Episode 80: Things You Didn't Know About the Spanish Alphabet
Have you ever wondered what the official name is of each letra in el abecedario? Perhaps you like to play Scrabble or Boggle, where this knowledge would come in handy. Or maybe you're just curious. Either way, today we'll cover the official names of the Spanish alphabet and how to spell them! Plus we'll talk about some of the supposed "lost letters" and some common letter pronunciation mistakes that English speakers make. And, of course, we will begin our cultural tip mini-series on Puerto Rico! ¡Vámanos!
As with all things, let's start with the basics! Here is the official Spanish alphabet, or abecedario, with all of its 27 letters.*
La Uve Doble
*Please note, all of the letters are feminine. This is important, because for some of the letters, if you refer to them as masculine, you are actually changing the meaning. Most of these are for chemical symbols or scientific units of measurement, but not all. For example: el W = vatio o wolframio, or watts or tungsten; el T = el tritio o el tesla, meaning Tritium or the tesla unit; el S. = el siglo o el san, meaning it is the abbreviation for century or a male saint; el P. = el papa, padre, o pontífice, meaning it is an abbreviation for the Pope, Father (the Catholic title, not your actual dad), or Pontus; el M = metro, or meter; el L = el litro, or liter; el J = julio, meaning it is the abbreviation for July; el I = el yodo, or iodine; el H = el hidrógeno, or hydrogen; el F= flúor o faradio, or flourine or Farad; el D = Don, meaing it is the abbreviation for that specific title (similar to the English Mr.); el B = boro, or boron.
**You can also refer to "B" as be larga, be alta or be grande, and the "V" you can also refer to as ve baja, ve corta, or ve chica.
***You can also call it La Erre, although this could reffer to the digraph rr instead.
As you can see, the current Spanish alphabet has 27 letters. But it wasn't always this way. Perhaps you've heard of these supposed "lost letters"?
LL (La Elle)
CH (La Che)
Well, they're technically not lost. Back in 2010, the official guardian of the Spanish language (at least, that's what they would say), the Real Academia Española (RAE) made some updates to the Spanish alphabet. This included changing ch and ll into digraphs instead of unique letters. What is a digraph, or un dígrafo, you might be asking? That's a fair question! It's where two letters create a single phonetic sound. Like how in English we use the digraph ng to represent the ŋ sound in "ring" or "bring". It's not an actual "n" and "g" sound combo, but rather a unique sound, ŋ, represented by ng. That is a digraph.
But one of the upsides to this change was that it made finding words in the dictionary easier, as now you would search for words completely alphabetically, rather than having to treat ch and ll as the next letter. For example, achatar would come after the word acordar, even though it would be more intuitive for it to come before. This update officially fixed things like that.
On top of that, the RAE made some name changes. When differentiating between Y and I, people used to call them Y Griega (the Greek Y) and I Latina (the Latin I). But officially, only Y was referred to in this way. I've never heard anyone refer to I as I Latina. I myself was taught to call Y the Y Griega. But now Y is officially called La Ye.
They did something similar to V, which used to be called Ve, but this would be confusing considering that B is called Be, and both words sound the exact same in Spanish. So now V is officially called Uve. Did this affect W? Depends on where you're at. From what I've read, uve doble tends to be used in Spain, whereas Ve and Doble Ve are more widely used still in Latin America.
What about RR?
Also known as la erre doble, or doble erre, this is un dígrafo. So rather than being its own letter, like the single r, this digraph tells the reader that the sound should be the Spanish trill. One of the most common examples of the significance of rr is with the words pero and perro. The first means the conjunction, but, and the second means dog. The only difference is the doble erre.
So was this once its own official letter? Hard to say. But I can confidently say that in recent living memory, it has not been.
Now, while most of the Spanish alphabet looks like our English letters (with the exception of Ñ), the pronunciation isn't exactly equal for all of them. We could dive into each and every unique sound, but that's beyond the scope of this article/podcast. Instead, I'll focus on some of the consonants that really stick out to me. With vowels, the common misunderstandings I see with those involve making them into diphthongs, like in English I (which is really two vowels, ai), rather than keeping them as pure, single vowel sounds in Spanish. I don't think we need to go into the vowels, but we will focus on just some of the consonants that I have really seen problems with.
R/RR -Obviously, the Spanish trill belongs on this list, as a lot of English speakers have problems pronouncing it. But even the single r isn't the same as our English r. Try saying tortilla and focus on how your tongue moves. The tip of your tongue should be hovering around the top ridge of your gums, right behind your teeth. Now try saying the English word run, still focusing on what your tongue does. The middle/back of your tongue should be hitting the top of your mouth. Tortilla vs. run; very different r sounds, right?
D/T - In Spanish, you soften the sounds of these two letters by having the tip of your tongue press against the back of your top teeth. In English, the tip of your tongue hits the ridge of your gums, making for a sharper sound.
H - Unlike in English, this letter doesn't actually make a sound. :D Easy enough!
J - Contrary to what many sites will tell you, the j does not make the same sound in Spanish as the English h. Sure, they're close, but your tongue is actually closer in shape to when you make the English r. So you put the back of your tongue up against the top of your mouth, and then you blow across it. Like in the words jabón, jaguar, and jalapeño.
LL - How you pronounce this sound will vary by region. In some countries, it is pronounced like the English y. But in other countries, it is more similar to the French je sound.
If you'd like to hear each letter's sound by - what I'm assuming are native speakers - check out this article by SpanishDict.com!
If you would like a really good pronunciation trainer, I highly, highly recommend the Fluent Forever ones created by Gabriel Wyner. You can buy them separately for Anki or access them through their app (which does require a subscription, just FYI). These are fantastic, and they train your ears to actually hear the different sounds that you would make in Spanish, versus what your English-trained ears think they should be doing. Really great stuff! I love the Fluent Forever app and everything associated with it!
And that's it for today! Our next episode will be during the start of the holiday season, so the next four episodes will be focused on fun and enjoying this really fun time of year. See you soon!
And lest I forget,
Have a Happy Halloween!
Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.
¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!
Cultural Tip: Puerto Rico
Name: Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
Size: According to the CIA's World Factbook, Puerto Rico is almost three times bigger than Rhode Island.
Location: Located in the Caribbean Sea, this island is west of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, East of the British Virgin Islands, and North of Venezuela.
Government Type: The island, a commonwealth, belongs to the U.S.A., or more officially an unincorporated organized territory, but it does have a local self-government broken up into the three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Their Chief of State is the US President and Vice President. Interestingly enough, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in the federal elections for President and VP, since they are not a state (something they vote on periodically, with the most recent non-binding referendum in 2020 suggesting that at least a slight majority desires statehood, although less than half of the island's eligible voters actually voted in the referendum; so take that as you will), but they do get to vote in the party presidential primaries. The island's Head of Government is currently Governor Pedro Pierluisi (as of January 2021). The islanders vote for their 4-year term governor directly via simple majority popular vote.
While they are still under the U.S. Congress, their local legislature is bicameral and called the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa). It is composed of the Senate (Senado), which has 30 seats for 4-year terms, and the House of Representatives (Camara de Representantes), which has 51 seats for 4-year terms.
The judicial branch has a Supreme Court, with a chief justice and 8 associate justices, who are appointed by the governor before being confirmed by the Senate. They must retire at 70.
Capital City: San Juan
Religion: As of 2014, it is mainly Roman Catholic at 56% and Protestant at 33%.
Official Languages: Spanish and English
Currency: US Dollars (USD)
While Encyclopedia Britannica says the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico were hunter-gatherers who were there over 1,000 years before Spain first discovered the island, the first culture that we really know about is that of the Arawak Indians. Called the Taino culture, or the Taínos, they settled on the island by 1000 AD. They grew some crops and fished. They called the island Borikén, which means "Land of the Valiant and Noble Lord".
When the Spanish arrived on Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the New World in 1493, there were 20,000-50,000 Taínos, who were also at war with the Caribs, a group of people from neighboring islands. The island was first named by Columbus as San Juan Bautista, with the main port and capital city being called Ciudad de Puerto Rico (a.k.a., Rich Port City), but overtime the names were flipped and shortened. The Spanish Crown claimed the island and overtime, because demand for goods was increasing, but the local population was being decimated via mistreatment and disease, the Spanish also brought African slaves to the island.
The Caribs continued to raid, and the island also had to fend off Dutch, British, and French pirates. In the later half of the 16th century, Spain began fortifying the island to better defend its strategic importance. Then in the 18th century, the Spanish Bourbon rulers enacted drastic reforms that really increased the island's agricultural and economic situation, leading to a boom in population (I'm not positive, but I think a significant portion of this was actually from European immigrants).
Eventually. there was a growing desire on the island for independence, and on September 23, 1868, there was an uprising known as the Grito de Lares. While ultimately the Spanish suppressed the rebellion, it happened at the same time as Cuba's fight for independence, leading to Puerto Rico gaining local autonomy. Yet after the Spanish-American War, Spain gave Puerto Rico to the US in 1898. In 1917, the islanders were granted US citizenship. Beginning in 1948, they elected their own governors. President Truman signed into law the Puerto Rico Commonwealth Bill in 1950, which was approved by the islanders in 1951, which further led to the island creating its own constitution in 1952.
© 2022 by Language Answers, LLC
Intro and Closing Music by Master_Service from Fiverr
Cultural Tip Transition Music edited from song by JuliusH from Pixabay
"La Diccionario de la lengua española" by the RAE
"R" by the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas 2005 by the RAE
"Digraph” From Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary by Merriam-Webster. Accessed 29 Oct. 2022.
"IPA Symbols Chart Complete" by the International Phonetic Alphabet.org
"Spanish Alphabet Pronunciation" by SpanishDict, by Curiosity Media, Inc.
"Fluent Forever Pronunciation Trainer" by Gabriel Wyner for Fluent Forever
"Puerto Rico - The World Factbook" by the CIA, last updated October 20, 2022
"Puerto Rico" by Wagenheim, Kal , Wagenheim, Olga J. and Mathews, Thomas G. for Encyclopedia Britannica, on October 19, 2022. Accessed 29 October 2022.
"History of Puerto Rico" by Discover Puerto Rico
"Puerto Rico votes in favor of statehood. But what does it mean for the island?" by Cristina Corujo for ABC News on November 8, 2020