Tag Archives: Academia

Spanish vs. French accent marks

When my students complain about “all those accent marks” in Spanish, I tell them that matters could be far worse. They could be studying French.

Consider the French phrase fête d’élèves (“student party”). This simple phrase illustrates four substantial differences in how French and Spanish use accent marks:

  1. The French phrase has three different accent marks: acute (é), grave (è), and circumflex (ê). Spanish only has one: acute.
  2. The word élèves has two accented vowels (even more are possible, as in répété “repeated”). Spanish allows only one per word.
  3. The French accent marks affect the pronunciation of individual letters: the é sounds roughly like ai in English bait, the ê and è like e in English bet, and the unaccented e‘s are silent. This never happens in Spanish.
  4. The circumflex accent in fête serves as a mini-lesson in the history of the word, memorializing the loss of an s from Latin festus (compare Spanish fiesta). Every Spanish accent mark has a contemporary purpose. In fact, the Spanish language Academy periodically purges accent marks that it considers passé. For example, it recently eliminated the accent on the word o  (meaning “or”) when it appears between two numbers, as in 8 ó 9 (now 8 o 9). Previously, it was thought that the accent would prevent this phrase from being misread as 809, but since most written Spanish these days is typeset, not hand-written, misreadings are no longer an active concern.

In fact, the only thing that French and Spanish accent marks have in common is that they are only found on vowels. Not that our more creative students don’t try putting them on consonants from time to time…

Any decent textbook or review book [Update: or this later postwill explain why Spanish does use accents: basically, to highlight stress that is unusual because it:

  1. breaks the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence (e.g. día vs. diablo);
  2. breaks the normal rules for which vowel to stress within a word (e.g. teléfono vs. necesito).
  3. marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that is usually more important to the meaning of a sentence, like vs. si in , vendré si puedoYes, I’ll come if I can.” If one of the two words can stand alone in a sentence, it’ll be this one.

For the punctuation fanatic, the ultimate read is the Academy’s  current spelling guide, or Ortografía, which devotes fully 65 pages (!!!) to the topic. 

No se habla español – Spanish not spoken here

Living in the United States at a time when Spanish is increasingly ascendant — as of 2007, 12% of Americans aged 5 or older spoke Spanish at home — it’s easy to forget that Spanish has actually lost ground dramatically, here and elsewhere, since its zenith during the Age of Exploration. Much of the United States, after all, is former Spanish territory: the Louisiana Territory and large parts of the West, Southwest, and Southeast. Elsewhere in the Americas, Spain used to control Jamaica, Trinidad, and Belize. All three are now officialy English-speaking, although Spanish is still the predominant spoken language in Belize.

[As an aside, can anyone explain why English, the official language of Belize, is its fourth most spoken language? According to the CIA World Factbook less than 4% of the population speaks English, compared to 46% for Spanish, 33% for Creole, and 9% for various Mayan dialects.]

The Philippines haven’t been Spanish since the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Spanish influence lingers in Filipino place names (Manila, San Juan, etc.) and last names, and the country has its own branch of the Spanish language Academia. However, Spanish has completely vanished as a spoken language in favor of Filipino (Tagalog) and, again, English.

While Spanish retains some presence in Africa, it is no longer spoken in Western Sahara, nor in Morocco outside of Ceuta and Melilla.

All the above doesn’t change the fact that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, behind Chinese and ahead of English. But it’s a reminder that nothing is permanent: empires crumble and languages fade. Just not yet.


Puerto Rican r

[This is the English version of an earlier post in Spanish (in celebration of “Spanish Friday”).]

I’ve previously written about several aspects of the Spanish r sound: its pronunciation and linguistic identifyits origin, and the difficulties that some adults (and many kids) have pronouncing it. Today we’ll consider a dialectal variation, the r of Puerto Rico.

In parts of Puerto Rico, it’s common to hear a French-style, back-of-the tongue, unusually long r in place of the normal Spanish trill. Puerto Ricans see this pronunciation as a distinctive marker of island identity, and therefore a source of either shame or pride — or both. Author Magali García Ramis described this love/hate relationship in her essay “My Father’s R”. This was her inaugural lecture when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española in 2009, and is also the title essay of her 2011 book:


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La erre de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican r)

En celebración de “Spanish Friday” este aporte es en español. [In celebration of “Spanish Friday”, this post is in Spanish (English translation will be posted separately)].

Les presento hoy un aporte más sobre la erre española. Ya colgué un aporte sobre su pronunciación e identidad, uno sobre su origen latino, y uno sobre las dificultades que tienen unas personas pronunciándola. Hoy consideramos una variación dialectal, la erre de Puerto Rico.

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Whence Spanish ¡ and ¿

¡I love the Spanish upside-down exclamation and question marks! ¿Don’t you?

I’m serious. In fact, when taking notes or otherwise writing by hand (pretty rare these days), I use ¡ and ¿ in my English. Both marks give the reader a useful heads-up that a text is about to depart from simple declarative prose. It’s surprising that ¡ and ¿ haven’t caught on beyond Spanish — not even in Catalan or Portuguese.

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