Sinalefa: Why Spanish Isn’t Actually Pronounced as It’s Written
Why do you find yourself at first listen disoriented by native Spanish speakers? You have the sinalefa to thank for that.
You think, “Wait! What happened? If I can read Cervantes in the original version, why can’t I understand the guy selling me a newspaper?”
There’s a reason for that.
When you hear a native person speaking Spanish, and especially if they are in a hurry, you get the impression that they barely stop to catch their breath while the bulk of what they say seems like a continuum—just one single, impossible-to-understand word.
I feel your pain!
I feel the same now that I’ve recently moved to Madeira (an autonomous region of Portugal), where it seems like the Portuguese people slur all of their words into one giant run-on word.
Believe me when I tell you that I understand why you’re lost—but luckily, I can help you when it comes to Spanish and its merging syllables.
In this blog post, I’ll explore the controversy on whether Spanish is or isn’t a phonetic language and why it’s not always pronounced as it’s written. I’ll also explain what a sinalefa is, where it can be found, and what types of sinalefa you can encounter. I’ll also explain what happens when we use sinalefa and why it’s so important to practice it.
And if you’re here because you don’t understand why your literature professor counts syllables in a verse in a different way than you do, you’ll be happy to read about sinalefa in poetry.
A quick note before we start: sinalefa in English is called “synalepha” but let’s stick to the Spanish version as you’ll definitely hear it more often in Spanish than in English.
Let’s jump right in!
Is Spanish Phonetic?
I remember as a teenager, one of my friends chose to learn Spanish as her second language due to a recommendation that it would be easier for her to learn despite her dyslexia.
This is mostly because Spanish is considered a phonetic language that’s relatively easy to learn as it’s often pronounced the way it’s written. This is in contrast to English, for example, where the majority of words are not pronounced the way they’re written.
To be more precise, in Spanish the letter a, for example, is always pronounced the same way, no matter what.
Because Spanish roots are mostly Latin, and the rules of pronunciation of letters and letter combinations are clear.
Contrarily, English has a combination of Celtic, Saxon, Teutonic, French, Latin, and many other roots, and depending on the origin of a word, a combination of letters can be pronounced in many different ways. Just look at the “ea” combination in “bear” and “beard” and you will know what I mean.
In this aspect, Spanish is easy. And ultimately, yes—Spanish is a phonetic language.
Apart from a few exceptions that are easy to learn, Spanish letters are pronounced consistently in the same manner. Even so, after you’ve learned a new word and know how to pronounce it, a native speaker may use it in a sentence and you can’t recognize it.
Because native Spanish speakers tend not to pause between the words they utter, creating what we’ve covered is a sinalefa.
For example, an article plus noun is always pronounced together as if it were a single word:
El amigo – /elamigo/
La escuela – /laescuela/
Different combinations of vowels and consonants can get different names, but today I decided to focus on a la sinalefa.
What’s a Sinalefa?
According to Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, sinalefa is:
Unión en una única sílaba de dos o más vocales contiguas pertenecientes a palabras distintas.
A union in a single syllable of two or more contiguous vowels belonging to different words.
For example, the syllables in mutuo interés (mutual interest) mu-tuo-in-te-rés change to mu-tuoin-te-rés.
More simply put, if you have two words—one of which ends in a vowel, while the other starts with a vowel—a native speaker will pronounce them as a single word.
In Spanish, all kinds of vowels tend to turn into a monosyllabic group, especially when people speak fast.
What Happens When We Use Sinalefa?
Because of sinalefa, Spanish is known for its musical rhythm. But what exactly happens when we combine the vocals from separate words?
When you merge two syllables with a sinalefa, three different situations can occur:
1. Reduction to a single vowel
Una amiga becomes u-na-mi-ga
2. The reduction to a single vowel makes the remaining vowel sound longer.
La imaginación becomes lai-ma-gi-na-ción
Imperio inglés becomes im-pe-rioin-glés
You may not believe it, but diphthongs and triphthongs occur in Spanish between words more often than inside the same word.
Have a look at this article about Diphthongs, Triphthongs, and Hiatus for a quick refresher on how some vowels are pronounced in Spanish words.
Sinalefa in Poetry
Sinalefa is especially useful to understand if you study Spanish literature. Do you remember having to count syllables in each verse to discover the correct type of a poetic form? If you have a sinalefa, you’ll count less syllables than you’d initially want to.
For example these two verses seem to have 5 and 4 syllables:
Esta hermosa – es-ta-her-mo-sa
Mariposa – ma-ri-po-sa
However, because of a sinalefa, the first verse actually has only 4 syllables, the same number as the second one:
Mystery solved! You don’t have to thank me. You’ll nail it next time you analyze a poem by Federico García Lorca in your Literature class.
Types of Sinalefas
Now, that you know what a sinalefa is, and can even recognize it in a Spanish poem, let me show you different types of it and some examples.
1. Sinalefa between different vowels.
A sinalefa occurs when you fuse two different vowels in two words, for example:
mi abuela becomes mia-bue-la
Reino Unido becomes rei-nou-ni-do
para ella becomes pa-rae-lla
2. Sinalefa between identical vowels.
You can also merge vowels that are the same. In this case, the vowel will sound as one only, but slightly longer:
Va a Madrid becomes vaa-ma-drid
(Goes to Madrid)
Está hablando becomes es-taa-blan-do
(He/She is speaking)
Llama algunas veces becomes lla-maal-gu-nas-ve-ces
(He/She calls sometimes)
3. You can even merge three vowels of contiguous words between different and identical vocals.
Escribí a Ernesto becomes es-cri-biaer-nes-to.
(I wrote to Ernesto.)
Va a hablar becomes vaaha-blar
(He/She is going to speak.)
Can you try to pronounce it the same way?
Where Can you Find a Sinalefa?
There are some combinations where Spanish native speakers form sinalefas in a spontaneous way.
- Article + noun, e.g. la hermana (the sister)
- Possessive adjective + noun, e.g. mi abuela (my granny)
- Noun + adjective (and vice versa), e.g. carro amarrillo (yellow car)
- Verb/adjective+ adverb, e.g. ven aquí (come here), demasiado alto (too tall)
- Preposition and the elements they connect, e.g. para Ana (for Ana)
- Conjunction y and the element it connects, e.g. y Alberto (and Alberto)
- Compound tenses, e.g. he ido (I have gone)
Why is it important to remember these combinations?
Because sinalefa is something that can be trained, both to recognize it and to produce it.
If you don’t merge the words, they will ironically become more difficult to pronounce and people will have more trouble understanding you. Working on your sinalefa will help your fluency and make you sound like a native speaker instead of a beginner learner or robot.
Ultimately, pronunciations and rhythm cannot be learned from textbooks. Surely, you can learn the rules and know them in theory, but what you really need is to practice frequently in real time with real speakers. You have to listen and speak to get your fluency to the next level.
By encouraging yourself to have 1-on-1, real-time conversations in Spanish with native speakers, you are guaranteed to make a sinalefa part of your speaking skills! Are you ready to give it a try today? Sign up for a free class to practice “smushing syllables” with our friendly professional Spanish teachers from Guatemala.
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