Spanish spelling


The Spelling Society is to hold its centenary conference at Coventry University, and ahead of this, an article in Tuesday’s Guardian quotes the Society’s Secretary, Dr John Gledhill, as saying “In other languages, like Italian and Spanish, if you learn the alphabet, you know how to spell”.

No one can doubt that learning to spell in either Italian or Spanish is easier than mastering the same task in English, but it isn’t as straightforward as Dr Gledhill claims. Take Spanish. Like English, it uses the same letter to represent more than one sound, and more than one letter for the same sound. There are also ‘silent’ letters.

C is either a voiceless velar plosive /k/ or a voiceless dental fricative /Ɵ/ (or alveolar fricative, depending on the variety of Spanish being spoken). It depends on the following letter (plosive before consonant or a, o, u; fricative before e, i), e.g. cocina (‘kitchen’) /ko’Ɵina/. The velar plosive is also written as QU (before e or i), querer (‘to like, love’) /ke’rer/; and the dental/alveolar fricative is written Z before consonant or a, o, u: razón (‘reason’) /rra’Ɵon/, bizcocho (‘biscuit’) /biƟ’kotʃo/ . That seems clear-cut, but a very few words may be written with Z even before e or i, mostly scientific or borrowed, admittedly, but including zipizape (‘row’, ‘rumpus’). There seems no reason for this not to be spelt with initial C other than the symmetry of the two halves of the word.

G is either a voiced velar plosive (or more often its voiced fricative allophone), before consonants or a, o, u; or a voiceless velar fricative /x/ before e or i. But, J is always a voiceless velar fricative, and occurs in some words before e or i: jefe (‘chief’, ‘boss’) /’xefe/, and jinete (‘horseman) /xi’nete/, to mention two reasonably common words.

H is always silent, except in the spelling -CH- which represents, as in English, a palato-alveolar affricate. So echo (‘I throw’) and hecho (‘done’) have identical pronunciations.

B and V are always interchangeable – they both represent a voiced bilabial plosive or its more frequent allophone a voiced bilabial fricative [β]

There are also problems with what is written as LL. Depending on the variety of Spanish, this can be a lateral, an approximant, a fricative or an affricate or even a plosive. In all cases apart from the lateral, it can coalesce with what is usually considered to be a semi-vowel: /j/, written either I or Y. Consequently it is not uncommon to see words misspelt here as well.

“Greengrocers’ spellings” are found in Spanish-speaking countries just as we have “greengrocers’ apostrophes” in the UK.


  1. There are some New World Spanish words for which there seems to be no standard spelling, as you’ll find if you ever look up recipes for ceviche. Or is it cebiche? Hmm… maybe seviche…..

  2. With one notable exception (*), this is all very true — but the fact that you can sum up the not-strictly-letter-to-phoneme exceptions in the Spanish spelling system in so few lines serves only to reinforce how very different the highly predictable orthographical system of the Spanish language is from the etymologically-based chaos of English spelling.

    The only real doubts in Spanish spelling centre upon b/v and h- or its absence (haber v. a ver) and, now and again, je- versus ge- (jefe, general) — plus, in Hispanoamérica, the loss of the ce/ci v. se/si distinction. From a learning-to-read point of view, however, these features of orthographic redundancy have almost no impact.

    Having taught English to Spanish youngsters, I am perfectly well aware that where two potential ways of spelling a determined sound sequence exist the chances are very high that those who do less reading will choose the wrong one. On the other hand, I was constantly struck by the puzzlement on Spanish children’s faced when asked the equivalent of “How do you spell X?” because for them that was the equivalent of asking “How do you say X” — and you’d just said it.

    (*) The exception: you wrote >> There are also problems with what is written as LL. Depending on the variety of Spanish, this can be… etc. <<

    That is not a problem. It is a virtue! That “what is written as LL” is realized differently in different varieties of Spanish presents no difficulty at all since it is specific to that variety of Spanish. LL is pronounced in only one way within that variety, yet all varieties can agree on using LL. That is, in fact, the Holy Grail of so many spelling systems for languages beset by strong dialect!variations.

  3. The big bonus in Spanish is that if you know the alphabet, you know how to read out loud (even if you don’t understand what you are reading)

  4. We speak Bolivian Spanish pronunciang the ll. We have no confusion with this sound. It always amazes us to get mail from friends who write about “desalluno”. Of course all Spanish speakers who do not read much have trouble with the h, the c and the s. My wife writes “aser” for “hacer”. I was very surprised to meet a person who wrote his name as “Zahabedra”, obviously the same name as “Saavedra”

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