Diphthongs, Triphthongs, and Hiatus
When I was just starting to learn Spanish, I remember that my Spanish teacher told me that each letter has only one sound, and you always pronounce every letter in a word. That was incredibly reassuring when I was just starting to learn the language. However, when I immersed myself in the language, I discovered that when pronouncing some words, you do not enunciate each individual letter. This, of course, was confusing to me since it contradicted what my first Spanish teacher had said. Once I learned about diphthongs, triphthongs, and hiatus, though, it made much more sense!
Don’t panic – these words may seem very complicated (they’re sure difficult to spell with all those ‘h’s!), but they are much simpler than you think. Each of these terms refers to a combination of vowels. Do you remember how to say the vowels in Spanish? Let’s review:
I hope that refreshed your memory! Let’s delve into the first group of vowel combinations: diphthongs
Do you remember how to say ‘grandfather’ in Spanish? If you need help, refer to our family blog!
Yes! It’s abuelo. Now, how do you pronounce it? Would you say ah-boo-ay-loh? Or maybe ah-bway-loh?
If you said the second pronunciation, you are correct! We don’t pronounce every single vowel separately in this word but make a new sound with two of the vowels. Instead of oo-ay we say way for the vowel combination ‘ue.’ This is called a diphthong.
The Real Academia de Español defines a diphthong, or diptongo, as:
Secuencia de dos vocales diferentes que se pronuncian en una sola sílaba.
A sequence of two different vowels that are pronounced in just on syllable.
Keep in mind that just because there are two vowels together does NOT mean that they are pronounced in one syllabus, and therefore means that they are NOT always diphthongs (we’ll explore more on this topic in a bit). So, how do you know when to pronounce vowel combinations as one syllabus? Well…
In Spanish, we have hard and soft vowels.
Hard vowels: A E O
Soft vowels: I U
You can think of the hard vowels as dominant in the pronunciation. Let’s go back to our previous example: abuelo. What vowel sound to you hear most in the ‘ue’ combination? Exactly! The ‘e.’ We hear the ‘e’ more because it is a hard vowel, or more dominant.
Hard Vowel + Soft Vowel
Whenever you see a hard and soft vowel together, it is called a diphthong. Basically, the hard vowel dominates the combination and makes the two vowels have only one sound. Let’s look at some examples:
Abuelo – (ah-bway-loh)
Bailar – (bai–lahr)
Huevo – (way-boh)
Hielo – (yay-loh)
Oigo – (oi-goh)
If you look at the pronunciations, you can see bits of both vowels in the new singular sound, but the hard vowel has the emphasis. It is also very interesting to note that when the ‘u’ is the first vowel in the combination, it has a ‘w’ sound; likewise, when the ‘i’ is the first letter in the combination, it has a ‘y’ sound. Finally, it does not matter if the hard vowel comes first (like in bailar) or second (like in hielo), it is always the dominant sound.
Before we move on, check out this chart with all the diphthongs made up with a hard and soft vowel and an example of each one:
Soft Vowel + Soft Vowel
Now, the combination of a hard and soft vowel is not the only combination classified as a diphthong. Whenever there are there soft vowels together, it is also called a diphthong! But which one has the dominant sound if they are both soft vowels? Great question! Unlike in our previous group of diphthongs where the order didn’t matter, here it does. When two soft vowels form a diphthong, there is an emphasis on the second one. Of course, since there are only two soft vowels, we only have two options for combinations. Do you remember which vowels are soft?
Exactly! I and U. So, we can have the combination ‘iu’ or ‘ui.’ Let’s check out some examples!
These words have very similar spellings, but because of their unique diphthongs, the pronunciations are distinct. Remember that when an ‘i’ is the first letter, it sounds like ‘y,’ and when ‘u’ is the first letter it sounds like ‘w.’ However, the second letter in each combination still carries the emphasis.
Alright – those are a lot of diphthongs! However, what if two hard vowels are paired together? What happens then? It is called a hiatus.
So, we established that diphthongs, or diptongos, are when two vowels come together to make one sound. If you remember, though, not all vowel combinations are diphthongs. Sometimes when there are two vowels together, they have two distinct syllabi – which is called a hiatus, or hiato. The Real Academia de Español puts it this way:
Secuencia de dos vocales que se pronuncian en sílabas distintas.
Sequence of two vowels that are pronounced in separate syllables.
To ensure that each vowel is pronounced in separate syllabi, both must be hard vowels – a, e, or o.
Let’s take the word real, for example. In English, this word is one syllable, and the vowels actually form a diphthong. However, the pronunciation in Spanish is ray-ahl with two syllables because ‘a’ and ‘e’ are both hard vowels. Interestingly, if we had double vowels in a word, whether they are hard or soft, they are a hiatus!
Here are all the possible forms of hiatos with some examples:
Before we move onto our last group, we need to talk about some exceptions to these rules. Yes, yes, I know – the last thing you want to hear about are exceptions. These, however, and pretty simple and you are probably already putting them into practice without even knowing it!
As you’ve probably noticed by now, Spanish utilizes a lot of accent marks! They are what mark the difference between llamo (I call) and llamó (he/she/it called) as they show where the syllabic emphasis is. Accent marks are needed when the accent of the word goes against general spelling and pronunciation rules. So, it makes sense then that when an accent mark is over a vowel combination, our rules about diphthongs and hiatuses go out the window; the accent mark takes precedence. Let’s look at an example:
If we follow our rules for diphthongs, we would pronounce the ‘ia’ as the single sound ‘ya.’ However, the accent mark over the ‘a’ breaks up that diphthong. We, therefore, pronounce this word as: ah-see-ah-tee-coh, where the ‘i’ and ‘a’ are in separate syllables.
The bottom line is, if there is an accent mark over one of the letters in a diphthong, it is no longer a diphthong! The vowel sounds are in separate syllabi.
The Tricky ‘u’
If you remember from our vowel blog, we talked about hard and soft Gs and Cs. These two letters’ pronunciation changes based on the vowel that follows them. There are several instances in Spanish were the spelling is adapted to match the pronunciation. For example, to conjugate the verb llegar in the simple past tense of yo, it would be llegé according to the rules of conjugating regular verbs. However, that would make the pronunciation yay-hay, not yay-gay as it should be. So, to correct the spelling, we add a ‘u’ to form llegué. In these instances where a ‘u’ is added to match the spelling to the pronunciation, the diphthong rules do not apply. The letter ‘u’ is just a filler and does not need to be pronounced at all – it’s silent!
Alright, are you ready for our last vowel combination? Don’t worry, it’s not too hard because it’s not quite as common as diphthongs! So far, we have only looked at instances where two vowels come together. There are words, though, that have more vowels together!
Just like a diphthong is when two vowels make one sound, a triphthong is when three vowels make one sound. The Real Academy de Español says:
Secuencia de tres vocales que se pronuncian en una sola sílaba.
Sequence of three vowels that are pronounced in just one syllable.
In order for three vowels to make one sound, they must be in the following order: soft vowel + hard vowel + soft vowel. It’s like a soft vowel sandwich! Let’s look at some examples:
Paraguay – (pahr-ah-gwai)
(here, the ‘y’ acts a vowel just like in hoy and estoy)
Guau – (gwow)
Confiéis – (cohn-fyays)
This last example is a conjugation of confiar in the vosotros form. A lot (NOT all) of the vosotros conjugations end in triphthongs! If you plan on visiting Spain, it would be good to practice the triphthongs more because vosotros is used very commonly there.
Practice Makes Perfect
That was a lot to take in! If you are a beginner Spanish learner, I would recommend you do not try to memorize all these rules at once. Instead, practice the 5 main vowels and look at the examples throughout this blog. If you get the pronunciation of these examples down, you will recognize the patterns in other words you see throughout your Spanish learning journey. These rules are important but don’t get caught up in them as you work towards fluency. Spanish vowels are much easier and straightforward in their pronunciation than the vowels in English.
For more practice on how to pronounce diptongos, watch our video below! With this tool, you’ll be on your way to a pronunciación perfecta in no time! ¡Tú puedes!