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  1. Is there any hint to guess, when I hear an unknown word, if is is spelled with ll / y ?

  2. Is there any hint to guess, when I hear an unknown word, if is is spelled with g / j / x ?

I mean any kind of rule of thumb, a hint based on other Romance languages, based on the word origin etc.? Maybe something like "If it is spelled like xxx in Latin, then it is spelled yyy in Spanish"?

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If you know Latin and the word is of Latin origin, then it's generally possible to predict. As the RAE went modifying the orthography, while stressing etymological spellings, they recognized that some non-etymological spellings were so ingrained in society that it would be pointless to try to revert them.

So with that in mind...

Between y and ll

  • ll has its origins in double consonants, either intervocalic ll (bella), or word initial cl (llave, llamar), fl (llama as in fire) and pl (lleno). Notice many of these have duplets in the language due to later reimportation from Latin (clave/llave, pleno/lleno).

  • y comes out of Latin j or i (which were the same letter anyways).

Between j, g, or x

  • j comes out of Latin consonant clusters with an /s/ such as x (dijo) or ps (caja), the semivowel /j/ (like jota or in combination with certain consonants as in mujer), and come sibilants (rojo). The consonants clusters developed into sibilants along the way hence they end up j (from dixit to dijo we went /ks/ to /ʃ/ to /χ~h/)

  • g for Latin g or intervocalic c (agua)

  • x purely for etymological reasons almost exclusively in prefixes and retains its /ks~gs/ sound intervocalicly and in some dialects /s/ in front of consonants, or words that were lexicalized early on, intervocalicly, the sound change for the /ks/ cluster took hold, giving words like ejemplo

If the word is not of Latin (or Greek, for some cases of x), then if you know the language the word came from, you may be able to guess it, but those rules will be based on particular conventions between Spanish and that language (and more specifically, Spanish of the time the word entered and that language from the time the word entered).

  • Excellent explanation, thanks! Where does México belong? – Honza Zidek Feb 25 '16 at 9:05
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    @HonzaZidek x used for /x/ is a purely etymological concern. The Nahuatl word had a /∫/ sound, and so it was transcribed into Spanish with x (which was pronounced /∫/ at the time). The /∫/ became /χ~h/ in speech over time, and hence in some countries was spelled Méjico, but since Mexicans preferred using the x in that and other indigenous words, it has stuck around and is the preferred spelling. So technically, it goes under the "If not Latin or Greek, use conventions of the time the word entered Spanish..." bit. – user0721090601 Mar 2 '16 at 1:34
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Write 'LL':

  • words which finish in 'illo', 'illa' or derivates: cuchillo, vajilla, cepillo, apellido
  • words which finish in 'alle', 'elle', 'ello', 'ella': valle, camello, bella
  • some verbs finish in 'llar': cepillar, arrodillar

Write with 'Y':

  • verbs forms which finish in 'uir': disminuir [disminuyo], concluir [concluyo]
  • syllable 'yec': proyector, eyección
  • the sound 'yer': yerba, yerno (WARNING: hierro, hierba)
  • verbs forms which without 'Y', 'LL' in infinitive: oir [oye], ir [voy]
  • after the syllables 'ad', 'dis', 'sub': adyacente, disyuntor, subyacente
  • words starting with 'yu': yudo, Yucatán (WARNING: lluvia)

Write 'G':

  • words with 'geo' [sciences]: geografía, geología, geometría
  • words with 'leg, 'germ', 'gest': legado, germano, gesto
  • with the sound 'gen': gente, gentilicio (WARNING: ajeno, ventaja)
  • verbs finishing with 'ger', 'gir': coger, urgir (WARNING: crujir, tejer)
  • composites and derivates of words with 'g': generalmente, gentío
  • word which finish with 'gésimo', 'génico', 'genario', 'geneo', 'génico', 'genio', 'genito', 'gético', 'giénico', 'ginal', 'gineo', 'ginoso', 'gismo', 'gia', gio, 'gión', 'gionario', 'gioso', 'gírico', 'ógica', 'ígena', 'ígeno', 'igero', 'inge', 'gente', 'gencia': ingenio, higiénico, lógica, indígena [WARNING: espejísmo]
  • after 'n' or 'r': ángel, engendro [WARNING: extranjero, canje, monje, tarjeta]

Write with 'J':

  • words with 'aje', 'eje', 'ije', 'oje', 'uje': viaje, teje, ojeras. [WARNING: verbs forms which infinitive finish in 'ger', 'gir'(proteger, elegir); ir when after the combination come 'l', 'n', 's': flagelación, agente]
  • word finish with 'aj', 'aje', 'eje', 'oj', 'jero', 'jera', 'jería': equipaje, reloj, relojero, relojería
  • verbs form which in indicative didn't use 'G' or 'J': dije (decir), conduje (conducir)
  • when is necessary change the 'g' by the sound in the first person for verbs forms (yo elijo), second person (usted elije), and all cases for subjunctive (nosotros elijamos)

credits: http://lengua.laguia2000.com/ortografia/el-uso-de-la-g-y-la-j

Write with 'X':

  • Words starting with 'ex' before 'pr' and 'pl': exprimir, expreso, explicar, explosión [WARNING: espliego, esplendor]
  • Words starting with 'ex' when means something out, person which finish some charge: extremo, expresidente, excomulgado
  • Words starting with 'xeno' (foreigner), 'xero' (dry), 'xilo' (wood): xenofobía, xerocopia, xilófono
  • Words starting with 'extra' (out of): extraterrestre, extranjero, extramuros, extraordinario

credits: http://www.elabueloeduca.com/aprender/lengua/ortografia/reglasdelax.html

note: don't take this like oficial rules from RAE, there can be other rules or exceptions!

  • Is this a "rule of thumb"? – Rodrigo Dec 6 '15 at 22:24
  • It's a long question. If you have a more easy answer, go ahead – HEDMON Dec 6 '15 at 22:50
  • Thanks for your very good and detailed description. I appreciate your answer, too. However the etymological answer of @guifa is even more helpful for me in this case. But thanks again for your comprehensive answer! – Honza Zidek Dec 16 '15 at 10:47
  • Yes, I also vote up his answer. I'm just a native spanish talker but not specialist in the lang. Thanks to your comment too ;) – HEDMON Dec 16 '15 at 11:35

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