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The Phonetics of Spanish

(as spoken in Mexico)


Introduction Spanish is the primary language of more than 322,200,000 people worldwide. If you include those who speak it as a second language, this number increases to 417,000,000. According to the Ethnologue, Spanish is spoken in central and southern Spain and the Canary Islands, as well as 43 other countries. In addition to the more commonly recognized Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America, this list includes some countries that are not so commonly recognized for their Spanish like Andorra, Aruba, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Gibraltar, Morocco, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago. In the United States, there are 22,400,000 speakers, which make up about 8.9% of the population. Spanish is classified as an Indo-European language. It is nontonal and follows the SVO word order. The commonly recognized dialects are Andalusian, Murcian, Aragonese, Navarrese, Castilian, Canary Islands Spanish, and American Spanish. My personal experience with this language began in Junior High and High School where I studied Spanish as my choice for a second language requirement. I continued my studies in College at UCLA where I spent a quarter studying Spanish in Guadalajara, Mexico and then later, as a student studying abroad for a year in Barcelona, Spain. For the last 9 years, I have been using my Spanish as a bilingual elementary teacher at a bilingual immersion school in Santa Monica. I am BCLAD (Bilingual Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development) certified in Spanish. For the purpose of this assignment, I will focus my studies on Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico. I will be looking at the phonetic aspects of this language. The sources I used for this paper include my own knowledge of the language, the knowledge of some native speakers, a dictionary, the online Ethnologue, and the University of Iowa Phonetics Library.


Spanish Consonant Phonemes The Spanish I am focusing on is made up of 18 consonant phonemes, 15 of which also are found on the English consonant phoneme chart. The 3 consonant phonemes that differ from English are the /x/, the //, and the /r/. The Spanish phoneme chart has eight different places of articulation and eight different manners of articulation. This contrasts with English, which is characterized by nine places of articulation and seven manners of articulation. The categories for manners of articulation for this form of Spanish include: stops (voiced and voiceless), fricatives (all voiceless), affricates (all voiceless), nasals, laterals, trills, taps or flaps, and glides (all voiced). The categories for places of articulation include: bilabial, labiodental, dental, alveolar alveopalatal, palatal, velar and labiovelar. Spanish differs from English in that it makes use of trills and taps or flaps as a manner of articulation, however, Spanish does not have a phoneme in the glottal place of articulation like English does. All of the Spanish consonant phonemes used in Mexico can be found on the chart below according to their manners and places of articulation. Table 1: Spanish Consonant Phonemes

Bilabial Stops vls voiced Fricatives vls Affricates vls Nasals m Laterals Trills r Taps or Flaps Glides voiced j w n l p b f Labio dental Dental t d s t Alveolar Alveo palatal Palatal Velar k x Labio velar


Stops The stops in Spanish are distinguished by voicing and place of articulation. There are three contrastive places of articulation: bilabial, dental and velar. The three voiced stops /b/, /d/, and // have similar required environments in which they occur: /b/ occurs at the beginning of an utterance or after /m/ or /n/ as in boca [bok] `mouth' and ambos [mbos] `both' /d/ occurs at the beginning of an utterance or after /n/ or /l/ as in dos [dos] `two and indio [indjo] `indian' // occurs at the beginning of an utterance or after /n/ as in gato [ato] `cat' and tengo [teo] `I have' In all other environments these voiced stops become voiced fricatives: /b/ becomes // like in lobo [loo] `wolf' /d/ becomes // like in cada [k] `each' // becomes // like in paga [p] `he, she, it pays' None of the stops occur at the ends of words, except /k/, and it only seems to occur in foreign words like yak [jak] `yak'. Here are some minimal pairs contrasting the voiceless and voiced stops: Bilabial /p/ [tompo] trompo `spinning top' /b/ [tombon] trombon `trombone' Dental /t/ [tom] tomar `to take' /d/ [doma] domar `to tame' Velar /k/ [kom] coma `comma' // [om] goma `rubber'


Fricatives There are only three phonemes in the fricative series and they are all voiceless. They contrast in their place of articulation: labiodental, alveolar and velar. The /f/ and /x/ phonemes can either occur at the beginning or middle of a word, while the /s/ can occur either the beginning, middle or end of words. Beginning [fok] foca `seal [sok] soca `top leaf' [xefe] jefe `boss' Middle [rif] rifa `raffle' [mes] mesa `table' [px ] paja `hay' End [tes] tres `three'

/f/ /s/ /x/

In addition to occurring in all three locations of a word, the /s/ phoneme can change to a /z/ when followed by a voiced consonant like in the word mismo [mizmo] `same'. The /x/ contrasts with it's voiced velar stop neighbor // in the minimal pair below: /x/ [px] paja `hay' // [p] paga `he, she, it pays Affricates There is only one affricate in the Spanish spoken in Mexico, it is voiceless and articulated in the alveopalatal region. It can only occur at the beginning or middle of words. Beginning [tiko] chico `boy' Middle [t] hacha `ax'

/t/ Nasals

There are three nasal consonant phonemes. They are contrasted by their places of articulation (bilabial, alveopalatal and palatal). The /m/ and // can only occur at the beginning or middle of a word, while the /n/ can occur at the beginning, middle or end of words.


/m/ /n/ //

Beginning [mes] mesa `table' [not] nota `note' [ndu] nandu `rhea'

Middle [tomo] tomo `I take' [tono] tono `tone' [pino] pino `pine' [pio] pino `herd'

End [leon] leon `lion'

Laterals Like in English, Mexican Spanish only contains one lateral phoneme in the alveolar place of articulation. It can occur at the beginning, middle or end of words. Beginning [loo] lodo `mud' Middle [ol] hola `hello' End [sol] sol `sun'


Trills and Taps or Flaps Spanish is unique from English in that it has a different `r' sound. The two `r' sounds in Spanish are the trill /r/ and the flap or tap //. The trill only occurs at the beginning of words or in the middle when spelled with a `rr'. The tap or flap occurs in the middle or at the end of words. Beginning [rto] rato `short time' Middle [pero] perro `dog' [peo] pero `but' End [sli] salir `to leave'

/r/ // Glides

There are two glides on the Spanish consonant phoneme chart. They are also known as semi-consonants because they always occur with vowels and can create dipthongs and tripthongs. They are both voiced and can be distinguished by their two places of articulation, palatal and velar. The /j/ can occur at the beginning, middle or end of words, while the /w/ can only occur at the beginning and middle of words. Beginning [jor] llorar `to cry' [wfle] wafle `waffle' Middle [mjo] mayor `older' [kwto] cuatro `four' End [j] hay `there are'

/j/ /w/


Spanish Vowel Phonemes Spanish contains 5 basic vowel phonemes. All of the vowels are tense. The /u/ and /o/ are rounded vowels. All of the vowels are displayed below according to their placement on the vowel chart. Table 2: Spanish Vowel Phonemes Front High i Central Back u

e Mid



The vowel sounds can be found at the beginning, middle or ends of words. They are contrasted below in their middle position. Beginning [l] ala `wing' [elote] elote `corn' [imn] iman `magnet' [ol] ola `wave' [u] uva `grape' Middle [ms] masa `dough' [mes] mesa `table' [mis] misa `mass' [mosk] mosca `fly' [mus] musa `muse' End [l] ala `wing' [elote] elote `corn' [sli] sali `I left' [tomo] tomo `I take' [ilu] iglu `igloo'

// /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/

Bibliography Jarman, Beatriz Galimberti, Oxford Spanish Dictionary, Oxford, New York, Madrid: Oxford University Press, 1994 Ethnologue, 2003 University of Iowa Phonetics Library, 2003



Phonetics of Spanish

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