Category Archives: Sounds

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.


Pity the Spanish speaker who can’t roll his r’s

In two excruciating posts (here and here), Madrid blogger Andrés Adrover Kvamsdal described his months-long quest to master his native language’s trilled r sound, a journey that involved surgery followed by months of daily speech therapy. It’s clear from the responses to these posts that Sr. Adrover isn’t alone.

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An /r/ is an /r/ is an /r/

If you speak Spanish, then you probably already know that it has two r sounds: the trill of carro “cart, car” and the light flap or tap of caro “expensive”. In both sounds, the tip of the tongue makes light contact with the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. In the trill, the tongue vibrates–at an average speed of 25 vibrations per second!–as air passes forcefully though the mouth. The flap is similar to the American English pronunciation of d as in rider. In fact, I’ve taught native Spanish speakers who misspell it as d.

You can see animations of both r types here; click on “vibrantes”.

Although both the trill and the flap seem exotic to English speakers, they are much more common world-wide than the gliding English r. This is one of the many cases where something that appears unusual about Spanish turns out to be something unusual about English. (Perhaps commenters will suggest more examples?) It’s also fairly common for languages to have two or more sounds.

What fascinates linguists about r, in Spanish and elsewhere, is the simple fact that it has so many variations. Every other sound is defined by where and how it’s pronounced. But r can be articulated either in the front of the mouth (as in Spanish), in the back (Hebrew, French, German), or in between (English). The tongue’s movement in making the sound also varies, including trills, flap, and glides. This heterogeneity makes a most curious critter!

For this reason, linguists generally define r—and only r—as a group of sounds that play a recognizable role in language regardless of their specific articulation. For example, any version of r can act as a buffer between a vowel and another consonant, as in both the Spanish and English versions of the phrase truco de cartas “card trick.” Members of the r group are also interconnected in language evolution, borrowing, and learning. Thus the front-of-the-mouth of Latin real evolved into the back-of-the-mouth trill of French reel, which was borrowed into English as the mid-mouth glide of real, which interferes when English-speaking students try to pronounce the front-of-the-mouth trill of Spanish real. An r is an r is an r.