Introducing the Vowels
Vowels, or vocales (voh-CAH-lehs), are letters representing sounds that are generated in the vocal chords and can, on their own, form a syllable, or sílaba (SEE-lah-bah). Spanish vowels, when not accompanied by another vowel, have only one characteristic pronunciation, whereas their English counterparts have in excess of three. If you've mastered the fifteen-plus vowel sounds in English, you'll have no trouble with the five vowel sounds in Spanish.
Each of the five vowels may be placed in one of two categories: abierta (ah-BYEHR-tah, “open”) or cerrada (seh-RRAH-dah, “closed”). The “openness” or “closedness” of a vowel is determined by the extent to which you must open your mouth: a, e, and o are considered vocales abiertas, whereas i and u are described as vocales cerradas. A vocal abierta may also be described as fuerte (FWEHR-teh, “strong”) and a vocal cerrada as débil (DEH-beel, “weak”).
What is a diphthong?
A diphthong is a complex vowel formed by two vowels that essentially become one sound, because both are pronounced within the same syllable.
The Vowel A
The first letra (letter) of el abecedario is a vocal abierta. When saying it, your mouth is widely open and the distance between the palate and the tongue is at its greatest. You use the sound of a every day: What do you say when after a long day's work you can finally sit down and put up your feet? Or when you go to the doctor and he asks you to open your mouth as he peers inside? Exactly! You say “ahhhhhhh.” Now just skip the six extra h's and you have the Spanish letter a.
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel A
True to its abierta vowel category, a does not combine to form diphthongs with its sister letters e and o, but it does combine with las vocales cerradas. That is, when a is immediately in front of an unaccented i or a u, the sound that is produced is neither a pure a, the dominant vowel in this case, nor a pure i or u, the subordinate vowels within the combination. As a result, the ai sound is not “ah-ee” but rather “i” as in “tie.” The au resembles the “ahw” combination in “ouch.”
What happens if the unaccented i or u precedes the a? Listen to Track 3 and try repeating the words you hear.
Practice Pronunciation of Diphthongs AI and AU
You've just seen how the i and the u kowtow to the stronger a, but what if another vocal fuerte challenges a? Well nothing, really. Each vowel keeps its own sound and is pronounced.
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel Combinations AE and AO
The Vowel E
E is the fifth letter of the alphabet, also a vocal fuerte. Pronounce it between the palate and the tongue by opening your mouth halfway. The letter e alone has the sound “eh” as in “get,” and does not sound at all like the “ay” in “say,” or “e” in “hyphen,” “gene,” “been,” or “terse.”
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel E
As a vocal fuerte, e keeps its own sound when combining with other vocales fuertes. Practice pronouncing words with ea, ee, and eo as you listen to Track 6.
Practice Pronunciation of Combinations EA, EE, and EO
Practice Pronunciation of Words That Begin with Es-
Remember, a vocal fuerte forms diphthongs only with vocales débiles. When e is immediately followed by an unaccented i or u, the sound produced is a blend—the ei sound becomes “ey” as in “haystack” the eu generally resembles “ehw” (unless the u is accented or naturally stressed within the word). To practice diphthongs eu and ei, review the following table and listen to Track 8.
Practice Pronunciation of Diphthongs EU and EI
When the positions are reversed, that is, when an unaccented i or u is immediately followed by an e, the sounds that are produced are both expected and surprising. As with the letter a, the i takes on a sound similar to “y” within the ie combination, like in the English word “yet.” The ue combination is a little trickier to get right away because it can have two possible, mutually exclusive pronunciations. In many words, ue will have the “weh” sound as in the English word “wet.” To practice ie and ue, listen to Track 9.
Practice Pronunciation of Combinations IE and UE
In some cases, the u in the ue combination is muda (mute), and the diphthong is pronounced as e. The u becomes silent when ue is preceded by a g or a q.
Practice Pronunciation of Vowels UE Preceded by G or Q
The Vowel I
The i is a vocal cerrada and is spoken through the smallest opening between the palate and the tongue. When unaccompanied by other vowels, i most resembles the “ee” sound in the word “machine.” It is never pronounced as the English letter “i” in “mint,” “edible,” or “site.”
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel I
Remember that when followed by other vowels, the i is usually a weak part of the diphthong, and is not sounded out. To practice the combinations ia, ie, io, and iu, listen to and repeat after Track 12.
Practice Pronunciation of IA, IE, IO, and IU
However, if the i is accented (í), it is pronounced as “ee” even though it may precede or follow another vowel.
Practice Pronunciation of Í with Another Vowel
In ui combinations, as in the ue combinations, the u is silent when it is preceded by a g or a q. That is, the ui combination sounds like i.
Practice Pronunciation of UI Preceded by G or Q
The Vowel O
The last of the vocales fuertes is o, a vowel spoken through a medium- sized opening between the palate and the tongue. O has the sound “oh,” similar to but actually shorter than the “o” in the English word “toll.”
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel O
In English, the letter “o” may be pronounced in four different ways: as in “cod,” “bone,” “lemon,” or “now.” In Spanish, however, it retains the same pronunciation—as long as it is not joined with another vowel.
Combinations with o follow the same rules as other vocales abiertas and vocales cerradas with an accent, with the one exception being the ou combination.
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel O with Other Vowels
The Vowel U
The last of the Spanish vowel is a vocal débil and is spoken through a small-to-medium opening between the palate and the tongue. The u often adopts the “oo” sound as in “too.”
Practice Pronunciation of Vowel U
You've already seen many different u combinations. In general, an unaccented u in combination with other vocales takes on a sonido (sound) similar to the English “w.”
One exception to the rule is that u is mute in the following combinations: gue, gui, que, and qui. However, there are a few words where the u in the diphthong is NOT mute. To indicate that the u should be pronounced, a diéresis (“) is added over it (ü). Listen to Track 18 to compare pronunciations of gue and gui with güe and güi. Note that qüe and qüi do not exist in Spanish.
Practice Pronunciation of CU, GU, GÜ, HU, and QU
Similarly, if naturally stressed or accented within a word, u keeps its “oo” sound.
Practice Pronunciation of Accented Vowel U
Congratulations! You've just finished the vowels. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, don't worry. Just take a break and remind yourself that learning a language takes time. You'll begin to feel more comfortable as you continue.