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Episode 67: Spanish's Diacritical Marks

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

In today's episode, we're going to talk about the various diacritical marks in Spanish, as well as cover the national holidays of Chile in our second cultural tip for the country!


The Importance of Diacritical Marks

What are diacritical marks, you ask? Put simply, that's the fancy/official term for any marking on letters that changes one of two things:

  1. How the word is pronounced, thereby changing its meaning (or simply showing that the word is pronounced differently than you might expect, based on the languages' general pronunciation rules).

  2. The word's meaning, even though it doesn't change how the word is pronounced.

For example, in Episode 53, we talked about the different ways you can write esta. Now, written with no accent marks, esta is a demonstrative adjective, or adjetivo demostrativo, i.e., the feminine form of this (such as "Quiero esta galleta. / I want this cookie.") You pronounce it how you would generally pronounce a Spanish word ending in a vowel, n, or s, with the stress on the second-to-last syllable, or ES-ta. (And if you're curious, for all other scenarios, you would generally have the stress on the last syllable, like with la capital, the capital city, or cap-it-TAL.)

If, however, you add an accent mark on the á, now the word is the third-person conjugation of the verb estar, or está. The stress is on the last syllable, so it is pronounced es-TA. See how the accent mark here changes the pronunciation of the word, and thereby its meaning?

But if instead of adding the accent mark on the á you add it to the é, ésta, then the word is pronounced the same as esta, ES-ta, but its meaning changes. Now it is a demonstrative pronoun, or un pronombre demostrativo, such as "No, ésta no es la foto que quería. / No, this is not the photo that I wanted.

Spanish Diacritical Marks

In Spanish, there are three different types of diacritical marks, or los diacríticos, los signos diacríticos, or as they say in Spain, las tildes diacríticas: the accent marks, the tilde, and the umlaut.

The tilde, or la tilde, is what you call the squiggly line above the n in the letter ñ. There is an important distinction between n and ñ, such as in the word año. El año = year, but el ano = anus. So please be careful, because that would be a very embarrassing mistake to make!

The umlaut is two dots that are placed over the letter ü sometimes when it is placed between a g-e and a g-i, changing the pronunciation of g-u to a g-w sound, such as in el pingüino (penguin), which is pronounced like peen-GWEE-no. This mark is a bit rare; I'm always slightly surprised whenever I see it!

The other diacritical marks are accent marks, which are all over in Spanish and are also called las tildes, although you could refer to them as los acentos ortográficos if you wanted to avoid confusion. If you wanted to be super specific, the type of accent mark that Spanish uses is called the acento agudo, or acute accent. Truly, though, you would need to know something that detailed only if you were studying a language like French, which has five accent marks, including the acute accent, where the accent mark starts low and goes up as it goes diagonally to the right, like ó, and it's opposite, the grave accent (el acento grave), where the mark starts high and goes down diagonally to the right, like ò. But in Spanish, they only use the acute accent on their five vowels: á, é, í, ó, and ú.

So let's look at two major examples of how the accent mark changes a word's meaning, but not the pronunciation. You've probably seen these examples before, but maybe you wondered why the accent mark was there or why it was not: como vs. cómo and mas vs. más.

Como vs. Cómo

To put it simply, como* = as, since, however, or like, and cómo = how.

Here are a few examples of the first como:

  • ¡Corre tan rápido como un guepardo! = He runs as fast as a cheetah! (This is a good example of how the umlaut is not always required. Un guepardo is pronounced gey-PAR-doh.)

  • Como decías, no entienden. = As you were saying, they don't understand.

  • Como teníamos hambre, nos fuimos a casa. = Since we were hungry, we went home.

  • Pinta la habitación como te guste. = Paint the room however you like it.

  • Ella es como una hermosa flor. = She is like a beautiful flower.

Here are a few examples of cómo:

  • ¡Cómo baila! = You (formal) dance so well! (Literally, it is "How you dance!")

  • ¿Cómo estás? = How are you (informal)?

  • ¿Cómo se hace un rollo de canela? = How do you make a cinnamon roll? (Note how it is se hace, or the general usage form of the verb, rather than haces.)

One last thing: como can also be the first-person conjugation of the verb comer, or I eat.

That's why there's a fun little phrase in Spanish, ¿Cómo como? ¡Como como como! Which means "How do I eat? I eat like I eat!"

*If you want to do a deep dive into all the meanings of como, check out the link to SpanishDict.

Mas vs. Más

Very simply, mas is an archaic version of pero (but), whereas más = more, most, or +.

For the first one, you will generally only see it in writing. It's not really something you hear in everyday speech. Here are some examples of mas:

  • Me ofreció una coca cola, mas me negué a tomarla. = He offered me a coke, but I refused to take it.

  • Quería ver el amanecer, mas accidentalmente se levantó tarde. = She wanted to see the sunrise, but accidentally slept in.

  • El héroe luchó valientemente, mas finalmente fue vencido. = The hero fought valiantly, but ultimately was vanquished.

In old Spanish, mas could also mean sino. But the difference between sino and pero is for a different episode!

Lastly, here are some examples of más*:

  • Me gustaría más helado. = I would like more ice cream.

  • Él es más guapo que Juan. = He is more handsome than John.

  • Dos más tres son cinco. = Two plus three is five.

  • ¿Cuál es el idioma más difícil de aprender? = What is the hardest language to learn? (Or, more literally, "Which is the hardest language to learn?")

  • ¡El perro pesa más de 50 libras! = The dog weighs more than 50 lbs!

  • ¿Qué tipo de madera dura más? = Which type of wood lasts longer?

*If you would like to do a deeper dive into the different definitions of más, then check out these articles by ThoughtCo. and Diccionario de Dudas!

Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.

¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!


Cultural Tip: Chile

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Global National Holidays

Today's cultural tip highlights the national holidays of Chile! To save on time, and to avoid extreme repetitiveness, here is a quick list of holidays that many other countries also celebrate and/or which we have covered in other episodes, so I won't get into too much detail for these ones.

  • New Year's Day (01/01a)*

  • Good Friday (04/15) (It is always the Friday before Easter)

  • Holy Saturday (04/16), or Sábado Santo (It is always the Saturday before Easter. I don't know that we've talked about this one, but Holy Saturday is part of the Easter tradition in Catholic and Protestant churches. Some know it as the Descent into Hell, or the day that Jesus descended into Hell in victory over it. Others celebrate with the Paschal Vigil, or the Easter Vigil, in commemoration of the vigil Jesus' followers held for His crucifixion and in celebration of His resurrection.)

  • Labour Day (05/01a), or Día del Trabajador

  • Mother's Day (second Sunday in May, not a public holiday)

  • Father's Day (third Sunday in June, not a public holiday)

  • Saint Peter and Saint Paul (06/29, although it looks like it is often the Monday closest to that date. But not always, as in 2023 it will be on a Wednesday.) (Also known as San Pedro y San Pablo. If you would like more information on this holiday, see Episode 46.)

  • Assumption Day (08/15), or Asunción de la Virgen (Another important Catholic holiday that I'm not sure we've talked about, Assumption Day is the remembrance of Mary's death. Or rather, the day she was taken to Heaven and reunited with her son, Jesus. The Catholic church teaches that Mary did not die, but rather left this life by being "assumed", or taken up, to heaven. In full transparency, I am a protestant Christian and do not believe this doctrine is true.)

  • Reformation Day, or Día Nacional de las Iglesias Evangélicas y Protestantes (10/31, but might be moved to Friday instead.) (Chile made this an official holiday in 2008, and it is another holiday we haven't really talked about. It celebrates the day Martin Luther, a German monk, nailed his 95 theses to the church door on October 31, 1517. He hoped that the packed church on the following day, All Saints's Day, would lead to the resolution of the 95 issues he had with the Catholic Church. Instead, he sparked the religious revolution known as the Reformation, ultimately resulting in the Protestant denominations that we have today. (To celebrate Reformation Day, I personally enjoy watching the 2003 movie, Luther [affiliate link]!)

  • All Saint's Day (11/01a), or Día de Todos los Santos, All Hallows' Day.

  • Immaculate Conception (12/08a), or Inmaculada Concepción (for more information, see Episode 60)

  • Christmas Day (12/25a)

*The "a" means that it is always celebrated on this day.

Unique National Holidays

I found these following five holidays are unique to Chile:

1. The Day of the Glories of the Chilean Navy, or just Día de las Glorias Navales (05/21a)

This day commemorates the Battle of Iquique that occurred on May 21, 1879 during Chile and Peru's War of the Pacific. The battle was fought between two Chilean ships, who blockaded the Chilean city of Iquique that had fallen under Peru's control, and two Peruvian, more modern vessels that had been sent to break their blockade. While Chile lost this battle, the courage and heroic death of Captain Arturo Prat inspired many Chileans to join the navy, and might possibly have contributed to Chile's overall victory in the war.

To celebrate this day, there is a parade and speeches, and many businesses are closed. It is also when Parliament begins and the Chilean President gives his annual State of the Nation address.

2. Our Lady of Mount Carmel (07/16a)

This is an interesting holiday, as it replaces Corpus Christi, which is mainly a Roman Catholic holiday that celebrates the Eucharist. The Chilean Catholic Church pushed for the change, which was legally made law at the end of 2006. This holiday is the celebration of the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of Chile. (Where does the "Mount Carmel" come from? It is a mountain in northern Israel where the Catholic religious order, the Carmelites, was founded in the 12th century.)

Our Lady of Mount Carmel became the patron saint of Chile during their struggle for independence from Spain. In December 1811, Generals Carrera and O'Higgins asked the Santiago Vicar to give a mass for their success. Within his cathedral was an important statue, that of Our Lady of Carmel. It was in her right hand that General José de San Martín placed his baton and declared her the patron saint of the Army of the Andes. General O'Higgins did something similar, declaring her the patroness and general of the Chilean army the night before the battle of Chabuco. Later, when the Spaniards were coming to Santiago in 1818, the locals went to the cathedral to ask Mary for protection. In exchange, they promised to build a church in her honor; a promise that they kept at the end of the year.

Then in 1923, The Vatican acquiesced to the Chilean bishops and made the Virgin of Carmel the patron saint of Chile.

3. Independence Day, or Día de la Independencia (09/18a)

While we have discussed various aspects of Latin America's struggle for independence from the Spanish (see Episodes 46, 55, 56, 58, 59, and 60), we actually covered Chile's personal struggle for independence in one of 2021's Special Episodes, Episode 58, where we did a deeper dive into Chile's Fiestas Patrias. So we'll only do a brief summary here, but you should definitely check that episode out! The celebrations tend to be week-long, and along with Christmas are the most important celebratory times of the year!

Essentially, Chile declared itself independent from Spain on September 18, 1810, but it wasn't until after 8 years of fighting that they officially gained their independence on February 12, 1818. (Surprisingly, the last Spanish troops didn't leave until 1826, when some holdouts on a remote island finally surrendered.)

4. The Day of the Glories of the Chilean Army, or Día de las Glorias del Ejército (09/19a)

This holiday basically ends the Independence Day (or should I say week?) celebration. There is the Great Military Parade of Chile, and the day is meant to remember those who have fought for Chile.

5. Race Day, or Encuentro de Dos Mundos (10/12a)

I love the translation of this day, which is The Meeting of Two Worlds. Basically, this is Chile's version of Columbus Day, or Race Day, and it celebrates the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans. While technically there are many countries that celebrate this day, I think their approach via the name is unique enough to warrant its inclusion here.



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