Did you know that the Ubyx language used to have only two vowels?
Or that Danish has over 40 vowel sounds?
It has even been proven that languages in drier climates use fewer vowels overall!
Vowels really are amazing, aren’t they?
We all know words normally consist of consonants and vowels, but what, really is a vowel?
We can define “vowel” in many different ways, but the three most common definitions are the following:
1. A vowel is a sound produced with an open configuration of the vocal tract.
2. A vowel is a letter that is not a consonant. (Duh!)
3. A vowel is a letter that makes a syllable when it is paired with consonants.
No matter how you describe them, vowels are important and allow us to form words with which we can communicate. Without them, we would be totally lost. Can you imagine pronouncing something like “ntnlztn” instead of “nationalization”? I would break my tongue!
Not only are they important and necessary, but they also differ from language to language. And getting the basics of vowels down can make a huge difference in your pronunciation of that language.
I could give you an entire lecture on world languages and their vowels… but I will not. After all, you are learning Spanish—and I believe it is time that you learn everything there is to know about Spanish vowels, those little friends of mine a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y (yep—just like in English!).
In this post, you will learn all about the Spanish vowels and their pronunciations.
In addition, I have included a list of all the possible diphthongs, some triphthongs and all hiatuses in Spanish, as well as lots of examples for you to see them in action. (If you do not know what any of those things are, just read on!)
Remember that vowels can change the “bag” on your bed to a “bug” on your bed in the blink of an eye. Never underestimate the power of a vowel!
Master Spanish Vowels with Diphthongs, Triphthongs and Hiatuses, Oh My!
The Basics of Spanish Vowels
Spanish has five vowels: a, e, i, o and u (you can listen to their pronunciation below).
Apart from these, we have y (called i griega or “Greek i” in Spanish). Scholars do not completely agree whether y is a vowel or not, so depending on the source, you can find it under the vowel list or listed separately as a semi-consonant. For the purposes of this post, we are going to treat is as a vowel, because vowels rule!
Before we get the party started, here are some words that begin with one of the five basic vowels and some that end with y (click on each word to hear its pronunciation over at Forvo):
What do you notice?
Let’s start with the obvious: Spanish and English vowels are pronounced differently. There may be cases when Spanish and English vowel sounds can be very close but most of the time, even in words that are written exactly the same (like some of the examples above), they are different.
Spanish vowels are always pronounced the exact same way. Always! There is not a single example in the whole Spanish language of a vowel having two different sounds. You can consider yourself lucky, because English vowels are… special, to say the least, with all their different readings.
Butterfly Spanish has a video that will show you how to pronounce them perfectly and prepare for the rest of this post.
Want even more videos that showcase vowels, but in a more natural environment? Check out the authentic videos on FluentU for plenty of examples.
FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
Plus, if you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and recommends examples and videos for you based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re studying with the same video.
Things to Remember When Pronouncing Spanish Vowels
When learning Spanish, especially for an English native speaker, there is a tendency to pronounce Spanish vowels with an accent. This means that learners tend to give their “English touch” to our vowels. Many times they even change the sound completely, creating a non-existent word or producing another Spanish word altogether.
Because of that, I have gathered a list of the most common mispronunciations English speakers bless my ears with from time to time and how to avoid them (the mispronunciations, not the speakers). Here we go!
1. All Spanish vowels are pronounced in the exact same way every single time.
I will say this again and again! It does not matter if the syllable is stressed or not or if the vowel has an accent mark. The sound remains the same.
Their length is also always the same, whether they appear at the beginning or end of a word, between consonants, before a double consonant or anywhere else in the word. Listen to the following words and pay special attention to the vowels. Try to repeat each word after the native speaker:
2. You have to pronounce all the vowels in a word.
(And all the letters except h, for that matter). There are no silent vowels in Spanish, except in the case of the exception below. If there is a vowel in a word, pronounce it:
As I mentioned before, there is one exception: If a word contains the letters que, qui, gue or gui, the u is silent:
3. Do not “diphthongize” Spanish vowels.
Ever! As stated in point one, each vowel has its own unique sound, and it never ever changes. Do not add a different vowel sound to the end of a vowel. For example:
Say no instead of /noh-uh/
Say universidad instead of /ew-nee-ver-see-dad/
Say comer instead of /kow-mer/
4. Always read i as /ee/.
Pronounce it like you would say the ee in “see.” This is true no matter how you would read the word in English (here’s looking at you, “weefee”):
5. The vowel u always makes the sound /uh/.
This is similar to the u in “brute.” By extension, the diphthong eu always sounds /eh-uh/:
Pronouncing Spanish Vowel Combinations
Now that we know the basics of Spanish vowels, let’s have a look at how they can work within words. The following sections contain diphthongs, triphthongs and hiatuses, together with lots of words and their pronunciation. You will be practicing pronunciation, honing your listening skills and learning vocabulary all at once. It just does not get better!
As stated before, it would be impossible to make words in Spanish or English without the help of vowels. But vowels do not always appear by themselves between consonants. Sometimes (many times, actually), you will find Spanish words that have two or three vowels together in a row.
When two or more vowels appear together, we get a diphthong, a triphthong or a hiatus. Do not worry if these three sound like sci-fi words for you at the moment. They will be clear to you soon enough!
Simply put, a diphthong forms when two vowels are combined into a single syllable. The sound begins on the first vowel, then progressively moves toward the sound of the second vowel. Some examples of diphthongs in English can be found in the words “loud,” “foil,” “boy” and “say.”
When talking about Spanish diphthongs, we need to bear in mind a very important thing: a Spanish diphthong can only be formed if we have at least one unaccented weak vowel (the word unaccented is very important here, as you will see in the hiatuses section).
It is not within the scope of this post to give you a lecture on types of vowels, so I will just tell you that the two Spanish weak vowels are i and u.
As long as you have at least one of these two vowels together with another vowel, you will be looking at a diphthong.
The pronunciation of the vowels in a diphthong is not different from the pronunciation of each vowel separately. As stated before, each Spanish vowel has a unique sound that never ever changes. The only thing that can change in a word in the stressed vowel, but never the pronunciation.
Do not confuse a stressed vowel with an accented vowel, though! All words have one (and only one) stressed syllable, but not all of them have an accent mark. It all depends on the accent mark rules. For instance:
amor (love) — o is the stressed vowel but it has no accent mark
salón (living-room) — o is the stressed vowel and it needs an accent mark
camión (truck) — o is the stressed vowel and it needs an accent mark. It is part of a diphthong, but the pronunciation is exactly the same as in the first two examples.
Summing up, a vowel can be stressed or not stressed. Depending on where the stressed vowel is, the overall pronunciation of the word will be different, but the sound of the vowel will remain exactly the same.
Imagine English has the imaginary word feefee. You can stress either the first fee or the second one. Let’s assume fee is always pronounced “fi.” In that case, you can only have either fifi (stress on the first syllable) or fifi (stress on the second syllable), but fi will always sound like fi. This is exactly what happens with Spanish vowels.
Now let’s go back to diphthongs. As you may imagine, diphthongs come in many forms, so I have arranged an alphabetical list of Spanish ones so you can see them in action. The following list and examples are not something you should necessarily memorize. Instead, gave a look at them, try saying them out loud and try to come up with more examples if you can.
You only have to remember that if you have an i or a u together or with another vowel, you have a Spanish diphthong. Check them out!
Remember that we are treating y as a vowel in this post, and more precisely as a weak vowel. Here are some examples with these diphthongs:
Same as with ai/ay, we treat the y as a weak vowel:
Never confuse the diphthong ia with the combination ía, which will be dealt with in the hiatuses section.
As you can see in the last example, it does not matter if the strong vowel (a, e or o) in the diphthong has an accent mark. As long as the weak vowel is unaccented, the diphthong continues to exist:
This is one of the two examples of diphthongs we can have formed by the two weak vowels, the other being the diphthong ui.
Since Spanish only has one stressed vowel in each word, this combination will always be a diphthong no matter what, because each time the second weak vowel will be unstressed, which is what we need to form a diphthong:
There are only a few words in Spanish containing the diphthong ou, and almost all of them were borrowed from other languages:
This is the other combination of two weak vowels, and as with iu, it will always form a diphthong no matter what:
Now that we know all the possible diphthong combinations in Spanish, let’s have a look at triphthongs.
When pronouncing a triphthong, utter the three vowels in order of appearance, stressing the middle one, and you are done!
Triphthongs are formed when we have three consecutive vowels in the same syllable, if and only if:
1. The two outer vowels are weak (i.e. i or u)
2. The central vowel is strong (i.e. a, e or o)
3. None of the weak vowels are accented
If these three rules are observed, we have a triphthong.
This may seem too complicated, but I have good news for you: Triphthongs are way less common than diphthongs in Spanish, and even though there is a variety of them, the same small group tends to appear more often than the rest.
We will be focusing on this small group of triphthongs in this section.
iai / iái
As it happens with most of the Spanish triphthongs, this one normally appears in conjugated verbs. In this case, it is most often seen in the second person plural of the present indicative and the present subjunctive:
2. iei / iéis
These combinations are present mainly in the second person plural of the present indicative and the present subjunctive:
3. uay / uái
Here we have a mix of nouns, adjectives and the second person plural of the present tense. Have a look:
uái: averiguáis (you all find out), apaciguáis (you all appease)
4. uéi / üéi
These are mainly present in the second person plural of the present subjunctive of the verbs included in the group above:
averigüéis (that you all find out, subj.), apacigüéis (that you all appease, subj.), habituéis (that you all get used to, subj.)
There are other triphthongs in the Spanish language, but they are not so common as to create a group with them. Here are a few with some examples:
uey: buey (ox)
uau: guau (wow / woof)
iau: biaural (binaural)
The easiest way to define a hiatus is as being the opposite of a diphthtong. We already know that a diphthong is formed when a weak vowel is accompanied by another vowel in the same syllable. In turn, a hiatus exists when two vowels are together but they belong to two separate syllables.
Consecutive vowels can be in two syllables because the vowels are both weak or strong, or because the weak vowel is the stressed one in the word. Once again, the pronunciation of these vowels is invariable, no matter which letter carries the stress.
So how can we pronounce hiatuses so that everybody knows they are hiatuses? The truth is… you just read them!
Imagine you have a word with two consecutive a’s. You read the first a and then read the second one.
That is all.
The fact that you have two vowels and you have to pronounce each of them individually creates the hiatus.
What happens when the weak vowel is stressed? Once again, you just pronounce each vowel normally, with the but this time, the weak vowel (i or u) will be stressed.
Let’s take the word había (there was) as an example. We know the i is stressed because it has an accent mark. We also know i always sounds ee in Spanish. With this information, we can infer that había is pronounced “ah-bee-a” (stress on bee).
But imagine for a second that the stressed vowel is the last a. Do you pronounce the word differently? Yes! Do you pronounce the vowels in a different way? No! You just say “ah-bee-a,” with the stress on the last a.
Hiatuses can be divided into several types, but in order to simplify things to the maximum, we will use a broad division consisting of only two groups:
1. Simple hiatuses
These consist of two strong vowels or two weak vowels:
ii/ií: friísimo (very cold), antiinflamatorio (anti-inflammatory)
uu: duunvirato (duumvirate)
2. Accentual hiatuses:
These occur when one of the weak vowels of what was supposed to be a diphthong is accented. The accented vowel will always have an accent mark in order to signal that the diphthong has been broken:
ía: There are a lot of words in this group. The imperfect tense of all the verbs of the second and third conjugation present this hiatus in all the persons. Here is an example using comer (to eat):
yo comía (I was eating)
tú comías (you were eating)
él/ella comía (he/she/it was eating)
nosotros/as comíamos (we were eating)
vosotros/as comíais (you all were eating)
ellos/as comían (they were eating)
íe: Many verbs in the second and third person of the present tense and the second and third person of the present subjunctive have this hiatus:
úa: all the verbs ending in -uar include this hiatus in the second and third person singular and the third person plural of the present tense:
úe: present in all the persons except the first and second plural of the present subjunctive of all the verbs included in the group above:
evaluar: evalúe, evalúes, evalúes, evaluemos, evaluéis, evalúen
úo: present in the first person singular of the present tense of the verbs in the last two groups:
I know… Your head is about to explode, and so is mine. Remember that this is not a topic where you have to memorize all the existing words. The examples in this post are just that: examples.
The only thing you need to do is learn the few rules scattered throughout the post. Nothing else!
I bet you are feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment, but do not worry. Things will get clearer once you read the post a couple of times more, and understanding how and why Spanish vowels are pronounced the way they are will help you master your own pronunciation. You can do it!
See you in the next post. Stay curious, and happy learning!
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