In Spanish, consonants are almost never doubled. For example, only the letter f is used to get the f sound in Spanish. Therefore, there is no difficulty in spelling professor. Can you remember whether it's a double f or s in English? And did you even consider that the spelling in English could have been a ph instead of f or ff?
However, there are four exceptions to the double‐consonant rule: ll, rr, cc, and in rare cases, nn. Ll is an actual letter, the fourteenth letter of the Spanish alphabet since 1803. Ll is pronounced like the consonant y in Yerba. In some countries, the ll sounds like a combination of the sound of sh and the letter j in English. A single l sounds like the letter l you hear in English and Spanish words. Rr is not a letter but rather a double rintended to elicit the rolling sound that is difficult for many who are learning Spanish as a second language. You are supposed to roll your tongue for one r if it is the first letter of the word, and you should also roll your tongue whenever you see the letter rr within a word. This accounts for a spelling change sometimes when two words become one. For example, in the name of the island Puerto Rico, the r is rolled because it is the first letter of a word. The adjective for a native, Puertorriqueño, is only one word, so the rr is used to produce the rolling r and maintain the pronunciation.
The third occasion where you will see a double consonant in a Spanish word is when a double c is used to produce the k or x sound as in diccionario (dictionary).
Consonant sounds and spellings
The pronunciation of Spanish consonants is easy to learn. There are many consonants that are pronounced exactly like their English equivalent, and these will not pose any problems for you. Only the consonants that can have more than one pronunciation or that are used in combinations to create a different sound are explained in the following sections. Any consonant that is not covered should be pronounced exactly like it is in English.
There are a lot of Spanish words that look similar to English words, and some are even spelled exactly the same. However these words, called cognates, are usually easier to spell in Spanish than they are in English once you learn the rules.
In Spanish, the letter p is always pronounced like the p in prince, and the Spanish never use the letter combination ph to produce the f sound. If the English word has a ph, the Spanish cognate will always use one f. For example, look at the Spanish words teléfono (telephone), elefante (elephant), and filosofía (philosophy). The letter f is the only way to produce the f sound in Spanish.
The letter c
In Spanish, there are three ways to produce the sound of the English letter k. The letter k is used for words that are originally from other languages, and it is pronounced as it is in English. The letter c is pronounced like a kwhen it is followed by an o, a, or u. However, the letter c is pronounced like an s when it is followed by an e or i. The qu combination must be used to produce the k sound in front of an e or i. A word that the English borrowed from the Spanish, mosquito, has already prepared you to pronounce qu in Spanish without any w sound. Not like quill, but rather like tequila.
The following words have a sound like k. Notice the qu = k in front of e or i, and c = k in front of o, a, or u.
The letter c is pronounced like s when it is in front of e or i, as in the following words:
To pronounce words with a double c, such as diccionario and accidente, the first c is hard because it's followed by a consonant, and the second c is soft because it's followed by an i or e.
The letter g
The letter g in Spanish has issues very much like the letter c: The pronunciation of the letter g is influenced by the letter that follows it. Whether or not you realize it, you have been following a similar rule in English. The reason the g in “goat” is pronounced differently than the g in “gem” is because in both Spanish and English, there is a hard g sound and a soft g sound. Generally, in English, a g that is followed by e or i is a soft g, and a gthat is followed by o, a, or u is a hard g. This rule is the same in Spanish and is even more consistent.
The pronunciation of the hard g is the same in both languages. The g in goma (eraser), ganar (to win, earn), or guante (glove) is exactly like “good,” “gallant,” or “gum.” Like in English, a Spanish g is soft if it is followed by an e or i. However, the soft g in Spanish sounds like the English letter h. The g in gente (people) or gitana (gypsy) sounds like the English h in “hat” or “heat.”
To keep their language's pronunciation rules consistent, the Spanish had to face the dilemma of spelling a word with a hard g sound in front of an e or i. To resolve this dilemma, the letter u is placed between the g and e or between the g and i. Since the intent of the u is to produce the hard g sound, the u itself is not pronounced. This is a rare exception to the rule that all vowels are always pronounced. You may be already familiar with the words guerrilla and guitarra. These words can serve as examples to help you avoid the urge to say the gway or gwee sound when you see g and u together.
On extremely rare occasions when the gway or gwee sound is desired, the German symbol called an umlaut (??), translated as diéresis or crema in Spanish, is used to indicate that the u should be pronounced like a wwhen it is in between a g‐i or g‐e. And, the umlaut is used only on the vowel u. Pronounce the word “bilingual,” and then say bilingüe with the same gw sound, and you'll see how the umlaut works.
The letter j
The letter j is always pronounced like the h in “hello” or “happy.” When you need to spell a word with the sound of the English h, followed by an e or i, it is difficult to predict whether to use a j or g. For example, jira andjefe are spelled with a j, and gimnasio and gema are spelled with a g. Your awareness of this difficulty should cause you to focus on whether to use a j or a g when you first learn to spell the word. It is at least certain that words with the h sound in front of o, a, or u (jo, ja, and ju) are always spelled with a j, because a g would be a hard g if it's followed by o, a or u and wouldn't produce the h sound at all.
The letter h
You may be wondering how to pronounce the Spanish letter h when you see it in a Spanish word. The answer is that you don't pronounce it at all. The letter h is always silent. It exists because of the way the language has evolved, but now‐a‐days it is not pronounced, and it seems to confuse spelling issues. There really is no way to predict when a word will begin with a silent h, so be sure to focus on the spelling of words that you learn beginning with a silent h.
The letter d
The letter d is a bit softer in Spanish. It basically sounds like an English d, but will not be stressed at the end of the word like we do in English. Say the word “made” out loud and you'll hear how the strength of the d at the end almost creates its own syllable. In Spanish, any d at the end of the word will barely be pronounced. Say Madrid without the d at the end and you'll sound like a native. Once again, the lack of double consonants makes spelling the d sound easy: It's always a single d in any Spanish word.
The letter t
Another letter that is similar to English, but softer, is the t. It is especially soft when it is followed by an r. The sound of the tr in “triple” would be more like a tl sound in Spanish. Try to say tratar (to try, to treat) without moving your tongue away from the back of your teeth. Or if you don't mind having a slight accent, say the t like in English and keep it simple. When spelling, don't forget that the t will never be doubled in Spanish words.
The letters b and v
The letters b and v sound the same in Spanish. The sound is a combination of bv. To make the sound, start out making the b sound, and slur into the v sound at the last second. When it comes to spelling words that contain a b or a v, many Spanish speakers have difficulty determining which letter to use, but since English speakers often have difficulty pronouncing the bv letter combination, it's easier to remember how to spell words correctly since vivir (to live) would be pronounced with a stronger v sound and beber (to drink) would be pronounced with a harder b sound. This pronunciation error is helpful with spelling, but until your b's and v's sound like some mixture of both sounds, you'll have an English accent. One helpful point about the similarity of b and v in Spanish is that sometimes it will be easy to recognize a word that is similar to English if you imagine the word with a b instead of a v, or vice versa. For example, the verb gobernar means “to govern.”
When looking up Spanish words in a Spanish dictionary, keep a few points in mind:
- Remember that ll and rr are considered separate letters, so the Spanish side of some dictionaries will list words beginning with ll after the words beginning with a single l and words beginning with rr after words beginning with a single r.
- The letter ch will be found in the ch section of most dictionaries at the end of the c section.
- Another place where the dictionary listings may confuse you is when a word has the Spanish letter ñ. The little squiggle on the n is called a tilde, and it creates an entirely new letter that will follow the n's in the dictionary. For example, you will find that the word mañana is listed after manzana. The ñ is pronounced like the ny combo in “canyon” or the ni combo in “onion.”