Tag Archives: Spanish spelling

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 WordReference.com but with single s in the RAE dictionary)
  • vendetta
  • watt
  • jacuzzi
  • jazz
  • mozzarella
  • paparazzi
  • pizza
  • puzzle (spelled with zz in WordReference.com 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.


Grading Spanish AP tests in Cincinnati

Last month I was among the hundreds of high school and college Spanish instructors who convened in Cincinnati, Ohio to grade Spanish Advanced Placement (AP) tests. [AP tests are a way for U.S. high school students to earn college credit and/or impress the colleges they apply to.] Half the test is multiple choice and is machine-graded. The rest of the test — two speaking tasks and two writing tasks — is graded by humans. I was on the team that graded the writing tasks.

I hadn’t seen an AP Spanish test since I took one as a high school senior! Since then, the test, and its corresponding high school classes, have been divided into two: Spanish Language and Culture, and Spanish Literature. My colleagues and I were in Cincinnati to grade Spanish Language and Culture; the Spanish Literature exam was graded earlier in the month. We were in Cincinnati along with graders for the other Language and Culture tests — Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Japanese — and, oddly, Music Theory. This all took place at the gigantic and soulless Duke Energy Center in downtown Cincinnati.

I applied to be an AP grader a few years ago because my best friend had told me that her own work as an AP economics grader had been a great way to meet colleagues from around the country, and was also a lot of fun. This was the first year the timing worked out for me to participate, and I have to say that my friend was right. According to our orientation, our group included educators from all fifty states, and Spanish speakers from every Spanish-speaking country. It was great to get to know some of them. And the work itself was fascinating.

You don’t sign up for something like this unless you really like grading. I certainly do: it’s always interesting to see what students get right and wrong, and to get a glimpse of their thinking. This experience was, of course, very different from grading my own students’ papers. The main difference was volume. In my own teaching I never have to grade than a couple of dozen papers at a time, or for more than a few hours at a time. In Cincinnati we graded hundreds of papers, working from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm for seven days in a row. Even with morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, it was hard to keep up one’s energy and attention. It helped that there were no distractions, and that a strong esprit de corps reigned in our giant grading room (Exhibit Hall A). Keeping the good of the test-takers in mind, we aimed to grade the last essay of the day as carefully as the first.

Another difference was that we weren’t grading our own students’ work. It felt strange to be reading essays with a completely blank slate instead of knowing who the students were. This made for a more objective review, however, and is one reason why AP tests are graded centrally instead of by each student’s teacher. it also meant that grading was a single, unidirectional event instead of part of an interactive process. Normally I grade with red pen in hand, pointing out different types of errors for students to fix in a second draft. As an AP grader I wasn’t allowed to annotate the essays I read, or to make notes, even for my own benefit.

A final difference was the type of Spanish in the essays. Most of my students speak English as a first language, and I’m used to reading essays with this population’s typical errors. In contrast, many — or most (65%), according to Wikipedia — AP Spanish test takers are native Spanish speakers. A good fraction of these have not fully mastered the ins and outs of Spanish spelling, despite a year or more of formal study of their language. This means that these essays had a different set of errors: those of someone who has learned Spanish by ear. Typical errors were missing or misapplied accent marks, missing or overused silent h, the substitution of d for r (e.g. pedo for pero ‘but’), and the confusion of ll and y and likewise b and v. (See this earlier blog post for historical examples of the same errors.) I was amazed to see that two students even misspelled the ubiquitous word yo ‘I’ as llo.

The good folks from the College Board did a phenomenal job administering the grading process. This involved recruiting, transporting, housing, and feeding the graders; keeping track of the exam papers; and — most importantly — training the graders so that our scores were calibrated. We spent hours learning how to grade each of the two writing tasks, following a detailed rubric, and had refresher training sessions after each break. Each table of seven graders had a head grader who answered our questions and spot-checked our work. As far as I could see, colleges evaluating AP test results should feel confident that the scores are reliable.

One night during the week was “Professional Night”, and my poster on “Bringing linguistics into the foreign language classroom” (see below) was accepted for the night’s mini-conference. It was well received, and I sold the few spare copies of my book that I had with me. Hooray!

A technical note: I made the poster as a single PowerPoint slide, sized to 4 x 3″, and used “Export PDF” (under the “File” menu) to create the image.


Más allá de [beyond] car/gar/zar

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Todos conocemos (o debemos conocer) los cambios ortográficos que sufren los verbos que terminan en ‑car, ‑gar, y ‑zar. Por ejemplo escribimos saquéjugué, y almorcé en vez de conservar los letras originales (cg, y z). Para el cambio de cqu y el de gqu hay un buen motivo: conservar el sonido original (/k/ o /g/). Para el cambio de zsolo hay el motivo conservador de no usar la letra z antes de e. Es por eso que el español pidió prestado la palabra italiana zero como cero.

El español tiene un montón de otros tales cambios ortográficos. Recientemente reuní una lista de ellos. Aquí están en toda su gloria. No incluí los cambios de ‑car, ‑gar, y ‑zar por ser demasiado conocidos.

cambios ortográficos

Es importante tener en cuenta que estos cambios solo afectan la ortografía, no la pronunciación. Ni se deben considerar irregularidades, porque son predecibles. Es decir que cualquier palabra con tal ortografía sufriría el mismo cambio.


All of us are (or should be) aware of the spelling changes that afflict verbs that end in ‑car, ‑gar, and ‑zar. For example, we write saquéjugué, y almorcé instead of keeping the original consonants (cg, y z). There’s a solid motive for the changes of c to qu and of g to qu: to keep the original sound (/k/ or /g/). The only reason for the change of z to z is the spelling rule that prohibits z before e (this is why Spanish borrowed the Italian word (zero as cero).

Spanish has an impressive quantity of other such spelling changes. I recently made a list of all of them to share with you in their orthographic glory. I didn’t include the ‑car, ‑gar, and ‑zar changes themselves because they’re too well known.

cambios ortográficos en

It’s important to keep in mind that these changes only affect spelling, not pronunciation. Nor should they be considered irregularities, because they’re predictable. That is, any word spelled like these would undergo the same changes.



¿Es fonética la ortografía española? – Is Spanish spelling phonetic?

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

La sencillez de la ortografía española es una razón por la cual la mayoría de los estudiantes estadounidenses eligen estudiar este idioma en vez de uno cuya ortografía sea más complicada, como el francés, por no hablar del chino ni del árabe.

Pero — ¿cuán fonética es la ortografía española?

Cuando decimos que un sistema de ortografía es “fonético”, de verdad queremos decir dos cosas al mismo tiempo: que cada palabra se pronuncia como se escribe, y que cada palabra se escribe como se pronuncia. El español es completamente fonético en cuanto al primero, y mayormente fonético en cuanto al segundo.

Cada palabra española se pronuncia como se escribe. En inglés tenemos palabras como read por las cuales nos hace falta tener en cuenta el contexto para destacar entre las pronunciaciones red y reed. Tales casos no existen en español.

Cada vocal española se escribe como se pronuncia. El español tiene cinco vocales que se escriben con sendas letras correspondientes.

Cada acento escrito español sigue las reglasNunca hay que adivinar si una palabra debe llevar un acento escrito (qué o que, examen vs. exámenes, etc.). Si sabes las reglas de la acentuación, no cabrá duda.

Unas consonantes tienen dos escrituras posibles. Es por esas consonantes que no podemos decir que la ortografía española sea completamente fonética. Irónicamente, en general la escritura de estas consonantes causa más problemas para los nativos, quienes aprenden la pronunciación antes de la escritura, que para los estudiantes del español como segundo idioma, quienes suelen conocer la forma escrita de una palabra al mismo tiempo (o antes de) que la oyen por primera vez.

  • Las letras bv se pronuncian de la misma manera. Hay que aprender de memoria que bueno no se escribe vueno y que avión no se escribe abión.
  • El sonido /x/ se escribe con gj. Hay que aprender que jefe no se escribe gefe, ni gemelojemelo.
  • La letra h no se pronuncia. Hay que aprender que honra no se escribe onra, ni abrirhabrir.
  • Para nosotros que vivimos en latinoamérica, la z y la c (antes de ie) se pronuncian como s. Tenemos que aprender que zapato no se escribe sapato; ni saberzaber; ni cinesine; y ni , cé. Los españoles tienen una ventaja aquí porque su c se pronuncian como el th inglés.
  • Igualmente, para los latinoamericanos la letra x y las letras cc se pronuncian de la misma manera. Tenemos que aprender que conexión no se escribe conección, ni correccióncorrexión.
  • En la mayoría del mundo hispanohablante la letra y y el dígrafo ll se pronuncian de la misma manera. Hay que aprender que llave no se escribe yave, ni El YunqueEl Llunque.

¿Una llorosa en El Yunque, o una yorosa en El Llunque?

Además de estas pocas molestias gozamos de un sistema regular, y, a mi parecer, lindísimo.


The simplicity of Spanish spelling is one reason why the majority of American students choose to study Spanish instead of a language with more complicated spelling, like French, not to mention Chinese or Arabic.

But — how phonetic is Spanish spelling?

When we say that a spelling system is “phonetic”, we really mean two things at the same time: that each word is pronounced the way it’s written, and written the way it’s pronounced. Spanish is completely phonetic in the first regard, and mostly in the second.

The spelling of every Spanish word completely determines its pronunciation. In English we have to look at a word’s context to determine, for example, whether read is pronounced like red or like reed. There are no such cases in Spanish.

Every Spanish vowel is written the way it’s pronounced. Each of the five vowels of Spanish is spelled with its corresponding letter. [Check out the tricky/elegant adjective sendas in the Spanish version of this bullet!!!] 

Spanish accents follow the rules. You should never have to guess whether a Spanish word has an accent mark (qué or queexamen vs. exámenes, etc.). If you know the rules for using accents, there’s no room for doubt.

Some consonants have two possible spellings. These consonants are the reason why we can’t say that Spanish spelling isn’t completely phonetic. Ironically, these spelling issues are more of a headache for native speakers than for students of Spanish as a second language, who usually learn the written form of a word at the same time (or before) they hear it pronounced.

  • The letters b and v are pronounced the same. One must memorize that bueno isn’t spelled vueno and that avión isn’t spelled abión.
  • The sound /x/ can be spelled g or j. One must memorize that jefe isn’t spelled gefe, nor gemelojemelo.
  • The letter h is silent. One must memorize that honra isn’t spelled onra, nor abrirhabrir.
  • For those of us who live in Latin America, the letters z and c (the latter before i and e) are pronounced just like s. We have to memorize that zapato isn’t spelled sapato; nor saberzaber; nor cinesine; nor . Spaniards have an advantage here because their z and c are pronounced with a th.
  • By the same token, Latin Americans pronounce the letter x and the combination cc identically. We have to memorize that conexión isn’t spelled conección, nor correccióncorrexión.
  • In most of the Spanish-speaking world, y and ll are pronounced the same. One must memorize that llave isn’t written yave, nor El YunqueEl Llunque.

Barring these few exceptions we can take pleasure in a spelling system that is regular and, to my eyes, lovely.


Quixote y Quijote

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Comentando sobre mi aporte de ayer sobre las palabras escritas con xión y cción, Susan me pidió que explicara la diferencia entre xj, y específicamente el caso de Quixote versus Quijote.

Encontré la respuesta fácilmente en mi ejemplar confiable de la Ortografía de la Real Academia. Una sección corta del libro ( aborda el tema. Aquí la abrevio y parafraseo:

Hasta principios del siglo XIX, el sonido de j o g (antes de e o i) podía ser también representado con x. Así, eran normales grafías con x como embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. En 1815, la Real Academia decidió eliminar el uso de la x con este valor fónico. Sin embargo, quedan algunos restos del antiguo valor de la x en ciertos topónimos y antropónimos como México, Oaxaca, Texas, el nombre de pila Ximena y los apellidos Ximénez y Mexía…En el caso de México y sus derivados, las grafías con j eran usuales hasta no hace mucho en España, donde se han impuesto también las grafías con x, que resultan preferibles por ser las usadas en el propio país y, mayoritariamente, en el resto de Hispanoamérica.

En el caso de Quijote/Quixote, la ortografía moderna oficial usa la j. La representación con la x es antigua, notablemente en la primera edición:


In a comment on yesterday’s post about words ending in xión and cción, Susan asked me to explain the difference between x and j, especially as regards the case of Quixote vs. Quijote.

My trusty copy of the Real Academia’s Ortografía provided an instant answer. A short section of the book ( addresses the topic. Here’s a rough translation/condensation:

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the sound of j or g (before e/i) could also be represented with x. So, it was normal to see spellings like embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. that are written with a j today. In 1815, the Real Academia decided to eliminate this use of x…Nevertheless, some traces remain of the former use of x in certain place names like México, Oaxaca, or Texas, and people-names (“antropónimas”) like the first name Ximena and last names Ximénez or Mexía…In the case of ‘México’ and its derived forms, spellings with j were common until recently in Spain, where… the x spellings have since prevailed because they’re the ones used in their own country and, for the most part, in the rest of Latin America.

In the case of Quijote/Quixote, the “official” spelling is j. The version with x is old-fashioned, and was used notably in the first edition, pictured above.

Conexión and corrección

I love the Spanish spelling of conexión. The x is somehow very elegant. But I’ve occasionally wondered why the word isn’t spelled conección, with a cc as in corrección. I looked into this question recently and the answer is very simple. In fact, there are two simple answers.

First, the spelling difference reflects the proper Castilian Spanish pronunciation of x versus cc. The letter x between two vowels (conexión, examen, etc.) is pronounced ks. The letter sequence cc as in corrección is pronounced kth, since th is the Castilian pronunciation of c before i. Two spellings, two pronunciations, fair and square.

Second, the spelling difference respects etymology. Spanish words ending in –xión had an x in Latin, too: conexión comes from connexĭōn(is), reflexión from reflexĭōn(is), and so on. Spanish words ending in –cción had a ct in Latin: corrección from correctĭōn(is)acción from actĭōn(is)inyección from iniectĭōn(is), and so on.

The cc words, by the way, greatly outnumber the x words. The latter include only the following (based on various google searches — I need a reverse Spanish dictionary!):

  • anexión
  • complexión
  • conexión etc. (desconexión, inconexión, interconexión, reconexión)
  • crucifixión, transfixión
  • flexión etc. (reflexión, inflexión, irreflexión, genuflexión)
  • fluxión

It’s interesting that English — especially American English — has moved many of the x words into the cc group, which we spell with the original ct (e.g. connection). In fact, the British “look” of the x is probably what makes Spanish conexión appear elegant to my American eyes. We’ve likewise adapted the various words derived from flexion (reflection, genuflection, and inflection), though not, mysteriously, the word flexion itself. Complexion and crucifixion are probably the most commonly used xion holdouts in American English.

So, this post is one for your X-files!