Spanish orthography


Last week’s post was my own translation of an interview that Professor Salvador Gutiérrez, member of the Real Academia Española, and Professor of General Linguistics at the University of León in Spain, gave to the Spanish newspaper “La Razón” in May (¿Sabemos escribir?). There has been a lot of discussion about education in general this year in Spain because of a proposed new curriculum law – “la ley Wert” – named after the current Minister of Education.

Spanish is often held up as a model that English should follow in its orthography, and yet here is someone complaining about the low standard of spelling by Spaniards. This link is to an article, also published in “La Razón”, pointing out that a tweet sent by opponents of the new law itself contained four errors (three of spelling, one, more doubtful, of vocabulary).

It is true that any written Spanish can be read correctly straight off the page, but spoken Spanish cannot be automatically spelled correctly: there are several points of ambiguity – the letters ‘b’ and ‘v’ are always identically pronounced (phonetically they may be [b] or [β], but these are allophones of a single phoneme, and so contextually determined); ‘h’ is always silent, so that there can often be doubt as to its presence or absence as part of the spelling of a word; ‘g’ is pronounced /x/ before ‘e’ or ‘i’, but there are words in which ‘j’, which is always pronounced /x/, may occur before ‘e’ (e.g. Jerez) ot ‘i’ (‘jinete’). These are difficulties that all Spanish speakers face. In addition there are those caused by the neutralization of ‘ll’ and ‘y’ in certain dialects, to anything from approximant /j/ to palatal plosive /ÉŸ/. So it goes on.

Even languages which supposedly have regular orthographies turn out to be rather more complicated when examined more closely.


  1. If I remember rightly, some years ago there was a Spanish governmental decree that accents shd be placed over all vowels that were irregular in their stress placement. Tho I dont like that sort of thing in general, I’ve found myself often grateful for it and I do wish the Italians wd do likewise.

  2. Jack – when it comes to Italian, you find Italians who claim that there is no stress in their language. I wonder how they cope with the difference between words such as “vittoria” and “trattoria”. I agree with you – and perhaps we could introduce them in English as well (stir, stir!). Portuguese could do with compulsory stress marks as well. The problem with all governmental decrees about Spanish, or English or French, is that they can only apply in the country whose government has made the decree. It’s fine for the Scandinavian languages, where only one country is involved, but for international languages, international solutions are needed.
    When I learned Spanish, we did place accents over all the anomalous stressed vowels, but I’ve seen the word “período” frequently in newspapers this year with no accent. Journalists are also calling the acute accent a tilde, to my surprise.

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