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I have heard y/ll pronounced in two different ways:

  • [j] (like 'y' in "yellow")
  • [ʒ] (like 's' in "measure")

Do native speakers use both interchangeably? Or is it pronounced [j] in some regions and [ʒ] in others?

For people learning Spanish, is there one pronunciation that would be preferred over the other?

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It depends on the variety of Spanish. There is also a third pronunciation, the palatal lateral approximant /ʎ/. –  hippietrail Nov 15 '11 at 23:13
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11 Answers 11

up vote 16 down vote accepted

See the Wikipedia article on yeísmo, which includes maps of the pronunciations. To summarize:

  • in some regions, ll /ʎ/ and y /ʝ/ are distinct
  • in other regions, ll and y have merged to /ʝ/ ("yeísmo")
  • in very few areas, ll and y have merged to /ʎ/ ("lleísmo")

Note that some specific dialects, like Rioplatense, pronounce their merged /ʝ/ as [ʒ] or [ʃ].

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The Wikipedia article seems to indicate that "lleísmo" is when ll /ʎ/ and y /ʝ/ are distinct. Am I confused when reading that? –  wbyoung Nov 22 '13 at 19:00
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@wbyoung Yes, you are confused, but because the article itself is not correct. "lleismo" specifically means "using ll always", like "seseo" means "using s always" and "leismo" means "using the pronoun 'le' always". –  Envite Dec 5 '13 at 21:24
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My salvadorian friends pronounce both as y as in "yo", as did my spanish teacher (from spain). My colombian food vendors pronounce both as "zh or j". In cuba i hear y for the most part for both but have heard "j" for y and in a sportscast i heard one guy pronounce it "bee-ya clara" and the other guy "bee-ja clara" for villa clara. so i guess it depends on how their parents spoke.

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I speak Spanish Spanish without any regional accent and sometimes I pronounce both sounds exactly the same. Some other times "yo" may actually sound closer to "i + o"

In conclusion, don't worry too much about that, in practice you can pronounce them the same ("llo").

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"without any regional accent"... I just can not believe that. –  Envite Dec 5 '13 at 21:26
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There are a total of 29 letters in the Mexican language. Spanish as taught in most "northerner's" schools is really Castilian Spanish which is spoken mainly in Spain. In Mexican border regions, our "Spanish" is really "Mexican" and therefore castilian taught in schools is useless in Mexico. The single "L" is pronounced as a regular L, the double "ll" is pronounced as the letter "Y" and is actually a separate letter in the Mexican alphabet than the letter "L". Other letters not present in the English alphabet are the double "rr" which is rolled of the tongue, and the "ñ" which is pronounced "enye" comprising the total of 29 letters in the Mexican alphabet. Also, the letter "J" is pronounced as "H", there are no standard "J" sounds in Mexican words just as there are no words using "Y" as in yellow. The letter "Y" is actually the word "and" except as used in the word "playa" which means beach. The "Y" sound is otherwise accomplished using the double "ll".

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Actually "rr" is not counted as a separate letter like "ch" and "ll" are. It's just a digraph. Even old dictionaries which have a section for "ch" and a section for "ll" do not have a section for "rr". –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 13:25
    
@hippietrail Dictionaries don't have a special section for rr because it never begins a word. Any word that starts with r has the rr pronunciation anyway. Whether it counts as a separate letter (sometimes sí, sometimes no, but the RAE now says it doesn't) is a separate issue. –  Brian Nov 19 '11 at 7:11
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@Brian: Oops yes of course the point about dictionaries is a false argument. Sorry about that. I'm not trying to correct anything about pronunciation, that all seems fine here. Just trying to correct the factual error and common misconception about "rr" ever being a letter. As the RAE's Diccionario panhispánico de dudas says: "Este solapamiento explica que la rr no se haya considerado nunca una de las letras del alfabeto." –  hippietrail Nov 19 '11 at 8:34
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Mexican language? –  Jubbat Feb 4 '12 at 11:34
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Mexican language? Mexican alphabet? You can only speak of mexican words, sounds, pronunciation, meanings and modisms, but the language is spanish and the alphabet is that of spanish. –  Envite Dec 5 '13 at 21:27
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The RAE's Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas explains the pronunciation of ll is:

  • The voiced palatal fricative /ʝ/ (e.g. English yeast, close to English j) in the majority of Spanish speaking regions. This pronunciation is identical to the recommended pronunciation for y and this merger is called yeísmo.
  • The palatal lateral approximant /ʎ/ (e.g. Portuguese olho) in some zones and among polished speakers.

  • The incorrect /li/ (e.g. pronouncing caballo as cabalio) mostly among those who practice yeísmo and artificially try to differentiate the pronunciation of ll.

On the other hand, the consonant pronunciation of y is:

Rioplatense Spanish pronounces both y and ll as a voiced palato-alveolar sibilant /ʒ/ (e.g. English vision) or voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant /ʃ/ (e.g. English sheep).

I recommend using the voiced palatal fricative /ʝ/ for both y and ll. The RAE accepts yeísmo as proper and its use is widespread.

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Leaving the IPA madness aside, my dialect (Paisa, a variant of Colombian Spanish) relates more strongly to the J as in Jello than the y as in yellow for the pronunciation of both ll and y. However, other dialects lean more towards y as in yellow. That is why I dislike the most common U.S. English pronunciation of Medellín (Me-de-YEEN) vs. the one I would have preferred (Me-de-JEAN). –  Jaime Soto Nov 20 '11 at 7:04
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In some regions both letters are pronounced in the same way like 's' in "measure". But the correct use is the first one that you mention in your example.

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If you're going to call something correct or incorrect for a language you should really state by which standard. As far as I'm aware by the RAE /ʎ/ is correct if anything is. –  hippietrail Nov 15 '11 at 23:19
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It's definitely a regional thing. I was taught that it sounded like the "Y" in Yellow, but I've noticed that people who learned Spanish in Mexico City, sometimes make it sound more like the "J" in Jello. This is especially true for the word, "Yo". To me that pronunciation sounds pretentious and I avoid it.

In general, "When in Rome..." Listen to the people around you and copy the sound they make. If you are going to a particular region, get a hold of recordings of speakers in that area and listen to them before you go.

My bias is to just use your first option for general learning of Spanish. I don't think you'll be misunderstood even by people who use the second option.

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To my ear neither "ll" nor "y" sound like English "j" except when somebody is trying to sound like a Spanish speaker. I'm familar with the other sounds "ly", "y", "zh", and "sh". I learned my Spanish in Mexico but have also travelled all around Spain and Central America, but I haven't been to any South American or Caribbean countries and I'm not familiar with the Spanish around the US/Mexico border region. –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 13:30
    
@hippietrail: I spent 2 months in the Summer of 2001 in Mexico City. My Spanish went from basic to "can carry a conversation on the street" there. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why people were talking about a guy named "Joe". It seemed most prevalent in the center of the city, but I can't be sure. I hear it very occasionally around Los Angeles. My South and Central American amigos have commented on it too, so I don't think I'm crazy. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Nov 16 '11 at 17:04
    
Wow that's interesting. I've probably racked up close to a year visiting and living in Mexico City. In this case I have to assume it's about perception. Maybe it depends on the phonology of your native dialect or your level of familiarity with linguistic concepts. My native language is Australian English and I'm an "armchair linguist" (read lots but no formal study). Maybe it's the makings of a good question for linguistics.SE? –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 17:09
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Here in Guadalajara, Mexico, it's often a combination of the two, but tends toward the [j]/yellow pronunciation. Although there are speakers who make a much harder sound.

And it often depends on the word. The name of the town Saltillo is often pronounced (at least here--don't know how they actually pronounce it in Saltillo) with a harder sound than the words ella or amarillo.

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The correct pronunciation of the ll sound is as for the Italian "gl" group, similar to the 'ly' sound in the middle of the word million. Pronunciation anyway varies in countries such as Argentina and Colombia to the second sound described in the question.

The y sound is mostly similar to the long -ee sound in English and is not directly related nor interchangeable with the ll sound.

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I was going to vote you up because your first paragraph is better than most of the other answers, but your second paragraph just doesn't make sense so I had to vote down instead sorry. –  hippietrail Nov 15 '11 at 23:16
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LL is usually pronounced like the "y" in "yellow." There are some regional variations, however. In parts of Spain it has the sound of the "ll" in "million," and in parts of Argentina it has the "zh" sound of "azure." Examples: llama, calle, Hermosillo. See here.

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Actually, in Argentina and Uruguay it's more common to pronounce it like sh. –  Javier Badia Nov 15 '11 at 21:40
    
When you say "usually" you NEED to specify where –  Envite Dec 5 '13 at 21:25
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The second pronunciation you mention is almost exclusively used in the Argentina / Uruguay region. Any other country in Latin America uses the first pronunciation.

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and in Paraguay it sounds closer to a 'j'. –  snumpy Nov 15 '11 at 21:02
    
I've also heard this pronunciation used by some speakers in Mexico. Perhaps from a certain area or perhaps affected. –  hippietrail Nov 15 '11 at 23:15
    
I've never heard that pronunciation from a Mexican... That is interesting. –  reno812 Nov 16 '11 at 15:01
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