Spanish vowels vs. English vowels

Spanish and English each have five vowel letters, but the resemblance stops there.

English uses the five letters aeiou to make 12 distinct vowel sounds — those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the second (unstressed) syllable of chocolate. Of course, some of these vowels merge in some dialects of English, like the vowels of cot and caughtpin and pen, or Marymerry, and marry. [I feel quite smug about having all 12 English vowels in my own pronunciation.]

Spanish, however, has only five vowel sounds, one per vowel letter, as heard in para “for,” pera “pear,” pira “pyre,” pora “leek,” and pura “pure.” (These roughly correspond to the five vowels of bot, bait, beet, boat, and boot.)  In fact, a few words in Spanish manage to use all five vowels. My favorite examples in this group are abuelito “grandfather” and murciélago “bat.” You can find some more here.

[Can any one provide other contexts (besides pVra) that fit all five Spanish vowels? Or other words that use all five (besides the ones in the link)? Edit: see Daniel’s comment!]

When Spanish and English differ, Spanish usually turns out to be normal, and English weird. (My favorite examples are noun gender, capitalization, and multiple words for “you”.) This is again the case when it comes to vowels. Here’s some cross-linguistic data on vowel inventories, borrowed from the marvelous World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online, to back this up:

  • Small vowel inventory (2-4 vowels): 93 languages
  • Average vowel inventory (5-6 vowels): 288 languages
  • Large vowel inventory (7-14 vowels): 183 languages [German wins!]

With 12 vowels, English is indeed an outlier.

In fact, if we were to take a closer look at which 5 vowels Spanish uses, it would become even clearer exactly how normal Spanish is. But that’s a matter for another post.

 

14 thoughts on “Spanish vowels vs. English vowels

    1. jhochberg Post author

      The only five vowels that appear in Spanish words are the ones heard in beet, bait, bot, boat, and boot. Spanish words with these vowels are para “for,” pera “pear,” pira “pyre,” pora “leek,” and pura “pure.” (I copied this from the original post.) Hope this helps.

      Reply
      1. arman

        Bait is a dipthong. The vowel in the word “bet” is a better example or pet. If you say the word “pero” properly in spanish and then say “pet” you will see it is the same vowel. Also, “boat” is a dipthong and a dipthong is two vowel sounds. I would say the “o” sound in spanish is more like “law” or “saw” in english.

        Reply
      2. arman

        Also sorry but I also wouldn’t say “bot” for the “a” vowel because “a” is actually farther back than the “a” vowel in “bot”. I would say the example you gave above “butt” is correct pronunciation of the “a” vowel in spanish.

        For example, say “butt” then say “basta!” in Spanish which means “enough!”. if you are pronouncing “basta!” correctly it will sound like the vowel in “butt”

        Reply
        1. jhochberg Post author

          Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Obviously many of the Spanish and English vowels are different in quality, for example the diphthongization normal in English vowels. However, the sounds are close enough that they make the point. Also, I suspect that you and I have some dialectal differences. I am talking about standard American English (I live in New York but lack a regional accent). What about you? For example, the vowel in butt in my accent is nothing like the vowels of basta; likewise, the vowel of law is nothing like a Spanish /o/. (For one thing, my vowel in law is highly diphthongized!) My essential point is that English has many more vowels than Spanish does, and I hope we agree on this.

          Reply
          1. arman

            Yes this is true. All english accents are different but the word “law” in American english as a standard is not a dipthong according to this:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c97xwLdSsXU

            Also please look here at the IPA symbols:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPA_vowel_chart_with_audio

            So the “a” on the bottom left of the chart is the “a” that sounds most like the spanish “a” in “basta!” but some might say it is more in the middle. In fact Wikipedias page on SPanish phonology does have the spanish vowel sound in the middle but I don’t think it sounds right. When you pronounce “bot” what vowel in this chart do you use?

          2. jhochberg Post author

            Arman: again, thank you for your thoughtful comments, but my strong suit (such as it is) is really phonology (and morphology) rather than phonetics. That is, I’m much more interested in the inventory of Spanish sounds (as compared to English) rather than their exact identity. To be honest, my ear isn’t good enough (or I’m too rusty) to say which vowel on the chart corresponds to my ‘bot’. So I will have to pass on giving a specific reply to your comment, but I do hope you continue to read my blog.

  1. AdamP

    Hi there. I just discovered your great website today. 😀 Great stuff.

    On reading the list of 12 english vowel sounds, I thought… Oh, hang on – where’s ‘ah’ as in ‘father’?! Then realized you must be estadounidense and by ‘bot’ mean ‘baht’. So..you don’t have an ‘o’ sound in your list. (Hmm does that mean non-U.S. English has 13 vowels?) Sigh. You’re smug about..what? It’s sadly very common for estadounidenses to act as if USA=World. Your language, unintentionally I suppose, is rather unpleasantly..imperialistic. “Strangely parochial” maybe a nicer way of putting it. Maybe I missed the page where you say “On this website when I say “English” I mean “U.S. English” “.

    Sorry, I guess this has been discussed extensively on this site and elsewhere. 🙂 It just makes what you say not true a lot of the time. “English uses..” when i suppose you mean “US English”. It would be like saying “In Spanish, “z” is pronounced “th” “. Well, no. Not by most speakers of the language.

    I have been engaged with a Spanish friend for a year or 2 in teaching each other our languages, and I usually have to, in explaining English pronunciation, explain the U.S. way and then the Rest-of-the-world way. Same with spelling. I didn’t realize the difference is so huge, and uniformly US vs Rest of world, before I started doing that. I’m in Australia, and am very careful to not teach things as ‘English’ that are just Australian, or just regional, and I research if I’m not sure. I’m not expert on the pot vs paht subject, but NZ, India, South African etc etc English say ‘pot’ (and UK too of course) – probably everywhere except US and nearby territories. Maybe Mexican and Canadian English speakers saying ‘paht’ too makes estadounidenses think everyone does that?

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      AdamP, thank you for visiting my blog and writing. My wonderful son-in-law is Australian so I am always happy to “meet” someone from your country. Yes, I am estadounidense, from New York but speaking standard American English without a marked New York accent. You’re right that I could be more careful about saying US English instead of just English. However, since my URL is spanishlinguist.us perhaps I felt that the identification was “baked in”! When I say that I’m smug about my vowels, I am comparing myself to other American speakers who have mergers like cot/caught, pin/pen, or Mary/merry/marry.

      I suppose that not being a linguist of English I don’t think as much about our dialects as I do Spanish dialects. In fact I’m not even 100% sure I understand what you meant about my not having an English /o/ sound on my list. This would be be the /o/ of boat, no?

      Reply

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