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As we all know that Spanish is a Phonetic Language, i.e. the way it's written is the way it's pronounced. I am just curious to know if there are any exceptions to this phonetic rule. I mean, when we speak Spanish or certain words in Spanish like the name of any person, place etc, is there any case where that word is spoken a bit differently than the way it's spelled.

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The phonetic rules are "designed" for a subset of all possible words (the "Spanish" words). Words in other languages may not have an applicable Spanish phonetic rule when you try to read them. – Dr. belisarius Jul 6 '13 at 1:34
And México should be spelled Méjico. And it may be, in Spain. – Walter Mitty Jul 6 '13 at 21:59
@WalterMitty: Saying that "México" should be "Méjico" is an over-simplification. But read about that here. – Flimzy Jul 6 '13 at 22:30
Yes, it's an oversimplification. The long answer is better. I wanted to keep things brief, especially because it's tangential to the question being asked. – Walter Mitty Jul 7 '13 at 12:06
Spanish is not a phonetic language. "Phonetic" works two ways--if you see the word, you can pronounce it perfectly (given that your accent and all is right), and if you HEAR the word, you can write it perfectly. If someone heard "hablar," they might spell it "ablar" if they didn't know that word. There is a similar situation with "v" and "b." Both are pronounced like "b," but if you hear "veinte," it cannot be spelled "beinte." – Aprendedor Jan 26 '15 at 17:55

12 Answers 12

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Are there exceptions to the (quite simple) Spanish phonetic rules?

Basically, no.

Unless you count any of the following as exceptions (I wouldn't, but it's debatable) :

  • Foreign names or words of foreign origin, that retain their original spelling but are pronounced differently: "sandwich" (pronounced as "sángüich" or even "sánguche").

  • Regional variations: the "elle" in "caballo" is pronounced differently in Spanish than in Argentina ("yeísmo"), same for the "z" sound ("seseo/ceceo").

  • Bad or casual pronounciations. Same as in English, in casual-fast speaking some words can be slightly contracted or deformed. For example, in many regions it's common to (almost) omit some final "s" or make them like aspired sounds (sort of English "h") : eg, "las cosas" => "la'cosas" or "lah' cosas"; in some regions of Argentina, the trilling "rr" is prononunce more like a "y", etc. Some pronunciations, considered incorrect, are nevertheless very common: "peleé" (1st person, past tense of "pelear") is often pronounced as "pelié".

  • Though we don't have the English digraph "sh", we widely recognize it (as foreign) and we sometimes use it when we need to reproduce the (English) "sh" sound at the end of some word (there are no such words in Spanish, but there are some onomatopoeias or foreign words). However, in Spanish compound words like "deshacer" we pronounce in the Spanish way: "des"+"hacer".

  • "X" has two pronunciations: the common one ("cs") and the rare one ("j"): the later is only used in a few words, notably "México"

  • Initial "ps" (eg: "psicología") is usually pronounced simply as "s"

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X has three pronunciations, you missed the 's/z' sound as in "Xochitl". – Flimzy Jun 7 '14 at 2:00
@Flimzy : Fair point. But, apart from being very rare, I'd say that it's actually the common sound 'cs', of which the 'c' is ommited because it's almost impossible to pronounce. Similar to the 'ps' prefix in 'psicología' – leonbloy Jun 16 '14 at 11:35
Well, it's not really that rare--at least not in Mexico, where many towns and streets have names which begin with X. And also a "Cs" sound minus "C" is a different pronunciation. – Flimzy Jun 16 '14 at 17:38
I think X has more than 3 pronunciations, if you are only counting [ks], [x], and [s]. A few centuries ago it was pronounced [ʃ] like English sh. AFAIK it is still that way in other Iberian languages (Portuguese, Galician, Catalan?) When the Spaniards came to places like Mexico they consequently wrote down lots of [ʃ] sounds as 'X'. But over time Castilian [ʃ] turned into [x] as spelled with j today. – asveikau Jun 22 '14 at 17:38
Another rare exception, much in the line of the initial ps: an initial mn would sound just n, such as in mnemotecnia. – Gorpik Jan 27 '15 at 8:06

Spanish has a mostly phonetic reading (as opposed to writing*). Most exceptions are in three categories:

  1. reductions, assimilations and similar phonemic changes
  2. archaic language
  3. foreign and indigenous words

In the first category we include hiatus reduced to diphthongs toalla/tualla/, pelear/peliar/, elimination of geminated vowels: cooperar/coperar/, addition or reduction of weak consonants: huevo/güevo/, güey/uey/, partido/partío/, lambdization (and reverse lambdization) el muerto/er muelto/. Aspiration of syllable final s: tres tristes tigres/treh trihteh tigreh/ or complete elimination: →/tre trite tigre/. Most of these features depend on accent and dialect, however some are common in all (most) variants of Spanish, such as assimilation of syllable final n to the next consonant: un burro/um burro/, enviar/embiar/.

The main example of the second category is the aspirated h, as in halar, holgorio, harto. This aspirated h sounds like English h and, for some people there is a difference between this h (glotal approximant, as English h) and j (velar approximant, as ch in English loch), however this distinction is lost for most speakers. In Colombia and Central America both h and j are glotal (as in English), in Spain, Argentina and Mexico both are velar.

The third category include the Mexican x (from Nahuatl): México/méjico/, Xalapa/jalapa/, Oaxaca/uajaca/, and all words from English, French, German, and many other origins which do not conform: pijama(col)→/piyama/ (in Spain pijamas is pronunced /pijamas/), mouse/maus/, mousse/mus/, pie/pay/. Many common personal names in Latin America (I guess in Spain is less common) do have j that is pronounced as /y/: Jeaneth/yanet/, Jennifer/yénifer/, Jessica/yésica/, Jackson/yacson/; even original names that do not exist in other languages.

Special note on x. While the canonical pronunciation of x is as /cs/, it is usually reduced in syllable final positions: Mompox/mompós//mompó/, and in the latin prefix ex- (meaning out/outside) usually sounds more similar to /gs/, particularly when followed by a vowel voiced consonant: exagerar/egsajerar/ [eɣzaxeɾar] (this does not apply when ex- means ‘former’). In some speeches (usually deemed as vulgar), the x can also be reduced to /ts/: taxi/tatsi/. And, of course, there are all those Mexican words in which x sounds as /j/: xalapeños/jalapeños/. (But Telmex/télmecs/.)

Special note on w. The letter w is not a Spanish letter and no word of Spanish origin uses it, while canonically should be regarded as a v (and pronounced equal to b) the actual pronunciation should mimic the pronunciation in the original language: Watt/bat/, sandwich/sánduich/, wiskey/güisqui/.

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* Spanish is not 100% phonetic in its writing, as there are several ways to express the same sound: /b/ can be written as either b or v, and /j/ before e or i can be written as either g or j. In most Latin America, /s/ is either s or z/c (and /cs/ is either x or cc), and /y/ is either y or ll. – Carlos Eugenio Thompson Pinzón Sep 26 '13 at 16:52

There are many foreign words that don't follow Spanish phonetic rules, even though they are heavily used in Spanish.

The only "Spanish" word I can think of off the top of my head that doesn't follow Spanish phonetics is a Mexican slang word:


Although it is spelled with a 'G', the g sound is not pronounced (depending on region). As written, the word should be pronounced as if it were spelled Gway (in English), but in reality it is pronounced as the English word way.

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actually Güey is indeed pronounced as it is written. The umlauts above the "u" is meant to assign this particular sound to the syllabe if it didn't have it it would be written "Guey" and pronounced like the english "gay". The umlauts is missing as a part of the phonetic rules Miko was talking about – Newbie Jul 8 '13 at 15:16
@Newbie: No, the 'G' is silent--at least as I've ever heard it pronounced, and according to wikipedia. – Flimzy Jul 8 '13 at 19:40
According to the RAE: 5. f. Ortogr. Signo ortográfico (¨) que se pone sobre la u de las sílabas gue, gui, para representar que esa letra representa un sonido que debe pronunciarse, como en vergüenza. It sounds like it is written, ver-gu-en-za, if the g sound weren't pronounced it would sound: ver-u-enza. I'm native spanish speaker =P – Newbie Jul 9 '13 at 3:56
@Newbie: What's your point? The ¨ changes the pronunciation of the gu from "g" (English) to "gw" (English). But Güey is not pronounced this way. It is pronounced as wey (English). According to phonetic spelling rules, it should be pronounced as gwey (English). The umlauts change the pronunciation, yes. But they don't make the G silent. – Flimzy Jul 9 '13 at 4:24
exactly, the g is not silent in güey.The ¨ make the u sound but since the g is before it you get the soft and normal "g"-"u" sound combined: gu. "Gu-ey" – Newbie Jul 9 '13 at 15:37

Many (most?) people from at least the Madrid area pronounce a final 'd' as a 'z'.

Madrid --> Madriz

Usted --> Ustez

Enfermedad --> Enfermedaz

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The people of the center of México pronounce the final D in that form too. – Jaime Jun 21 '14 at 19:06

Dialectally, there's a lot.

Another common change you'll hear is -bue- being pronounced as -güe-. Quite common in a lot of rural speeches across the Spanish speaking world. Hence [agüelo] or [güenas] for abuelo or buenas.

In central Spain, /s/ in front of /k/ will become /j/. This is a bit different from the conventional aspirated syllable-final /s/ you'll find in other dialects primarily because the /j/ is the much stronger [χ], and all other /s/ is pronounced exactly as /s/. Some of the most common words/phrases: ['eχ ke] for es que, ['oχkar] for Óscar, or [eɾ'oχki] for Eroski (a supermarket).

In other regions with influence from American languages, Spanish can end up with a three-vowel system, where /e/ and /i/ are both pronounced as [i], and /o/ and /u/ are pronounced [u]. So a word like independiente will end up closer to [indipin'djinti].

Likewise, due to influence from other languages, a handful of regions may distinguish b from v, pronouncing the latter as a libio-dental (as in English).

In Cataluña, world-final -d is realized as [t], hence [us'tet] for usted or [ha'blat] for hablad

In parts of the Carribean (Puerto Rico most especially), syllable final /r/ will often be realized as /l/, and /rr/ as /j/, hence the very name of Puerto Rico becomes ['puelto 'xico].

For non-dialectal differences, one of the most common will be in situations similar to the previously mentioned cohete. There are two strong vowels next to each other, and in these cases, if the unstressed is an /o/, it will tend to be reduced to /u/ and diphthongize with the primary vowel. Likewise /e/ will reduce to /i/. Toalla is virtually universally pronounced as ['twaʎa]. Teatro might be pronounced as ['tjatɾo]. But, ahora stays [a'ora] because /a/ can't reduce.

Double vowels like in creencia are either slightly lengthed [cr'eːnθja] or simple pronounced as a single [cr'enθja]. The Academia actually recommends rewriting certain words with a single vowel when compounding causes double letters because of this: decimoctavo instead of decimooctavo.

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As I always say, I'm not a linguist nor anything like that... Anyway, I can come up with the example of g and j.

The sound of j is always the same:

ja /xa/ (jamón)
je /xe/ (traje)
ji /xi/ (jirafa)
jo /xo/ (conejo)
ju /xu/ (juntar)

The sound of g is different depending on the vowel that follows:

ga /ga/ (gato)
ge /xe/ (gente)
gi /xi/ (rugir)
go /go/ (gorro)
gu /gu/ (agudo)

However, if you add a u, the sounds change:

gua /gua/ (agua)
gue /ge/ (hoguera)
gui /gi/ (guía)
guo /guo/ (antiguo)
guu /guu/ (-)

So, for example, words like hoguera, guía, Miguel, ceguera, guisante, guepardo, ... are "spoken a bit differently than the way they're meant to be"...

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These explain the phonetic rules, not exceptions to them. – Flimzy Jul 6 '13 at 18:34
@Flimzy, well, I don't know, but he asked: is there any case where that word is spoken a bit differently than the way it's spelled? And I gave just some examples of such words... – MikO Jul 6 '13 at 18:45
But you didn't. You explained how words spelled with 'j' sound, how words spelled with 'g' spelled, and how words spelled with 'gu' sound. You just explained three phonetic rules and gave examples. Your examples in the last sentence are not examples of violating phonetic rules. Every one of those words follows the rules. hoguera, guía, Miguel, etc... – Flimzy Jul 6 '13 at 19:49
@Flimzy, actually the asker doesn't ask for "examples of violating phonetic rules", but for "words that are spoken a bit differently than the way they're spelled"... and I think I gave many examples of such words... In fact my name's Miguel and many English people call me /miguel/ with the sound /u/, but it's wrong since Miguel "is spoken a bit differently than the way it's spelled"... – MikO Jul 6 '13 at 20:48
@Flimzy: Yeah, it's true. These explain the rules, but not the exceptions. English people pronounce the spanish words very differently, that we all know. I just wanted to know if there's any word that even the spanish people themselves pronounce differently. Thanks for your effort by the way. – Rahil Arora Jul 6 '13 at 22:24

There are very few examples, but they exist:

cooperativa /kopera'tiba/ (one "o")

zoología /solo'xia/ but zoólogo /so'ologo/

cortésmente /kortes'mente/ (stress is wrongly indicated in the spelling)

In my dialect

transporte /tran'porte/ = [tram'porte] (silent "s")

fósforo /'foforo/ (silent "s")

hámster /'xamster/ or /'xamter/, not /'amster/ ("h" sounds "j")

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Adverbs ending in -mente can have a secondary stress in -men. So cortésmente is pronounced as written, though in some places with this secondary stress: /kor'tes,mente/ – Gorpik Jan 27 '15 at 8:12

The're a ver good explanation up there but I want to give you some examples.

Exactamente --> Esactamente
Excepto --> Esepto
Cohete --> Cuete (Intresting word because NO ONE says cohete but cuete, 
when speaking of fireworks unless you're the media, but EVERYONE, almost, writes COHETE)

There are words with H because they were written with F. The F became an english H but eventually dessapeared as well but there are some places where this H has still a sound.

Moho --> Mojo 
Retahíla --> Retajíla
Hediondo --> Jediondo
Hijo --> Jijo (This is very accepted in Mexico but only in this prhase: 
"Jijo de la chingada")

In the Yucatan peninsula they have lots os mayan words with X and are pronounced as SH

Uxmal --> Ushmal
Xel-Ha --> Shel-Ha(English H)

Or nahuatl words

Xola --> Shola
Xochimilco --> Sochimilco (no SH)
Xochitl --> Sochilt

Or antique apellings that changed the pronounciation but not the writing, persons or places names mostly

México --> Méjico
Xalapa --> Jalapa (Both coexist)
Xavier --> Javier (Both coexit)
Ximena --> Jimena (Both coexist)
Oaxaca --> Oajaca
Texas --> Tejas (Yes, the american Texas, in the spanish speaking world 
is pronounced Tejas)

Or very cult words

Mnemotecnia --> Nemotecnia
Psicología --> Sicología

Words from other languages

Tsunami --> Sunami

But it depends mostly in the accent.

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Spanish may be one of most "phonetic" languages but if you look carefully, all words which are "spoken differently than the way they are spelled" just follow the Spanish set of rules of prounciation.

One-to-one letter to sound match rule is constantly broken and this makes a set of rules by itself. Think 'h', 'g', 'gu', 'qu', 'ch' et cetera. But once the rules are defined, I only know the "México -> Méjico" case of exception.

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Spanish is not a phonetic language. A phonetic language is a language in which you can hear a word and spell it correctly and you can see a written word and pronounce it correctly. You cannot spell "hablar" correctly by hearing it, as the "h" is silent.

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Spanish is a phonetic language. You just need to know the correct sound for each letter. And it happens that the "h" is silent when it is not part of the "ch" digraph. – Envite Jul 15 '14 at 5:18
A phonetic language has a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and sounds. That means one symbol will get you one sound (which Spanish does do), but one sound will get you multiple spellings (so the "ah" sound could be "a" or "ha"). You should be able to spell a word perfectly when you hear it. Spanish doesn't meet this requirement. – Aprendedor May 15 '15 at 23:00

My favorite example of this is: alcohol. The "h" is silent. The two "o's" are not pronounced. Not that I can perceive, anyway. So, "al.col" is how this word is pronounced not "" [Periods used to show syllable breaks.]

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That Spanish is a phonetic language is often accepted uncritically leading to difficulties along the path to building proficiency in the language. As others have indicated the aspect of a language being phonetic is a relative thing. Is Spanish absolutely phonetic? No. But it is phonetic relative to English and not phonetic relative to, say, Swahili. The ideal for a language being phonetic is that once the rules of pronunciation have been mapped you should be able to go from the spoken word to the written word, and vice versa, consistently. This does not always hold in Spanish for many reasons.

First of all, ideally you'd like this phonetic feature to be at the level of the alphabet but Spanish already runs into problems because in most dialects these letters have the same pronunciation: z,s, and in some contexts c, similarly v and b are usually pronounced identically (for the longest time I couldn't discern that the commonly used 'a ver' was its own expression, I thought it was a peculiar use of 'haber' that I was yet to learn). So the mapping from spoken to written broken.

The mapping the other way breaks too from a purely alphabetical standpoint. The 'g' in 'gol' is pronounced differently from the 'g' in 'Argentina'. Similar cases are present with 'c'. However, Spanish is very consistent once the rules for these are established to the extent that once you know these rules there are not too many exceptions.

You run into more problems with regional pronunciation. As indicated above, the aspired 's' in Rioplatense Spanish causes the 's' to disappear completely when it's in the middle of consonants and it ends up sounding like an h. So in this dialect if someone says "dos pesos" you might be tempted to transcribe it as "doh pesos" based on the pronunciation.

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