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I've noticed that there aren't any words in Spanish that start with sp. Latin words are altered to include an e in front of the sp. Even loan words are often modified to esp...:

  • spaghetti => espagueti
  • Sparta => Esparta

I've even heard (but for obvious reasons, not read):

  • Sprite => Esprite

The Real Academia Española's Diccionario de la Lengua Española lists a few English loan words that start sp:

  • speech
  • sponsor
  • sport
  • spot
  • spray
  • sprint

(It seems like several of these are technical terms related to broadcasting, but otherwise I can't see why these spellings were not altered.)

Finally, when I looked at the title of this very question, I noticed perhaps the strangest spelling change:

  • Español => Spanish

So why don't Spanish words (in general) start with the sp sound?

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5  
Rather... why english words start with sp? –  Joze Nov 28 '11 at 21:37
    
@Joze Also other languages start with "sp", Spanish is the only one that, apparently for now at least, that doesn't have any word starting with "sp". –  Alenanno Nov 28 '11 at 21:46
    
@Joze: But in English we do have words that start esp: "especially", "espionage", "espresso", "espouse", etc. Some are on loan from French or Italian, but there's no rule against that spelling. (There are hardly any rules of English spelling, but that's a topic for another site. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 21:49
    
This question for spanish is symmetrical to this debate in the comments for english. Funny ! :-) –  Nicolas Barbulesco 2 days ago
    
@Alenanno — In french we say Espagne and espagnol (and Espingouin too ^^). Here it really seems that english has eaten the E. –  Nicolas Barbulesco 2 days ago

4 Answers 4

up vote 29 down vote accepted

It’s a basic rule of Spanish phonotactics. In a nutshell, the structure of a Spanish syllable does not allow it:

(C1 (C2)) (S1) V (S2) (C3 (C4))

A Spanish syllable consists of an optional onset, consisting of one or two consonants; a required nucleus, consisting of a vowel optionally preceded by and/or followed by a semivowel; and an optional coda, consisting of one or two consonants.

Now take “spa” (as in Spanish) as an example syllable. First in the onset can be any consonant (here [s]), but a second consonant is allowed only if the first is [p], [t], [k], [b], [d], [ɡ], or [f]. Furthermore, the second consonant can only be [l] or [r]. “Spa” satisfies neither of these rules, therefore it cannot occur as a syllable in a (native) Spanish word.

It just happens that the most common words which do begin with [sp-] in English begin with [esp-] in Spanish, because that was usually the original spelling. English got a lot of these words via Old French; the initial [e] was reduced to [ə] and typically dropped thereafter.

Obviously Spanish speakers have the physical ability to pronounce words beginning with [sp] and other such consonant clusters. But when learning (or borrowing words from) another language, our pronunciation is often coloured by our native tongue, hence “Esprite”.

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This is the actual correct answer. Thanks for adding it with the fluffy ones also here (-: –  hippietrail Nov 29 '11 at 2:38
1  
The tick indicates that OP thinks this answers the question, but I don't. It just formalises it. Why has Spanish phonotactics developed this restriction when it wasn't present in Latin? Or is it commonly believed among classical linguists that Latin words such as "spiro" and "spero" were pronounced with an unwritten initial vowel? –  Peter Taylor Jan 2 '12 at 13:45
2  
@PeterTaylor: I’m not really versed in Spanish history, so I can’t answer that. The Iberian peninsula has a rich history of occupation, and occupation tends to result in simplifications. Look at what the Normans did to Old English. So a lot of Latin consonant clusters were reduced in Old Spanish (e.g., acetar from acceptare), and my best guess is that sp just happened to be one of the clusters that survived. –  Jon Purdy Jan 2 '12 at 20:56
1  
I agree with @PeterTaylor. I don't think the selected answer solves the mystery. Rules are just a formalization of reality, and in this case it doesn't even have any relation with the question of sp/esp: it's just a rule on how to extract syllables given a word. Furthermore, there are lots and lots of exceptions, as the answer shows, so I'd say that more than a rule it's a model that captures what already was there. This is the same case as answering "because of Newton's formula" to the question: "Why does matter attract matter?" –  user1025 Oct 3 '12 at 11:02
2  
This may be due to influence of the ancient Iberian language. We don't know much about it, but many scholars believe modern Basque is an evolution of Iberian, and the phonetic structure of Basque is quite similar to that of Spanish. Including the syllabic onset that Jon explains here. –  Gorpik Nov 4 '13 at 15:15

Spanish words can't begin with sibilant blends, so when such a word is made or borrowed, an "e" is usually prepended to mesh with the pattern of Spanish pronunciation. It's not just "sp."

Some English cognates, either with common Latin origins or borrowed anglicisms:

  • esbelto (svelte)
  • escasez (scarcity)
  • esfera (sphere)
  • eslogan (slogan)
  • esmog (smog)
  • esnob (snob)
  • espinacas (spinach -- that's an Arabic one for variety!)
  • esquina (square)
  • estandar (standard)

So it's not just "sp."

Some of these words come from English -- like smog, snob, and slogan (the last one from Gaelic) -- and others like esfera are Greek σφαῖρα via Latin sphaera. All of those add the "e" only in Spanish. Some of the other Latin words like exquadra (squared off) or exvellere (stretched, svelte) have the Latin ex- (out of) prefix.

This is a common enough pattern that it should be a part of every Spanish translator's toolkit. If you ever need to help a native Spanish speaker with foreign pronunciation, you will find that the idea of launching into sibilant blends without a softening initial vowel is foreign enough to be a shock at first.

Spain note: As for Spain and España, the original Latin name for Iberia was Hispania, so it was the English version that dropped the characteristic vowel rather than the Spanish version that added it. It's an interesting reversal of the usual pattern where Latin words added the vowel as part of the evolution of the Spanish language and English kept them bare.

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1  
The concept of "sibilant blends" helps--I hadn't noticed that more general rule. (But now that I see it, the rule is intuitive.) Do Spanish words not start with them because of pronunciation patterns then? –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 22:46
    
@JonEricson — Indeed this looks like an interesting explanation. But what are "sibilant blends" ? –  Nicolas Barbulesco 2 days ago
    
@Nicolas Barbulesco: Sibilant refers to sounds made between closed teeth (s, z, and j, for instance). A blend is when two consonants are spoken together to make a new sound (sp in this case, but also sounds like bl and gr). So the answer is saying that as a rule, none of the blends that start with s begin words in Spanish. –  Jon Ericson 2 days ago
    
@JonEricson - Thank you for the explanation. This makes sense. –  Nicolas Barbulesco yesterday

In spanish all syllables must have at least a "vowel sound" because without a vowel a consonant can't be pronounced. With vowel sound we can also add the letter "Y" in words like whisky (for syllable ky).

So as all words starting with the sound "ESP"/"SP" should be divided in two syllables so S should be the first and P should belong to the next one. As the first syllable is S there should be an E before the S so that consonant can have a sound, for instance:

ESPAÑA --> ES - PA - ÑA 
ESPECIAL --> ES- PE- CIAL 

All of this is just because the sound in english for S in Spanish is written ES, because S by itself doesn't have a sound (except you mean the letter S, but that is called "ese").


UPDATE: WHY SP sound always is 2 syllables:

Because of the rules for forming syllables in Spanish. I select some of them which affect this case

  1. A consonanat can't form by itself a syllable --> so S can't be alone

Now the word could be:

-ESP + Vowel (CASE 1) e.g. ESPAÑA
-ESP + Consonant(L/R)+vowel  (CASE2) e.g. ESPLENDOR, ESPRAY,
  1. When there is a VOWEL + CONSONANT + CONSONANT + VOWEL the syllable one ends in the first consonant and the other in the second, except for these groups: bl, br, dr, cr, cl, fr, fl, gr, gl, pl, pr, tr y dr --> For CASE 1 As "SP" is not in the group the syllables must be ES - P...

  2. When there are 3 consonants in a row the first two consonants go in the same syllable and the 3rd in the next one. But if the 3rd consonant is an L or an R the first consonant goes in the first syllable and the 2 next consonants in the next syllable. --> For CASE 2 this means that ES belongs to the first syllable and PR/PL to the second one.

    So this is how S and P can't belong to the same syllable.

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1  
I'm not sure why the syllable couldn't be divided elsewhere. In English, "special" is divided "spe-cial". –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 21:57
1  
@Jon Ericson updated with an explanation about it. Spanish syllables aren't the same as English ones. –  Juanillo Nov 28 '11 at 22:35
1  
Got it. I didn't know about the rules for "syllablification" in Spanish. Thank you. –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 22:40

This doesn't answer the question directly but adds some related information.
In Spanish dialects where an S preceding a consonant, is pronounced as an english H *, this wouldn't even be possible to pronounce, imagine pronouncing a word like Hpecial or Hparta

* Argentina, Uruguay, parts of Spain and Central America, I think.

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