10 Things You Didn’t Know about the Spanish Alphabet
What could possibly be so special about the Spanish alphabet, an alphabet that uses the same Latin script as English? What might it teach that we don’t already know? After all, it’s just ABC, right? Let’s find out. But the ABCs of Spanish don’t go by the same names as those of English. That’s for starters. Then there’s a bunch of derived verbs and nouns that could come in handy at the right time. Also, the Spanish alphabet doesn’t use every single letter of its English counterpart and vice versa, so there’s that. But first things first, let’s review the alphabet itself.
The Letters of the Spanish Alphabet
Barring k and w, the Spanish alphabet contains every letter of the English alphabet. I mean they do enjoy the membership but are at least not native to Spanish. The only “Spanish” words you’ll find carrying these letters are those that aren’t even Spanish and were donations from English. For example, wáter or karate.
That being said, the letter ü can also be spotted in some Spanish words. Again, just as in English, this doesn’t grant it a membership to the official alphabet. It’s like how you may occasionally spot an über in English but that still doesn’t make ü a member of the English alphabet. Spanish also has a letter English doesn’t – ñ. This one is an interesting letter because the sound it represents is not unique to Spanish. You can hear it in all Romance languages and sometimes even in English. But before I digress, let’s familiarize ourselves with the alphabet in question. Those who already know it well are, of course, free to just skip over to the next section and save time.
Letters of the Spanish AlphabetNote: Pronunciations are only approximate.
|A||a||like ‘u’ in ‘cut’ or ‘a’ in ‘father’ depending on position||pan, alambre||The vowel can lengthen and shorten depending on whether it carries a stress.|
|B||be, be larga, be alta||like ‘b’ in ‘ball’ with slight variation depending on position||besar, bigote||Both ‘b’ and ‘v’ are pronounced exactly the same way. When they open a word, they sound like ‘b’ but elsewhere, like a soft bilabial ‘v’ where the upper teeth don’t touch the lower lip.|
|C||ce||like ‘k’ in ‘kilo’ but like ‘s’ in ‘seat’ if paired with ‘e’ or ‘i’||cantidad, celoso||This consonant sounds like ‘th’ in ‘thin’ when paired with ‘e’ or ‘i’ in Castilian Spanish.|
|CH||che||like ‘ch’ in ‘church’||chido, hecho||This is no longer a separate letter of the Spanish alphabet effective 2010.|
|D||de||like ‘d’ in ‘disk’||dar, doble||This one sounds much softer than its English counterpart. When not opening a word, it sounds closer to ‘th’ in ‘then’|
|E||e||like ‘ea’ in ‘dead’ or ‘ai’ in ‘air’ depending on position||elefante, semana||The vowel can lengthen and shorten depending on whether it carries a stress.|
|F||efe||like ‘f’ in ‘fly’||finca, oficina|
|G||ge||like ‘g’ in ‘gulf’ but like the guttural ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ or ‘h’ in ‘head’ (depending on the dialect) when paired with ‘e’ or ‘i’||garage, gemelo||This one sounds slightly more guttural than its English counterpart when it falls inside a word and isn’t paired with an ‘e’ or ‘i’.|
|I||i||like ‘i’ in ‘pin’ or ‘ee’ in ‘heel’ depending on position||imprimir, escribir||The vowel can lengthen and shorten depending on whether it carries a stress.|
|J||jota||like the guttural ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ or ‘h’ in ‘head’ depending on the dialect||jardín, juego|
|K||ka||like ‘k’ in ‘kilo’||karate, kilómetro||This consonant is not native to Spanish and only appears in words lifted from other languages.|
|L||ele||like ‘l’ in ‘lion’||largo, limpiar||The way this one is pronounced in Spanish is closer to the British “clear L” rather than the American “dark L.”|
|LL||elle||like ‘y’ in ‘yellow,’ ‘j’ in ‘judge,’ or ‘llio’ in ‘million’ depending on the dialect||cuello, amarillo||This is no longer a separate letter of the Spanish alphabet effective 2010.|
|M||eme||like ‘m’ in ‘mom’||mudanza, muerto|
|N||ene||like ‘n’ in ‘nest’||nadar, nunca|
|Ñ||eñe||like ‘ny’ in ‘canyon’||piñata, año|
|O||o||like ‘o’ in ‘potter’ or ‘o’ in ‘boat’ depending on position||ojo, píldora|
|P||pe||like ‘p’ in ‘potato’||parada, pastilla||Spanish speakers don’t aspirate their ‘p’ as do their English-speaking friends.|
|Q||cu||like ‘k’ in ‘kilo’||mantequilla, querer||This letter never occurs without a ‘u’ after it. But in the combinations ‘que’ and ‘qui,’ the ‘u’ becomes silent.|
|R||erre||like ‘t’ in ‘butter’ (when pronounced the American way)||artista, poder||This letter is always flapped instead of rolled. Except when it occurs either at the beginning of a word or as ‘rr,’ in which cases it’s trilled.|
|S||ese||like ‘s’ in ‘son’||suerte, cosecha||The combination ‘sh’ never occurs in native Spanish words.|
|T||te||like ‘t’ in ‘tusk’||tocar, tortilla||The tip of the tongue must touch the upper teeth while pronouncing this letter and there should be no aspiration.|
|U||u||like ‘u’ in ‘put’ or ‘oo’ in ‘foot’ depending on position||fugar, duro||The vowel can lengthen and shorten depending on whether it carries a stress.|
|V||uve, ve, ve corta, ve baja||like ‘b’ in ‘ball’ with slight variation depending on position||vecino, avanzar||Both ‘b’ and ‘v’ are pronounced exactly the same way. When they open a word, they sound like ‘b’ but elsewhere, like a soft bilabial ‘v’ where the upper teeth don’t touch the lower lip.|
|W||uve doble, ve doble, doble ve, doble u||like ‘w’ in ‘water’||wáter, wey||This consonant is not native to Spanish and only appears in words lifted from other languages.|
|X||equis||like ‘x’ in ‘Mexico,’ ‘s’ in ‘son,’ ‘h’ in ‘her,’ or ‘sh’ in ‘show’ depending on the word||Mexico, Xalapa||In some loanwords from Basque, Catalan, or Native American tongues, this consonant can be pronounced as the ‘s’ of ‘sugar.’|
|Y||ye, i griega||like ‘y’ in ‘yellow’ or ‘i’ in ‘pin’ depending on the word||y, yo||When pronounced as a consonant, the sound can range from the ‘j’ of ‘jar’ (Southern Cone) to the ‘y’ of ‘yes.’|
|Z||zeta||like ‘s’ in ‘son’ or ‘th’ in ‘thin’ depending on the dialect||cazar, zapato|
Do note, however, that the best way to learn pronunciation is to actually hear the language first-hand. Any textual representation of the sounds is going to be an approximation at best.
Did You Know These?
If you thought knowing your letters was enough, you’ve obviously been wrong. There’s always more than meets the eye when it comes to language and its various aspects. That includes writing systems as well. There are some such quirks of the Spanish writing system that might intrigue you even if you can already read and write the language well.
1. The Last Time It Changed Was in 2010!
That’s right. While English and most other languages have left their alphabets untouched for centuries, Spanish hasn’t been quite as stagnant. In fact, the latest change it went through was as recently as 2010. You see, Spanish is a well-regulated language, unlike English. Of course, there does exist a lot of unavoidable flexibility which is why we have the various dialects. But compared to English, there still exists a relatively higher level of discipline in Spanish.
This discipline comes from the Royal Spanish Academy, the governing body that dictates how Spanish ought to be spoken and written. From time to time, it convenes and makes changes to the language that are then codified as the new standard. These changes are rare but there nonetheless.
“If the Academy no longer considers ch a separate letter, I’ll henceforth be known simply as Ávez.”
The last time such a major change happened was in 2010 when the Academy met in Guadalajara, Mexico to discuss if the language needed to evolve. Among the several changes that event concluded with, was a change to the Spanish alphabet. The language overlords at RAE (Royal Spanish Academy) decided to lop off ch and ll from the set. Don’t get them wrong though, the letters haven’t ceased to exist. Just that they won’t enjoy a separate entry in the dictionaries or the alphabet. When was the last time your language dropped a letter or added one?
Not everybody seemed pleased with these changes though. One of them was the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez himself! He famously quipped, “If the Academy no longer considers ch a separate letter, I’ll henceforth be known simply as Ávez.” Witty, no? Too bad all his dictatorial might failed to bend the Academy though.
2. Be de Burro or Ve de Vaca?
No matter where you go, the letters of the English alphabet go by the same name. I mean, except for z which goes by zee in the US and zed elsewhere. Barring that, all letters have pretty much the same name all over the world. Not so in Spanish.
If you know the first thing about Spanish pronunciation, you probably know how the letters b and v carry the exact same sounds in this language. But that doesn’t mean they lose their individual identities which is why they still have different names. The letter b is called be and v, ve or uve. For v, uve is what the RAE stipulated at its Guadalajara meet in 2010.
But these are standard names. Spanish is nothing if not non-standard which means not everyone in the Spanish-speaking world agrees on these names! For example, if you’re in Mexico or Peru, you’ll hear be grande for b and ve chica for v. Of course, grande is Spanish for big and chica for small. The Colombians also go with be grande for b but prefer ve pequeña (small) for v.
But that’s not all. If you’re in Uruguay or Chile, the names become be larga and be corta for b and v, respectively. Am sure you already know the words larga (long) and corta (short). Some even go the extra mile and use phonetics to kill ambiguitywhile spelling out words. For example, they could say be de burro for b and ve de vaca for v.
3. Doble Ve, Doble Uve, or Something Else?
This is about the letter w. This one shouldn’t even be a part of the Spanish alphabet because no Spanish word uses it. I know what you’re thinking but trust me, words like wey and wáter won’t do. For starters, wáter is not even Spanish and as you can easily tell, they lifted it straight off English. As for wey, the actual word is güey and wey is just a convenient colloquialism. And it’s not just Spanish, w is just as alien to almost all Romance languages except maybe some remote dialects of French. And yet there it is, sitting pretty in every alphabet for no good reason.
But since the letter isn’t going anywhere, we can’t do much about it. It ought to have a name. But what is it? Doble ve? Or ve doble? It’s really a matter of personal preference. And of where you live. That’s the fun part about Spanish. Variety. But doble ve and ve doble doesn’t sound like much of a variety. Let’s add to it. A third alternative comes from Spain itself – uve doble. Doble ve and ve doble are what you’ll hear in Latin America. Also doble uve in certain pockets.
But we aren’t done yet. If you are in Mexico or Colombia, you just hear an English-inspired doble u! These two countries have enjoyed the maximum exposure to the English language for various reasons so there’s that. I’d assume Costa Ricans to just go with double u like their English-speaking American compatriots but I’m not so sure.
4. Latin I vs. Greek I
There’s i. And then there’s y. The two letters are totally distinct in English. But the line kinda blurs when it comes to the Spanish alphabet. In order to ensure the two letters are identifiable from each other, Spanish speakers have given them different names.
Traditionally, i is known as i and y as i griega. One of the new rules the 2010 meet approved pertained to the name of the letter y. Now, you may call it simply ye instead of a mouthful that is i griega. It’s official, so don’t be afraid of grammar nazis. But I still like i griega which is still the more common name in Spain. Latin America prefers ye, though.
You see, griega is Spanish for Greek. Why Greek when we’re talking about Spanish? Because the letter itself evolved from the Greek letter ypsilon, or ye. The letter, and the sound associated with it, wasn’t native to Latin which is why it was imported from Greek when the two cultures started texting each other. I mean sharing manuscripts, duh.
When used as a vowel, both y and i sound the same. At least so far as the Romance family goes. So when the Romans needed to differentiate between this i and the Greek-origin y, they had a simple solution: They named them i and y graeca (Greek i). This y graeca eventually became y griega in Spanish. Occasionally, Spanish speakers also refer to i as i latina (Latin i) to contrast it with i griega. Fascinating story, isn’t it?
5. What’s Common between Zeta and Cedilla?
Zeta should be easy to remember thanks to the Zeta Cartel which is all over the news these days. The letter sounds like th in English thin but only in Castilian Spanish. That’s northern and central Spain for you. Elsewhere (Andalusia, Latin America, etc.), it just sounds like s.
But the letter didn’t always go by zeta. Back in the day, they called it ceta. At one point when they still spoke Old Spanish, this ceta had evolved into ceda or zeda. Now that’s when something happened to the letter c as well. I’m talking about the time when the Visigoths were still a thing and the Spanish alphabet looked at least a wee bit different. As you know c has two different pronunciations in Spanish – /s/ when followed by e or i and /k/ otherwise. Now there needed to be a way to differentiate between the two kinds of c. So they came up with a solution.
The solution was to write c as is wherever it stood for /k/ and stick a z under it wherever it stood for /s/. This combination of c and z was a Visigoth invention which quickly caught on elsewhere too. Ironically, it’s the Spanish alphabet that no longer uses it today. If you want to see it in action, try French or Portuguese. The letter looks like this: ç. Looks familiar? See that little hook under the letter? That’s all that remains of the ceda the Visigoths had slapped to the letter. This hook is called cedilla, a diminutive of ceda. You can still find the letter in use in Spain, but that would be Catalan and not Spanish. Like I said though, the letter has all but disappeared from the modern Spanish alphabet.
6.The ABCs of It
Alphabet is fine but there are times the simpler ABCs sounds more intuitive. This is particularly true when you’re referring to the basics or fundamentals of something. For example, the ABCs of computers sounds much better than the alphabet of computers, don’t you think? It’s the same with Spanish where, at times, alfabeto just wouldn’t cut it.
The word you’re looking for is abecedario. Look closely, it’s just the first few letters of the Spanish alphabet. It’s just that this one uses Spanish names instead of English which is why it sounds so much more fluid than its English counterpart. The word also refers to a spelling book for obvious reasons.
¿Ya te sabes el abecedario? (Do you know the alphabet yet?)
La jota es la undécima letra del abecedario castellano (J is the eleventh letter of the Castilian alphabet).
El primer día de clase, los niños deben traer su abecedario (On the first day of school, children need to bring their spelling books).
No sabes el abecedario de la computación (You don’t know the first thing about computing).
As you can see, abecedario can serve wherever the word ABCs goes in English. Speaking of ABCs, if it’s the basics of something you’re discussing, abecé could be an even better fit. goes without saying abecé derives from abecedario and uses the same three letters the latter does.
Pongan atención y aprendan el abecé (Pay attention and learn your basics).
7. To Alphabetize Is Not Always Alfabetizar
To alphabetize is a verb and so is alfabetizar. To alphabetize derives from alphabet, alfabetizar from alfabeto. And yet the two verbs don’t quite mean the same thing. This is almost a classic example of what linguists refer to as false cognates.
Notice I use the word almost there? That’s because alfabetizar can mean to alphabetize at times although that’s a less common translation. To alphabetize is to arrange something alphabetically. Alfabetizar is that, too. But more commonly, alfabetizar is to teach how to read and write. In other words, to make literate. Sounds pretty intuitive if you ask me.
So if teaching is alfabetizar, can you guess what literacy might be? Just like possess gives us possession, alfabetizar gives us alfabetización. That’s the word for literacy in Spanish. Again, mighty intuitive in my views. Extrapolating further, literacy rate becomes índice de alfabetización. Other fun derivatives include alfabetizado (literate) and alfabetizadora (literacy tutor).
8. It Wasn’t Always Latin
That’s right, they didn’t always write Spanish in the Roman script, i.e., using the Spanish alphabet. Remember, the Muslims ruled Spain for a good 800 years. These Muslims, more specifically the Moors, spoke Arabic. When two completely unrelated tongues meet, funny things happen. It was the same with Spanish and Arabic. This affected both languages.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, they wrote Spanish in the Arabic script! As they did some other Romance languages, such as Portuguese and Ladino. Hard to believe, right? They even have a name for this kind of funny Spanish: Aljamiado. The idea originated out of necessity.
The Moors had, for all intents and purposes, lost their hold on Iberia by the end of the 15th century. The new Catholic rulers needed to do everything in their capacity to ensure Islam doesn’t raise its head again. One of those measures was to ban Arabic from all aspects of daily life. With their language banned, the moriscos (Moors) had no option but to write in Spanish.
But since they couldn’t possibly learn to write the completely alien Spanish alphabet overnight, the King issued a royal decree in 1567 giving the Moors three years to learn the Christian way of doing things, including the Spanish alphabet. During these three years, they were free to use the script of their choice after which they must stick to Latin. This led to the unique situation where they were writing Spanish text in the Arabic script, the Aljamiado. We learned about Aljamiado literature only around the beginning of the nineteenth century. You can find some of it in the form of scrolls at the Spanish National Library in Madrid. It’s a fascinating yet integral aspect of Spain’s past very few know about.
9. WYSIWYG Spanish
Alright, don’t go looking for this one in the dictionary. I just invented the expression. A more official name for it is Bello or Chilean orthography. This refers to a set of reforms to the Spanish orthography a Venezuelan linguist named Andrés Bello proposed in 1823. He and the Colombian-Mexican writer Juan García del Río, that is. These were radical attempts to make Spanish more elegant. By elegant, I mean closing the gap between what you read and what you pronounce. Let’s take a look at some of what these proposals involved:
- Use i instead of y when the latter acts as a vowel, e.g., rei for rey (king) or i for y (and).
- Use j instead of g when the latter pairs with e or i, e.g., jinebra for ginebra (gin) or jerente for gerente (manager).
- Get rid of silent letters as they serve no purpose, e.g., ombre for hombre (man) or qeso for queso (cheese).
- Use z instead of c when the latter pairs with e or i, e.g., zerdo for cerdo (pig) or zena for cena (dinner).
- Use q instead of c when the latter carries the pronunciation of /k/, e.g., qamino for camino (road) or qasa for casa (house).
Now before you dismiss this move as quixotic, do know that Chile did adopt at least some of these recommendations for a few years. That was in 1844. Over the next few years, what Chile did also spread to some other Latin American countries – Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. By the 1920s, though, the fad had ended and Latin American Spanish returned to what RAE prescribes. But half a century is still a good enough run for something this radical when it comes to a mainstream language.
10. The Story of the Strange Ñ
Notice that little worm over n in the letter ñ? It’s called a tilde. Like most stories in the context of Spanish alphabet, this one goes back to the Roman times. Those days they spoke Latin, the source of all Romance tongues including Spanish. Many words in Latin involved two n’s. Think words like annvs (year) and canna (reed). Over time, this doubling of letters started feeling a bit too redundant to many Latin scribes, especially by the time Latin had become medieval Latin.
A simple solution was to write the two n’s one on top of the other. The one below looked like a normal n but the one above started getting smaller and smaller until it looked more like a worm than a letter. Look closely and you can still see a faint resemblance. Before Spanish was formalized, this worm went by the name virgulilla. In Spanish, the name became tilde. That’s how annvs (Latin didn’t have the letter u) became año and canna became caña. See how etymology can help you learn new words?
So what do you think? Have I intrigued you enough? There’s always something intriguing about a language with a history as long as that of Spanish. The Spanish alphabet has evolved over centuries to look like what it does today. The story goes back not centuries but millennia. The Hispanics got it from the Romans, the Romans from the Greeks, the Greeks from the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians from the Sumerians, and so on. With a heritage like that, how could the Spanish alphabet not evoke all this curiosity?
The more you investigate, the more surprises you stumble upon. I am sure you can teach me a thing or two about it as well. And if you can, let’s catch up in a comment below. Learning new things is a never-ending endeavor, especially when it comes to languages.