How to Master Word Stress in Spanish and Understand the Accent Marks
Today, let’s look at stress in Spanish! No, not the kind of stress you feel when trying to understand native speakers. It’s the stressed and unstressed syllables in Spanish words that produce the melody and meaning of words in Spanish. While stress plays an important role in English as well, the rules are not as clear as they are in Spanish. You’ll soon see that pronunciation is fun and easy once you master the concept of stress in Spanish and how to use the accent marks!
Stressed Homonyms with Accent Marks
What’s the difference between a homonym, a homophone, and a homograph? (Say that three times fast!) I’m so glad you asked!
- A homonym is an umbrella term for all words that sound alike but have different meanings.
- Meanwhile, homophones are a subcategory of homonyms. These are words that sound alike and have different meanings and different spellings. In English, some examples are:
- their — there
- steel — steal
- for — four
- Homographs are words with different meanings that are spelled identically. These are considered homophones, as well. An example in English:
- lie (untruth) and lie (prone).
Accents and homonyms go hand-in-hand while exploring stress in Spanish, since the accent mark (or lack of accent mark) on a word tells us how to pronounce it. Let’s take a closer look at how stressed and unstressed words and homophones work en español.
Three Spanish Stress Rules Regarding Accent Marks
Spanish uses the acute accent mark (the one that rises from left to right) to indicate stress, or emphasis, in certain words. Three Spanish stress rules dictate how a word is pronounced, based on whether or not it uses an accent mark:
- When a word without an accent mark ends in a vowel, n, or s, the stress is on the penultimate (second to last) syllable. The majority of Spanish words fall into this category.
Examples: leche, niña, zapatos, comen
- For words without accent marks that end in any consonant other than n or s, the emphasis is placed on the last syllable.
Examples: hotel, hablar, gratitud, medium
- If a word’s pronunciation deviates from the above two rules, an accent is placed over the vowel of the syllable where the stress is placed.
Examples: común, lápiz, médico, inglés, ojalá
Accent Marks Alter Pronunciation
Many word pairs (or triplets) in Spanish are not quite homophones, as their pronunciation varies slightly due to the placement of the accent mark. The following examples show how accent marks change the meaning of the word.
ánimo (mood) — animo (I animate) – animó (he/she animated)
cerro (mountain, hill) — cerró (conjugated form of cerrar, to close)
disparate (crazy idea) vs dispárate (shoot yourself)
específico (specific) — especifico (I specify) — especificó (he/she/it specified)
hábito (habit) — habito (I inhabit) — habitó (he/she/it inhabited)
título (title) — titulo (I title) — tituló (he/she titled)
Same Pronunciation, Different Word
Some Spanish homophone pairs are spelled alike, except that one of the words uses an accent to distinguish it from the other. A common example is the definite article el, which means “the,” and the pronoun él, which means “he” or “him.” They are written alike except for the accent.
aun (including) — aún (still, yet)
como (like/as, I eat) — cómo (how?)
cual (like, which) — cuál (which?)
cuando (when) — cuándo (when?)
cuanto (as much) — cuánto (how much?)
de (of) — dé (subjunctive form of dar)
mas (but) — más (more)
que (that) — qué (what?)
quien (who) — quién (who?)
se (reflexive pronoun) — sé (form of saber, to know/to taste)
si (if) — sí (yes)
solo (alone), sólo (only)
te (you pronoun) — té (drink)
Many Spanish homonyms are identical words whose meanings differ depending on whether they are feminine or masculine.
El Papa (Pope) — la papa (potato)
El cabeza (head/boss) — la cabeza (head/body)
El capital (money) — la capital (capital – city)
El clave (chord) — la clave (solution)
El corte (cut) — la corte (court)
El cura (healer) — la cura (cure)
El frente (front) — la frente (forehead)
El guía (tour guide) — la guía (guidebook)
El margen (limit) — la margen (river bank)
El orden (order, rank) — la orden (order, request)
Different Letters, Same Sound
The following homophone pairs exist due to the silent h in Spanish or because they contain letters or letter combinations that are pronounced alike.
a (to) — ha (conjugated form of haber)
asta (sailboat mast) — hasta (until)
basta (enough) — basta (coarse) — vasta (vast)
flamenco (Flemish, a dance), flamenco (flamingo)
hola (hello) — ola (wave)
honda (deep), honda (sling), onda (wave)
sabia (wise female) — savia (vitality)
vaya (conjugated form of ir) — valla (picket fence)
Homophone Pairs with Verbs
Finally, in many cases, one of the words in a Spanish homophone pair is a noun or adjective, while its partner is a conjugated verb. For example:
calle (street) — calle (conjugated form of callar, to silence)
hierba (herb) — hierva (conjugated form of hervir, to boil)
rebelarse (to rebel) — revelarse (to reveal oneself)
Ways to Practice
Expanding your Spanish vocabulary and improving your pronunciation are both key aspects of attaining proficiency and eventual fluency. So, don’t just read this post! Make the most of your studies and interact with the material. Create flashcards or write new words down in a notebook. Practice saying them out loud. Write sentences that include these words. Bonus points for using both homophones in a single sentence!
Would you like to practice your Spanish accent and speaking skills with a native Spanish-speaking teacher? Sign up for a free class at Homeschool Spanish Academy today and quiz your teacher on his or her knowledge of Spanish homonyms!
Want more lessons on Spanish pronunciation? Check these out!
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- Caerse Conjugation: Free Spanish Lesson, Quiz, and PDF - May 10, 2021