Diphthongs, Triphthongs, and Hiatus in Spanish
If you dream of speaking Spanish like a native speaker, you need to build your understanding of diphthongs, triphthongs, and hiatus.
Don’t worry. I’m here to help!
After reading this article, you’ll not only know what these phonetic terms mean, but you’ll also dramatically improve your pronunciation of Spanish words and phrases through practice!
Ready? Let’s go!
Is Spanish Pronunciation Important To Learn?
If you want to be understood and understand others, you need to learn some phonetic rules. This will let you pronounce not only the words you already know but also the ones you’ve never seen before.
Although Spanish is a phonetic language—meaning it’s almost always pronounced as it’s written—you might be in shock when you land in a Spanish-speaking country and realize you understand almost nothing.
Why? Spanish vowels tend to separate and come together in surprising ways, making one word sound like two and two words sound like one.
What Are Spanish Syllables?
Before we start, let’s go back to the basics and go through the Spanish syllables.
To put it simply, a syllable is a unit of organization for speech sounds, and it always has a vowel. Consonants may appear before or after it, separately or in combination.
These are the most important guidelines for Spanish syllables:
- Most syllables end with a vowel. (ni-ña – girl)
- A consonant between two vowels forms a syllable with the second vowel. (o-so – bear)
- If two consonants meet, they form two separate syllables. (can-to – singing)
And what happens if two vowels come together?
Well, for this you need to be able to distinguish between strong and weak vowels.
Strong vowels: a, e, o
Weak vowels: i and u
And this is all you need to understand Spanish diphthongs, triphthongs, and hiatus.
To learn more about Spanish syllables, check out A Beginner’s Guide to Spanish Syllables.
What Are Spanish Diphthongs?
Spanish diphthongs occur when two vowels meet in one syllable.
Take note! A Spanish diphthong occurs when a strong vowel combines with a weak vowel, or when two weak vowels exist together.
Meanwhile, if a strong vowel appears next to a weak vowel, you must stress it a bit more than the weak one.
It’s also important to note that the letter y works as a vowel when it’s at the end of a word—it replaces the weak vowel i.
Let’s take a look at the chart with Spanish diphthongs.
Watch out for the silent letter h! When it appears between two vowels, there is still a diphthong there. Hear the following words:
- ahumado (smoked) – /auˈmaðo/
- prohibido (forbidden) – /pɾoiˈβiðo/
Watch this video: How to Pronounce Diphthongs in Spanish | Spanish Academy TV
Read what the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) says about diphthongs.
What Are Spanish Triphthongs?
Triphthongs are three vowels next to each other that form one syllable.
However, there is only one possible combination:
weak vowel + strong vowel + weak vowel
(i, u) (a, e, o) (i/y, u)
If the written accent exists in this syllable, it’s always over the strong vowel.
Let’s see all the possible three-vowel combinations in Spanish with examples:
As you have noticed, some examples show triphthongs that appear in the second person plural in the peninsular Spanish conjugation. It can be useful to learn how to pronounce these sounds if you’re planning a trip to, for example, Madrid.
Check out here what Spanish linguists say about triphthongs (in Spanish).
Last but not least, let’s solve the hiatus mystery.
Remember we discussed that if a strong vowel appears next to a weak vowel in a diphthong, it’s stressed a bit more than the weak one? Or that in triphthongs, the written accent only appears over the strong vowel?
Well, what happens if you put an accent over a weak vowel next to the strong vowel?
They will form a hiatus! It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about two or three vowels next to each other.
Simply, a hiatus means that the vowels create two separate syllables.
Check out the following chart, listen to the audio, and repeat the sounds and words.
Often in Latin America, especially in México, people convert hiatus into diphthongs. So don’t be surprised if you suddenly hear golpear (to hit) pronounced as /golpiár/ or peleé (I fought) turned into /pelié/. You can read more about it in Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (Panhispanic Dictionary of Doubts).
To learn about an opposite phenomenon, when two vowels from two different syllables are pronounced together, read Sinalefa: Why Spanish Isn’t Actually Pronounced as It’s Written.
Practice Spanish Diphthongs, Triphthongs, and Hiatus
For more pronunciation practice, and other phonetic phenomena, challenge yourself by pronouncing 10 difficult Spanish words.
Working on your pronunciation is worth the effort. Correct pronunciation not only helps you communicate better with others but also proves that your language skills are on a higher level.
Being totally bilingual can land you a better job or simply a pay raise. According to a study conducted by The Economist, a person can earn anywhere from $50,000 to $125,000 extra just by knowing a foreign language alone.
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