The Spanish alphabet

Aug 30, 2021 • 3 minutes
The Spanish alphabet

The Spanish alphabet consists of the Latin alphabet (which is the one English uses) plus the letter Ñ (eñe):

A a B b C c D d E e F f G g H h I i J j K k L l M m N n Ñ ñ O o P p Q q R r S s T t U u V v W w X x Y y Z z

Here it is with its associated phonemes:

A: /a/

B: /b/

C: /k/, /θ/ or /s/

D: /d/

E: /e/

F: /f/

G: /g/ or /x/

H: Silent!

I: /i/

J: /x/

K: /k/

L: /l/

M: /m/

N: /n/

Ñ: /ɲ/

O: /o/

P: /p/

Q: /k/

R: /ɾ/ or /r/

S: /s/

T: /t/

U: /u/

V: /b/

W: /w/

X: /ks/ or /s/

Y: /ʝ/ or /i/

Z: /θ/ or /s/

Here it is, with the names for each letter:

A: a

B: be

C: ce

D: de

E: e

F: efe

G: ge

H: hache

I: i

J: jota

K: ka

L: ele

M: eme

N: ene

Ñ: eñe

O: o

P: pe

Q: cu

R: erre

S: ese

T: te

U: u

V: uve

W: uve doble, doble u

X: equis

Y: i griega, ye

Z: zeta

Some important things to note about the Spanish alphabet as an English speaker

- The five written vowels (A, E, I, O, U) always correspond with the five phonetic vowels (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/). In English there are 5 written vowels as well, but there are many more vowel sounds.

- Until the 1990s, the digraphs CH and LL were considered letters (che and elle). They were listed in the alphabet between C and D and between L and M respectively. In most Spanish-speaking territories CH sounds /tʃ/, similar to the English ch in church, and LL sounds /ʝ/, like Y (it used to have its own distinct sound, but it's almost gone). They are no longer considered letters of the alphabet, but many Spanish speakers still think of them as such.

- C behaves differently with A, O, U (where it sounds /k/, just like in English) and E, I. With E, I, it is pronounced /θ/ (like the th in thunder) in central and northern Spain and /s/ everywhere else. To get the /k/ sound with E and I, we have to use Q followed by U: que, qui. Q doesn't have any other use beside this one in Spanish.

- G also behaves differently with A, O, U (where it sounds /g/) and E, I. With E, I, it is in pronounced /x/, which is the famous Spanish guttural sound that doesn't really exist in English. In a lot of places, though, it is softer, and sounds /h/, like the English h in ham. To get the /g/ sound with E and I, we have to put a silent U right after the G: gue, gui.

- H is silent. We just ignore it. The only exception is the H in CH.

- J has the sound /x/ or /h/, depending on the region. It has that sound with all 5 vowels. This is sometimes tricky for English speakers, as the English J is completely different.

- K and W are only used for imported words (like kelvin or wifi).

Ñ is not N! It has its own sound (/ɲ/).

- When R is at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word after N, L or S, or in the middle of a word and doubled, it is pronounced /r/, which is the famous Spanish trilled R. In any other case, it has the softer sound /ɾ/.

- S is always pronounced /s/.

- In English, /p/, /t/ and /k/ are aspirated (i.e. followed by a short puff of air) when they occur right before a stressed vowel (for example, those phonemes in the words pot, top, cat are pronounced [ph], [th], [kh], respectively). This never happens in Spanish.

- U is always pronounced /u/, except in the four cases mentioned above (que, qui, gue, gui), in which it's acting as an auxiliary silent letter that accompanies Q or G. To spell words in which we need the U between G and E or between G and I to be pronounced, we have to use a diéresis: güe, güi.

- It might shock you seeing V with the /b/ phoneme. In Spanish, B and V sound the same. That's why sometimes you might hear Spanish speakers mispronounce the English V.

- When it's at the beginning of a word, X is pronounced like an S (/s/). Otherwise, it's pronounced /ks/.

- When it's not at the end of a word, Y generally sounds /ʝ/ (although in Argentina and Uruguay it sounds almost like the English sh). When it's at the end of a word, it sounds /i/.

- Z sounds /θ/ (again, like the th in thunder) in central and northern Spain and /s/ everywhere else. Note both sounds are voiceless (i.e. the vocal cords are not vibrating). The English /z/ sound, which is voiced, does not exist in Spanish. That's why sometimes Spanish speakers will mistakenly pronounce words like cozy or zebra as "cosy" or "sebra."

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