Tag Archives: writing

El contraste b/v — Spanish words with b or v

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

En español las letras b y v tienen la misma pronunciación, una situación que les molesta a hispanohablantes y a estudiantes de español. Es difícil argumentar a favor de la retención de las dos letras distintas porque hay pocas palabras para las cuales les importa la diferencia. Conozco los siguientes “pares mínimos” (un término que normalmente se aplica a los sonidos, no a la escritura):

  • baca vs. vaca
  • bacilo vs. vacilo
  • bate vs. vate
  • bello vs. vello
  • botar vs. votar

¿Conocen Uds. otros?


In Spanish, the letters b and v have the same pronunciation, a situation that causes problems for both Spanish speakers and Spanish students. It’s hard to argue in favor of keeping both letters in the alphabet because there are few words where the difference matters. I’m aware of the following “minimal pairs” (a term usually used for differences in pronunciation, not spelling):

  • baca “automobile roof-rack” vs. vaca “cow”
  • bacilo “bacillus” vs. vacilo “I vacillate”
  • bate “[baseball] bat, he/she/you beats” vs. vate “bard, poet”
  • bello “beautiful” vs. vello “down, fuzz”
  • botar “to throw” vs. votar “to vote”

Do you know any others?

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.

Continue reading

Whence the Spanish tilde

El CidIn a previous post, I explained that Latin’s long nn turned into the ñ sound of Spanish, which resembles the ni in onion. For example, Latin annus “year” became Spanish año. This development is also the source of the letter ñ itselfThe squiggly tilde ~ over the n started as a shorthand form of the letter n, so that ñ stood for a double n, i.e. n over n. Once the symbol was established, it came to be used for instances of the ñ sound that had other origins, including:

  • n before i or e (Hispania > España, aranea > araña “spider”)
  • n after g (signalis > señal “sign”)
  • mn (damnum > daño “harm”)

The ñ was already in use by medieval times. In fact, you can see it in the earliest known example of written Spanish, a 14th-century transcription (in Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional) of the oral epic poem El Cid. In the excerpt above, from the first page of the poem, there’s a visible tilde in the word señor, the third word in the last line.