Anglicizing Spanish (3)


And finally, the vowels.

Conveniently, the traditional five vowel letters, <a, e, i, o, u> correspond to the five Castilian Spanish vowel phonemes, /a, e, i, o, u/. <Y> can also represent /i/. The two mid vowels, /e/ and /o/, have two positionally determined allophones: [e, ɛ] and [o, ɔ].

/e/ is [ɛ] adjacent to /r/ (written either <rr>, or, in initial position, <r>), before /x/, as the first element of a falling diphthong /ei/ or /eu/, and in closed syllables except before /m, n, s, θ/. Otherwise [e].

/o/ is [ɔ] adjacent to /r/, before /x/, as the first element of a falling diphthong, and in all closed syllables. Otherwise [o].

In addition, the close vowels, /i, u/ usually form diphthongs with another adjacent vowel, as [j] or [w]: Palacio [pa’laθjo] (phonemically /pa’laθio/); Huelva [‘welßa] (/’uelba/). /iu/ or /ui/ are usually rising diphthongs. Exceptions occur when the /i/ or /u/ are stressed, as in Paraíso /paɾa’iso/ or El Baúl /el ba’ul/. In these cases, there will always be an acute accent above the <i> or <u>.

Any other two consecutive vowels form separate syllables, e.g. Bilbao /bil’bao/ has three syllables.

Mapping these on to the English vowel system is harder than it may seem. For instance, Barcelona has a longstanding anglicisation /bɑːrsi’ləʊnə/ (italic /r/ to accommodate both rhotic and non-rhotic speakers), but Tarragona, not so well-known, tends to become /tærə’gɒnə/. Does this have to do with the first syllable having, in Barcelona, a long vowel, but in Tarragona a short one?

Spanish /a/ may be either /æ/ or /ɑ:/ in stressed syllables whether primary or secondary, and inevitably /ə/ in many unstressed syllables: Málaga /’mæləgə/; Granada illustrates /ɑː/ without the presence of an <r>: /grə’nɑːdə/. Argüelles illustrates /ɑː/in an unstressed syllable: /ɑːr‘gweljeɪs/. Palma is often pronounced /’pɑːmə/ but it would be better to pronounce the <l>: /’pælmə/ in order for it not to be confused with Parma in Italy. (Rhotic speakers do not have this problem).

Spanish /e/ may be English /e/, /eɪ/ or /eə/ in stressed syllables, as well as /eɪ/ or /ə/ in unstressed syllables: Valencia /və’lensɪə/; Toledo /tə’leɪdəʊ/; Formentera /fɔːrmən’teərə/; Teide /’teɪdeɪ/. This last would once have been /’teɪdi/, but with the ‘happy’ vowel becoming much more close over the years, it is now better replaced with the diphthong.

Spanish /i/ is English /i:/ or /ɪ/ in stressed syllables: Ibiza /ɪ’biθə/, Bilbao /bɪl’baʊ/, /ɪ/ in unstressed syllables, and /j/ or /i/ in rising diphthongs: Hierro /’jerəʊ/, Rioja /ri’ɒxə/. In falling diphthongs, it neatly fits into English /eɪ, aɪ, ɔɪ/, e.g. Bailén /baɪ’len/.

Spanish /o/, as we have seen, may be replaced with English /ɒ/ or /əʊ/ in stressed syllables, and /əʊ/ or /ə/ in unstressed syllables. Before Spanish /ɾ/, /ɔː/ is regular, while before Spanish /r/, /ɒ/ is usual: Torrelavega /tɒreɪlə’veɪgə/.

Spanish /u/ is English /uː/ or /ʊ/: Gutiérrez /guːt’jereθ/, including before Spanish /ɾ/: Murcia /’mʊərθɪə/. <U> has another purpose in Spanish orthography, as pointed out by Nigel Greenwood in a note to my previous post: before <e> or <i>, it acts to make a preceding <g> into a plosive which would otherwise be fricative, but is not separately pronounced. So Miguel is pronounced in Spanish /mi’gel/ (English /mɪ’gel/), Guevara is Spanish /ge’baɾa/, English /gə’vɑːrə/and Guipúzcoa is Spanish /gɪ’puθkoa/, English /gi’puːθkwə/ and Guillermo Spanish /gi’ʎeɾmo/, English /gɪl’jeərməʊ/. In order for the diphthong [we] or [wi] to appear following a /g/, the <u> gains a diaeresis: <ü>, as in Argüelles (Spanish /aɾ’gueʎes/, English /ɑːr’‘gweljeɪs/).

So, even for a language with such apparently simple phonology and phonotactics as Spanish, its mapping on to roughly equivalent sounds in English is not completely straightforward, even though it is a language that many English speakers think they can cope with easily.

Apologies for the font problems. When I’ve cleared them up, I’ll clean up the post.


  1. My only footnote to this magisterial discussion would be to point out the curiously common British /aɪˈbiːθə/ for Ibiza. I suspect that the pronunciation of Ibiza is a bit of a class shibboleth in the UK.


    PS I think there’s a typo in the IPA for (Spanish) Guevara.

  2. Re Guevara. Sorry, I now see that the /b/ is phonemic, not phonetic.


  3. I’ve read that there’s debate over whether Spanish has consistent mid-vowel allophones as claimed by Navarro Tomás. (I found an acoustic study on Google that disputes his idea.) When I speak Spanish (as a non-native) I just use mid [e] and [o].

    One interesting question relates to the treatment of c/z: should Americans pronounce Spanish placenames like Ibiza with [T], and should the British pronounce New World placenames like La Paz with [s]? Or should Americans just take New World Spanish as our model for all anglicizations, and the British take European Spanish?

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