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Spoken stress vs. written accent

A boldfaced and underlined letter in the text below indicates the spoken stress (written accent only if needed).

In general in Spanish it is worthwhile to learn the position of the spoken stress, rather than memorizing the position of the written accent mark. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The position of the spoken stress is generally consistent, whereas if you look at the written accent mark alone, it appears and disappears as endings are changed. Consider the word región, meaning region. Because it ends with an "n", it would not normally be stressed on the "o", so an accent mark must be written to indicate a stress on the "o". However, when it is made plural, the stress naturally falls on the "o" without any accent, regiones, so no accent mark is needed in the plural. This seems strange and arbitrary, until you think of the words as region and regiones, both verbally stressed in exactly the same place. The written accent just happens to be needed in only one of the cases.
  2. You need to retrieve the spoken stress rapidly when speaking; when writing, you have more time to think about the accent mark.

When is a written accent mark needed? If the syllable with the spoken stress is the one that would ordinarily receive the stress without the need for an accent mark, then no accent mark should be used. Otherwise, write an accent mark over the vowel that needs to be stressed. To do the above, however, you need to be able to determine which vowel would ordinarily receive the stress.

At first, the rule seems simple: the last syllable ordinarily receives the stress, unless the word ends in a vowel, an "n", or an "s", in which case the second-to-last syllable receives the stress. The complexity is in accurately determining what a "syllable" is.

A syllable is a group of letters within a word that are pronounced as a unit, at least one of which must be a vowel. There is usually little problem dividing a word into syllables if the vowels are single. Thus, a word like absolutamente divides easily into ab-so-lu-ta-men-te. Because the word ends with a vowel, the penultimate syllable is stressed.

The situation gets a bit more complex if two or more vowels are written together, because they may be part of either a single syllable or multiple syllables. When there are no written accent marks, the rules are:

First, divide the vowels into two classes, the "strong" vowels (a, e and o), and the "weak" vowels (i and u). Then:

  1. When 2 strong vowels appear together, they are divided into 2 syllables:
          pa-se-ar (3 syllables), pe-or (2 syllables), le-er (2 syllables)
  2. When a strong and a weak vowel appear together, they form only a single syllable, and the strong vowel takes the stress if that syllable is stressed:
          fuer-te (2 syllables), vie-jo (2 syllables)

  3. When 2 weak vowels appear together, they form only a single syllable, and the second vowel takes the stress if that syllable is stressed:
          viu-da (2 syllables), fui (1 syllable)

  4. A written stress on a weak vowel makes it into a separate syllable:
          ha-cí-a (3 syllables)

  5. These rules apply to pronunciation only. Thus, "h", which is silent, doesn't count:
          prohi-bir (2 syllables) [ohi → o(h)i → oi]

Most written accents in Spanish are used to override the standard stress pattern. There are a small number of special cases in which a written accent is used over a vowel that would ordinarily be stressed anyway. In these cases, the accent is used to distinguish (in the written form only) between two different words that are pronounced the same, such as:

  1. Words which are spelled the same:
          el (the) vs. él (he), si (if) vs. sí (yes), tu (your) vs. tú (you)
          de (of) vs. dé (give), mi (my) vs. mí (me)
  2. The interrogatory form of certain adverbs and pronouns:
          donde (where) vs. ¿dónde? (where?), quien (who) vs. ¿quién? (who?)

  3. To differentiate the adjectival vs. pronoun forms of the demonstratives:
          este (this) vs. éste (this one), aquella (that) vs. aquélla (that one)

Note the "qu" in the above examples are treated together as a single consonant; the u is not pronounced separately, nor is it combined with the adjacent vowels. The full rules are: first, check for the special cases of "gu" or "qu" followed by i or e, in which case the "gu" or "qu" are pronounced together as a consonant. Otherwise, the sound of c, g, and q are determined by the following vowel. These rules are summarized in the chart below:

  Before i or eBefore a, o, or u
Special cases:guHard "G": guitarra, guerra 
 qu"K": quince, quedar 
Otherwise:c"S": cielo, cerrar"K": cabeza, cocina, cuchara
 gRasping "H": girar, genteHard "G": garage, goma, guarda
 qNever occurs;
q is always followed by u
"K": quantum, quórum

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This page was posted August 30, 2012

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