The sound of Spanish language 🇪🇸

The very first entry in my blog of positive thoughts deals with the aspect of Spanish I myself like the most. As the title suggests, I’m going to talk about phonetics; fricatives in particular.

Before I dive any deeper into the fricatives, I should explain the basics of phonetics first. Phonetics studies speech sounds, i.e. vowels and consonants in a language. In case of Spanish, most people might think that most of the time one letter equals one speech sound. So the letter b is pronounced as [b], the letter g as [g] and the letter d as [d]. The reality, however is not as simple.

There is a reason I took the plosives b, g and d as examples. Because these plosives have fricative forms, which I just happen to love! But wait! What is a plosive and what is a fricative?🤔 They are actually linguistic terms for defining how a consonant is pronounced. In the case of plosives, the airflow is first stopped and then released which makes a sound typical for this kind of consonants. In fricatives, the airflow is never stopped entirely, instead air is forced to go through a narrow gap in your mouth which makes a friction sound.

So [b], [g] and [d] are plosives in English and in Spanish. However, in Spanish /b/, /g/ and /d/ have fricative forms [β], [ɤ] and [ð]. Now, you might have noticed that I used two different notations [ ] and / /. With slashes, we philologists mark phonemes. A phoneme can have multiple different realizations, allophones. This means that the Spanish phoneme /b/ can be pronounced as a plosive [b] or a fricative [β].

How do you know then when to pronounce /b/ as a plosive or as a fricative? The rule is a rather easy one: as plosive after a pause or after a nasal sound (/m/ or /n/), otherwise as fricative.

These fricative versions of the Spanish plosives are the ones I really, really like. They sound so nice in your mouth when you pronounce them, and to me, they represent the sound of Spanish. I was so happy after my exchange year in Madrid when I realized that I had (finally) learned how to pronounce them correctly. 😊

A good book covering a plenty of topics in the Spanish grammar that every philologist should have is the Spanish Grammar of the Royal Academy (RAE).