An Expert Guide to Spanish Allophones and Phonemes
Have you ever confused haber (to have) with a ver (Let’s see)? Or you don’t understand why you hear /’ba.mo.nos/ instead of /’va.mo.nos/ when people say “Let’s go!” in Spanish?
And why does your attempt to say el lado (side) in Spanish sound so different from when your native Spanish friend pronounces it?
Allophones and phonemes!
What are these? Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of these power phonetic distinctions.
In fact, allophones and phonemes hold the secret key to correct pronunciation in Spanish.
In this blog post, I use the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA to represent sounds. It contains sounds present in every language of the world. For quick access to the phonetic symbols, download your free PDF with a helpful chart!
Download our Free PDF of IPA Spanish Phonemes and AllophonesJust type in your name and email and we will immediately send the PDF to your inbox!
What Are Phonemes?
Sounds allow us to communicate verbally. Each language has a definite set of sounds that are types of building blocks that are meaningless when pronounced separately. However, when combined together, they acquire meaning.
Let’s see some examples:
All of the above words are composed of the same four sounds. These sounds do not have any meaning themselves but they are commutable (or able to be interchanged).
If we change one for another or put them in a different order, we get a new word.
In linguistics, these constructive segments are called “phonemes.”
Usage of Phonemes
The number of phonemes varies among languages, comprising of around 24-25 in total. As for Spanish, it has five vowel phonemes and nineteen consonant phonemes, totalling 14 phonemes.
Spanish is also on the lower end of the number of phonemes. For comparison, here are the number of phonemes in some languages:
- American English – 32
- British English – 36
- French – 39
- German – 45
- Lithuanian – 59
- Japanese – 22
- Hawaiian – 18
Surprisingly, fewer phonemes does not necessarily mean easier phonetics. These languages usually create contrasts of meaning in a different way. For example, Chinese uses tones, while other languages use word stress.
Spanish is one such language that uses word stress to distinguish similar words from one another. If you shift the word stress (or emphasis) from the first syllable of the word paso (PAH-soh) to the last syllable, you get pasó (pah-SOH), which is the past form of pasar.
Spanish Sounds and Symbols
In an ideal world, one specific letter would correspond with one specific phoneme, to make language learning more effecient. Luckily, Spanish is quite close to this linguistic utopia, leading scholars to boast about “Spanish phonemic orthography,” which is a fancy way of saying that words are pronounced almost exactly as they’re written. In fact, you rarely need to use a dictionary to check the pronunciation of a written Spanish word after you’ve learned the phonetics.
Of all the letters, it’s only the letter x that has two phonemic representations.
For example, words Mexico (me.’xi.ko) and taxi (’tak.si) are pronounced differently.
However, in the other direction, from sound to letter, it’s easier to get confused. The same phonemes can be written down in two or more different ways and it’s a problem even for Spanish native speakers.
For example the phoneme /k/ can be represented in various ways:
- letter c as in casa – /’ka.sa/
- combination qu as in queso – /’ke.so/
- letter k as in kiosko – /’kios.ko/
The sound /x/ like in the English word “Loch” can also be written down in four different ways:
- letter j as in jaguar /xa.ˈɣwaɾ/
- combination ge as in general /xe.nɛ.ˈɾal/
- combination gi as in gigante /xi.ˈɣãn̪.te/
A similar thing happens for letters v and b in Spanish, which have the same phoneme /b/:
- vaso /’ba.so/
- beso /’be.so/
- conversa /kõm.ˈbɛɾ.sa/
- combate /kõm.ˈba.te/
Spanish Letters: y and ll
In most Spanish-speaking areas the letters y and ll are represented with the same phoneme /ˈɟʝ/. Sometimes you can also see it written as /ʝ/ or /’J/.
In the past, however, this orthographic distinction was also a phonemic one. Today, in some places of Spain, in the Andean parts of Latin America, and Paraguay the double ll is pronounced as “li” in “million” and is represented with a phoneme /ʎ/.
Nevertheless, the great majority of Spanish speakers pronounce these two letters the same way.
|Most Spanish-speaking areas||Parts of Spain, the Andean region, Paraguay|
|yeso /ˈɟʝ/e.so/ (plaster)||yeso /ˈɟʝ/e.so/|
|llama /ˈɟʝa.ma/ (flame)||llama /ˈʎa.ma/|
Spanish Letters: s, z, and c
In Latin America, on the Canary Islands and in some parts of Andalusia, there is no phonemic contrast between the letters s, z, and the letter c in combinations of ce, ci—they all share the /s/ phoneme.
In contrast, Peninsular Spain distinguishes s (pronounced /s/) from z and c (pronounced /θ/, similar to the “th” sound in the English word “thanks”).
|Lat. Am. / Can. Islands / Andalucía||Peninsular Spain|
|Casa /’ka.sa/||Casa /’ka.sa/|
|Caza /’ka.sa/||Caza /’ka.θa/|
|Centro /ˈsɛ̃n̪.tɾo/||Centro /ˈθɛ̃n̪.tɾo/|
|Circo /’sir.ko/||Circo /’θir.ko/|
|Zapato /’sa.pa.to/||Zapato /’θa.pa.to/|
Allophones Are Phonemes in Context
The pronunciation of the same phoneme can vary depending on its position in a word—and these are called allophones.
From this point, I use square brackets  to distinguish the transcription of allophones from the transcriptions of phonemes in slashes //.
Spanish Allphones: [d] and [ð]
For example, the Spanish phoneme /d/ is pronounced as a stop [d] at the beginning of the word or after n or l, as in doña (ˈdo.ɲa) or andar (ãn̪.ˈdaɾ).
However, when it appears in other places, like in the word hada (ˈa.ða) where the /d/ is in between vowels, it’s pronounced [ð]—similar to the voiced “th” sound in English words “they” and “gather.”
Many native Spanish speakers are not aware that they pronounce the /d/ phoneme in distinct ways. As a non-native speaker, if you were to pronounce the word candado (kan.dá.ðo) as (kan.dá.do), you would be understood but native listeners would detect a faint accent.
Spanish Allophones: [b] and [β]
The Spanish phoneme /b/ can be pronounced as [b] or [β], depending on its position in the word. Similarly as in the [d] and [ð] case, you pronounce /b/ as [b] if the word that starts with the letter b is spoken in isolation or it is in a group of words but pronounced after a pause, or after a nasal consonant /m, n). However, between two vowels /b/ is always a [β].
- bandera [‘ban.de.ra]
- ambos [‘am.bos]
- envía [‘em.bía]
- sabe [‘sa.βe]
- lava [l’a.βa]
Spanish Allophones: [g] and [γ]
The Spanish phoneme /g/ can be pronounced as [g] or [γ] also depending on its position in the word. At the beginning of a word spoken in isolation, pronounced after a pause, or after a nasal consonant, you’ll hear and pronounce a [g] and between two vowels, it is always a [γ]:
- gato [‘ga.to]
- tengo [‘ten.go]
- lago [l’a.γo]
The Key to Avoiding Pronunciation Mistakes
Not knowing the allophonic rules of how phonemes vary in pronunciation depending on their location in a word leads to consistent pronunciation mistakes.
If you’re lucky to have a competent teacher who can explain and correct these typical mistakes early on in your studies, you won’t have too many problems. However, without this kind of detailed pronunciation instruction, you must learn it on your own through articles like this one!
Not knowing these phonetic and orthographic rules tends to lead to spelling mistakes or even communication chaos. For example, the sound [β] doesn’t exist in English and needs to be taught and trained.
Check this article about confusing consonants in Spanish if you are curious to know more!
If you’re looking for a more basic explanation of today’s topic, have a look at a Complete Spanish Pronunciation Guide for Beginners.
Practice Your Spanish in Real Time!
If you’re ready to sound like a native speaker, carve out a dedicated space in your schedule to practice Spanish phonemes and allophones, as you train your ear to distinguish them and train your tongue to pronounce them correctly in a spontaneous way.
It’s not easy to do it by yourself! Empower yourself to sign up for a free class and see how easy and enjoyable it is to practice phonemes and allophones with a native, Spanish-speaking teacher at Homeschool Spanish Academy.
All our teachers from Guatemala speak English and they’re aware of specific challenges that Spanish pronunciation may present for you. They can listen to your mistakes, explain, correct, and teach you the right sounds. Sign up today and give it a try!
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