Most world languages have some pesky homophones—words that sound the same but mean different things.
Some languages do this more than others, of course.
Spanish is a pretty big offender, even mixing up its native speakers with trickier sounds!
As though we needed more obstacles thrown in our path when trying to learn Spanish.
But, c’mon, you’re an English speaker.
English is infamous for its homophone usage—their, there and they’re, anyone?—so count yourself lucky that you don’t have to learn those from scratch.
Why Learn Spanish Homophones?
As big a pain as it is to learn and recognize the homophones, it’s a deed that must be done.
Much like mastering gender or the plural in Spanish, it’s a step you must take to reach fluency. If you can’t learn to recognize homophones in oral communication, you’ll be tripped up in conversation time and time again. (Remember to brush up on those listening skills, and stay on top of your false friends!)
Your conversation partner might tire of your confused looks, so it’s best you learn to embrace the homophones. With time, you’ll learn to focus on contextual clues. But when first starting out, it’s important to have a mental list going of the homophones of a language.
And now for the good news: Spanish has far fewer homophones than English. In this respect, it’s a really easy language to study.
The phonetics, or sound system, of Spanish is relatively uncomplicated. Each letter is assigned one sound, with only very few exceptions. Compare this with English, where a simple “e” can take on a multitude of different sounds, and Spanish suddenly seems like a piece of cake.
Let’s start by identifying the type of Spanish homophones that are out there.
Spanish Homophones: Common Mix-ups and How to Identify Them
1. The Accents Pitfall
Some words not only sound the same, but are written exactly the same. Well, almost. The Spanish language helps us out by throwing on accent marks where it deems necessary.
Take, for example, el and él. Same exact letters. The only difference is in the symbols. Normally, Spanish accent marks (called tildes, not acentos — here’s the complete guide) are used to show where the stress should fall. In the case of él and el, however, the accent is simply used to differentiate meaning—with the accent, él means ‘he,” and without the accent, el is the definite article “the.”
Another instance of this is de and dé. Again, the accent here doesn’t mean “pronounce the e with a little more force.” It’s simply used to distinguish the two words, since they’re spelled and pronounced exactly the same. Without the accent, de is the preposition “of.” With the accent, it’s the command or subjunctive form of the verb dar, meaning “to give.”
2. The B/V Pitfall
If Spanish is completely phonetic, why can’t they do away with either the B or the V? It’s a question that keeps me up at night but, alas, both B and V make a light b sound. Not quite as forceful as the English b, but with the lips a bit more relaxed (a voiced bilabial fricative, if you want to get technical). Therein lies the reason Spanish speakers have difficulty hearing the difference between “berry” and “very” or “vest” and “best,” but I digress.
An example of the B/V pitfall would be hierba (weed) and hierva (he/she boils [water]). Also: iba (I/he/she was going) and IVA, an acronym that stands for “sales tax.” See? Not the same meanings at all, but these sounds make it easy to get tripped up if you can’t understand the context.
3. The Silent H Pitfall
I mean no disrespect to Spanish here, but its H is useless. The letter is a remnant of Latin, Spanish’s predecessor, but it serves no purpose in pronunciation today (except to trip learners up). Therein lies the problem with homophones such as Asia and hacia, the first one being the continent, the second being the preposition “towards.” So you can move “hacia Asia,” but you should know the difference between the two.
The silent H pitfall doesn’t just occur with the vowel a. Some examples with other vowels:
With o we can use the simple example of hola (hello) and ola (wave). These are pronounced exactly the same.
An example with e is echo, the first-person conjugation of echar, a verb which has about 20 meanings but we’ll go with “to throw away” here. Then you have hecho, with a silent h, meaning both “fact” and also the participle form of hacer (to do or make).
See what a headache these homophones can be?
hacia, Asia (slow):
hacia, Asia (faster):
4. The Y/LL Pitfall
These sounds are pronounced slightly differently. To the untrained, non-native ear, the difference is hardly discernible. If you travel to Argentina, however, you’re in luck. There, the double L is pronounced similarly to the English “sh,” so it’s clearly distinguishable. Elsewhere, however, the problem of homophones rears its ugly head once again.
Arroyo — a small stream or river
Arrollo — the first-person conjugation of arrollar, which means “to run over, to knock down”
Rayar — to draw lines, to scribble
Rallar — to grate (cheese, for example)
5. The C/Z/S pitfall
Here we have not just two but three sounds to look out for. With the C/Z/S pitfall, it’s important that we separate Castillian Spanish (from Spain) from the rest of the pack.
In Spain, the S makes an English “S” sound, but the C and the Z make an English “th” sounds. That’s what people are talking about when they affectionately (or mockingly) refer to the Spanish “lisp” (the real term is ceceo, said, of course, with two lisped C’s). And due to Spanish phonology, C and Z can never appear in the same letter “slot” of a word, so there’s really no C/Z/S pitfall in (most parts of) Spain.
In Central and South America, and the Canary Islands of Spain, however, we do see the C/Z/S homophones. The C, Z and S all sound alike — like the English “s” sound. So you can never quite tell if your conversation partner is talking about his house — casa — or hunting, caza. Another example is ciento (one hundred) versus siento (I feel).
How to Tackle Spanish Homophones
Now we’ve identified the types of Spanish homophones. They may seem tricky, but don’t despair. There are ways to tackle them that don’t have you bowing down in defeat.
Step #1. Study vocabulary.
It seems like a no-brainer, but if you know that both the words casa and caza exist, you can begin to see which one fits better in context (and I’m willing to bet it’s casa 90% of the time).
Step #2. Context is your best friend.
As you begin to get fluent in the language, you’ll use contextual clues to fill in vocabulary you’re not familiar with. This will also help you to choose which vocabulary makes the most sense. In the beginning, when you’re just starting out, you can probably know that people are greeting you with hola, not ola. But if the homophone in question is more complicated, or the two words share the same part of speech — two high-level verbs like rayar and rallar, for instance — context becomes hugely important to ascertaining meaning.
Step #3. Focus on the nuances of the Spanish sound system.
Like I said, to the untrained ear, the above pitfalls make these pairs sound like true homophones. But in reality, certain accents and speakers do pronounce some of the letters slightly differently. Focus on whether you can hear a tiny, minuscule difference between the B and the V. Is one softer than the other? Is one sound produced by using the teeth a bit, and not just both lips?
The nuances of the Spanish sound system also extend to the accents and the geographic areas in which you’re learning or speaking Spanish. If you’re in Spain, the “lisp” should give you a big clue. If you’re in Argentina, no need to fear the Y/LL pitfall. It’s good to familiarize yourself with the basic rules of Spanish everywhere, but if you plan on moving to Ecuador, for example, read up on Ecuador’s specific accents and sound system.