' and 'y' are pronounced /dž/, like the English 'j'.
  • M.../m/ Good ol' 'm' doesn't differ much from English, if at all.,
  • N.../n/ /m/ (/ñ/) (/ng/*) This sound is for the most part like the other alveolars, except that before 'b' or 'v', it is pronounced /m/, so that 'invierno' is /im'bjerno/. In some dialects it is pronounced /ñ/ before /i/, and in many Latin American dialects, it is pronounced /ng/* at the end of words like the 'ng' in the English 'sing,' or before the letter 'g'.
  • P.../p/, but follows the same rules as /k/ as far as non-aspiration.
  • Q.../k/ Only occurs in combination with a silent 'u', and represents the sound /k/ when 'c' cannot (before 'e' or 'i')
  • R.../r/, /rr/ This is not the 'r' we all know and love in English, but rather an alveolar tap or flap, sort of like the 't' in 'atom' in most dialects of English. It is pronounced as the trill /rr/ at the beginning of words and after /s/ /n/ or /l/.
  • RR.../rr/ (/ž/) This is the trilled version of 'r'. This is an important distinction to know, because there is a big difference between words such as 'perro' (dog) and 'pero' (but). In some dialects, this trill is replaced with /ž/.
  • S.../s/ (/h/) This sound follows the rule for alveolars, and in many, many dialects it becomes h or completely disappears everywhere except at the beginning of words and between vowels. This is heard in Spain in Andalucia and in Latin America all over, except in the very old highland cities like Lima and Mexico City. So, for example, 'los Estados Unidos' comes out /loh ehtaðoh uniðoh/.
  • T.../t/ Follows the rules for alveolars and the rules for non-aspiration.
  • V.../b/, /β/ For all phonological purposes, this is the exact same letter as 'b'
  • W.../w/ This is like in English, but only occurs in a few loanwords, like 'el waffle'.
  • X.../ks/, /x/, /s/ It is normally /ks/, but before a stop, like /t/ in 'extraño' it is pronounced /s/. 'X' also represents /x/, the velar fricative, in a few words, mainly of Aztec(Nahuatl) origin, such as 'México', 'Texas', etc.
  • Y.../j/ /i/ (/&158;/) (/d&158;/) Follows the same pattern as 'll', but without the /λ/. It is a vowel in one word, 'y' (and) where it represents /i/. It also occurs in diphthongs as /j/, or to some people, the non-syllabic /i/. I will use /j/ since the symbol is easier to make.
  • Z.../s/, (/θ/) This follows the same rules as 'c' does when it precedes /i/ or /e/. If a person has a ceceo, it will affect his or her 'z's as well as 'c's.

Vowels

  • A.../a/ like 'a' in 'father'.
  • E.../e/ like the sound in 'bait' 'make' or 'hey'. It doe snot, however have the /j/ offglide that is so commonly does in English
  • I.../i/ like 'beet' or 'see', except again without the /j/ offglide
  • O.../o/ like 'dope' and 'coat', except without the /w/ offglide English tends to have.
  • U.../u/ Like 'food' and 'plume'. Never like 'cute' or 'unity'

Diphthongs

Spanish has many more diphthongs than English does. The word 'mientras' is two syllables long, not three, as is 'piano'.(/mjen-tras/ and /pja-no/, not /mi-en-tras/ or /pi-a-no/). When a diphthong is not to be made, it is indictated in orthography with an acute accent mark ('día' is /di-a/ not /dja/). Here are the diphthongs:

  • AI, AY.../aj/ like 'kite', 'fight'
  • EI, EY.../ej/ like 'hey', 'bay',
  • OI, OY.../oj/ like 'boy', 'soil'
  • UI, UY.../uj/ like Fr. oui
  • AU.../aw/ like 'house', 'cow'
  • EU.../ew/ (nothing really like it in English)
  • IU.../iw/ like 'hew', 'cute'
  • IA.../ja/
  • UA.../wa/ Fr. moi
  • IE.../je/ like 'yay'
  • UE.../we/ like 'way' without the /j/ offglide
  • IO.../jo/ like 'yo' without the /w/ offglide
  • UO.../wo/ like 'woe' without the /w/ offglide
  • SUPRASEGMENTALS:

    Spanish does not put glottal stops between words as does English, or stops at all for that matter. In fact, the way it divides syllables has nothing to do with the words themselves. This is why Spanish seems so incredibly rapid and fluid to an English speaker.

    Spanish generally has simple CV syllables, unless it can't begin a syllable with a consonant due to stress or other factors, or it has a consonant cluster that goes from fricative to stop, in which case the cluster is broken up. Also, diphthongs are made whenever possible. Here are some examples:

    María no está en la casa /ma-ri-a-no-es-ta-en-la-ka-sa/

    Diego y Juan quieren conquistar el mundo. /dje-γoj-wan-kje-ren-kon-kis-ta-rel-mun-do/

    Hay una mujer que piensa todo que brilla es oro, y compra una escalera al cielo /aj-u-na-mu-xer-ke-pjen-sa-to-ðo-ke-βri-ja-e-so-roj-kom-pra-u-na-es-ka-le-ra-al-sje-lo/

    Spanish pronunciation is fairly easy for an English speaker--Spanish contains only five vowels, while most English dialects have around 15. The sounds that typically give English speakers trouble are the trilled "r" and the "b/v" sound. I warn my dear readers that despite extensive study and experience with the Spanish language in many countries, I am not a linguist, and my suggestions may not be considered Linguistically Kosher. This is intended to be a practical guide for the casual user, so I am not going to delve into complicated phonological terms, mostly because I don't understand them. However, I can almost guarantee that if you follow these rules, no one will look at you funny. Unless you're wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Then you pretty much deserve whatever you get.


    Vowels:
  • a: Pronounced like the English "ah", as in "father".
  • e: Pronounced like the short "e", "eh", as in "enter".
  • i: Pronounced like the long "e", "ee", as in "between".
  • o: Pronounced like the long "o", "oh", as in "dope".
  • u: Pronounced like the long "u", "ooh", as in "woo".

  • Consonants:
  • b: "b", known as "b grande", or "large "B", in some countries, is pronounced the same as "v", "b chica". "B" is generally pronounced the same as the English "b" before a vowel (bag), although it tends to run into the "v" sound, making the result like a mix between "b" and "v". Pronunciation differs greatly by region.
  • c: Before "a", "o", "u", or a consonant, pronounced like a "k", as in "keep". Before "e" or "i", like an "s" ("th" in Castillian Spanish).
  • ch: Like the "ch" in "chocolate", "child".
  • d: Like the "d" in "dog".
  • f: Like the "f" in "filch", "Fokker".
  • g: Before "e" or "i", like the Spanish "j". Before other letters, like the "g" in "game".
  • h: Silent. If an "h" is between two vowels ("albahaca"), the vowels are elided ("albaca").
  • j: Like a hard "h" (ha,ha,ha), similar to the hard "h" sound in German (but usually not guttural).
  • "Hu" followed by a vowel ("huecos", "Huancayo") tends to be pronounced like English "wh" (among those who pronounce "what" like "hu-wuht").
  • l: Like the "l" in "laugh".
  • ll: In most regions, like the "y" in "yellow". In the Río de La Plata region (Argentina and Uruguay), pronounced like the "sh" in "shallow".
  • m: Like the "m" in "milk".
  • n: Like the "n" in "now." Silent before "m" (inmigración, un médico).
  • ñ: Like the "ny" sound in "onion", "Enya".
  • p: Like the "p" in "pillow".
  • qu: Like a "k".
  • r: Beginning a sillable, strongly trilled (rolled), as is sometimes done in British English. Somewhat trilled when ending a word--for greater emphasis, it is trilled for a longer period of time, e.g., "saboRRRRR". In the middle of a sillable, pronounced like an English "d", as in "Adam".
  • s: Like the "s" in "savor".
  • t: Like the "t" in "torment".
  • v: See "b".
  • w: Usually only found in borrowed words like "whiskey". Often pronounced like "hu" (see "h" above).
  • x: Between vowels, like the "x" in "Mexico". Before consonants (e.g., "extranjero"), pronounced like "s". In Mexico, the "x" follows bizarre rules of pronunciation to represent sounds in indigenous languages, which is way beyond the scope of this writeup.
  • y: Like the "ll".
  • z: Same as the "s". In Castillian Spanish, the "z" is prounced like the English "th", as in "thistle".

  • There are many more flavorings and subtleties to Spanish pronunciation; for instance, The Real Academia Española considers "y" and "ll" to be two different sounds, but an explanation of "yeísmo", "lleísmo", and the like is a whole different writeup. These are basic rules that will get you through a day, but you'll need to get some audio material or go to the country of choice to really get a good idea.

    As a rule, Spanish pronunciation should be much more definite than English pronunciation, since all the vowels are well defined. If you're American, please don't slip into the awful lazy habit of pronouncing things a la gringa: "may goostain las co-lories ee la dancing". I will remove your vocal chords in a dark alley.

    Also remember the golden rule: If you can't pronounce it, use another word. I had a (native Peruvian) driver in Lima who was unable to pronouce the "tr/dr" sound due to a speech impediment. He said "labor" instead of "trabajo", "intentar" instead of "tratar", and "movilidad" instead of "transporte".

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