Double consonants in Spanish

[An observant reader pointed out that this post includes double vowels as well as double consonants. I really should have entitled the post “Double letters in Spanish” — but now it is, methinks, too late! I had consonants on the mind because the trigger for this post was coming across the word sabbat.]

If I had a dime for every time I crossed out an extra l from a student’s spelling of inteligente…well, I’d have a lot of dimes. Same for an extra l in mochila (undoubtedly influenced by English words like Godzilla and gorilla), or an extra s in profesora. Add in a few nickel penalties for students who pronounce leer like (King) Lear, and I could treat myself to lots of Starbucks.

These spelling and pronunciation errors are both triggered by a significant difference between Spanish and English spelling: in Spanish, almost every letter is pronounced. (Notable exceptions include the silent h (as in hola) and the u seen in quiquegui, and gue sequences, as in quisoquesoguiso, and guerra.) This means that inteligente and mochila only need one l to represent the spoken /l/ sound, profesora only needs one s, and the two e‘s of leer must be pronounced individually. Double oo‘s exist also, as in cooperación, and again both vowels are pronounced.

This rule also explains why Spanish spelling preserves the double nn in words like perenneconnotar, and innato. According to the Real Academia Española (RAE) these words are pronounced with a long n. While some native speakers I’ve checked with say that they pronounce nn words as if they had a single n, you can certainly hear long pronunciations: for example, here.

My (2010) edition of the RAE’s Ortografía de la lengua española also refers to double bb‘s. I had never heard of this combination until I opened the book to check up on the nn words. Moreover, the RAE’s three examples — subbéticosubbloque, and subboreal (see below) — are so obscure that they aren’t even listed in the RAE dictionary! (This tickles my funny bone.) So I’m not going to lose any sleep over them.

Also in keeping with this rule, Spanish simplifies most double letters in loanwords; the Ortografía gives the examples of driblar (from dribble), chófer (from chauffeur), and zigurat, inter alia.

Most remarkable, therefore, are the double letters that Spanish tolerates in certain loan words. Except as indicated, the following words with double letters (most from this Span¡ishDict comment) are in the RAE dictionary:

  • sabbat ‘Sabbath’
  • affaire
  • sheriff
  • reggae
  • gamma
  • zoo
  • hippie (note adjectival form jipi)
  • dossier
  • gauss
  • motocross
  • topless (spelled with ss in but with single s in the RAE dictionary)
  • vendetta
  • watt
  • jacuzzi
  • jazz
  • mozzarella
  • paparazzi
  • pizza
  • puzzle (spelled with zz in but with single z in the RAE dictionary)

We all know that Spanish spelling is phonetic, but these exceptions make it a little less so.


9 thoughts on “Double consonants in Spanish

  1. Laura

    Gracias por la lista. Con todo respeto, pero a mí me parece que “zoo” es doble vocal y no doble consonante.

  2. Jon Aske

    Spanish simplifies Latin double consonants in loanwords (cultismos), except rr, of course. Simplification of Latin consonant clusters more generally is just what Spanish has been doing for 2000 years.

    Your examples are classics. Another one is colegio.

    As you say, one of the few exceptions is in loanwords in which the two n’s were from separate morphemes, as in innato and connotar.

    The example perenne is very special because it is the only one I know of that has two n’s from the same morpheme. (It comes from the Latin adverb perenne, from the neuter form of the adjective perennis, derived of per- ‘through’ + annus ‘year’.)

    As to whether the two n’s are pronounced, I’m pretty sure that in words like innato, connotación and innovador, the two n’s are only pronounced in very “formal” registers, which is when people pay attention to pronouncing all the letters. With the more rare related verbs connotar and innovar, I think the two n’s are more likely to be pronounced. Again, because the words are not so common.

    Again, however, the exception is perenne, where I cannot imagine anybody not pronouncing both n’s. Of course that is a rather fancy word that one does not use everyday, which renders it part and parcel of the formal register.

    By the way, most of the words on that list are extranjerismos in Spanish and are expected to be written in quotes or in italics. Some do have fully adapted forms, such as motocrós, puzle, dosier.

  3. Larry

    My favorite spelling change to make a loan word conform to RAE rules forbidding a double consonant at the start of a word is ‘Espiderman’

    1. jhochberg Post author

      The issue there isn’t double consonants per se, since s and p are two different consonants. The issue is that Spanish does not allow syllables to begin with this consonant sequence, so an e is added in front in order to break up the sp cluster.

  4. Carolina!

    I believe that all double consonants are found in the name Carolina?

    My apologies if the accents are off — this keyboard is set to Portuguese.

    Acción, Llamar, perro, and you have the double “n,” there.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *