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English is a language that does not have a consistent system for the pronunciation of words with similar spellings (e.g. compare rough with through), this can lead to a situation where it is not always obvious how an unfamiliar word is pronounced.

Spanish, conversely, has a very consistent system for pronunciation of words, in that one can read an unfamiliar word and be confident in how it is pronounced.

I ask if there exists any Spanish words that are not pronounced in a way that would be expected from its spelling. I have not encountered any examples in my study of Spanish.

If no words like this exist, why is this the case? Did the Real Academia Española (RAE) eliminate all such examples that possibly existed in the past?

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    One word could be Whiskey pronunced as güisqui. – Veelicus May 18 '17 at 12:54
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    It's what I love most about Spanish. If you learn it while drinking at the bar or laying on the beach, you can develop spoken and written skills at the same time. It's impossible to do so in English or French : how should kɜːrnəl (Colonel), kwʌɪə (Choir) or ʃɑto (Château) be written? – Eric Duminil May 18 '17 at 15:44
  • @Veelicus nope. Happens to be an English loan word much in the same way as Cognac and Champagne since they are Denominations of origin for alcoholic spirits, modern trade rules demand they be written in their original language spelling, lest they be confused with a counterfeit spirit. Try and find bottle of authentic Tequila in, say, Russia where the name of the beverage is written with Cyrillic characters: There are none. Not all spirits enjoy this kind of protection though. Vodka for example doesn't enjoy this protection since it has been produced in multiple regions. – hlecuanda May 20 '17 at 16:10

11 Answers 11

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As you can see from this questions Are there other words in Spanish that can't be written? (like sal-le) there might be really rare exceptions, but it might be possible to find "Spanish words that are not pronounced in a way that would be expected from its spelling".

From the answers in that question we have as examples "salle" (2rd person imperative of salir with a pronoun. Like if you were in a soccer game and you wanted to say to the goalie "Salle tú a ese jugador, yo voy a por el otro") and specially suidos, which as the answer says, is a word something you would not pronounce as expected based upon its written form.

As we learned in ¿Por qué el español se pronuncia como se escribe? while Spanish was "evolving" as a language it didn't have a written grammar, rules, etc. until Alfonso X tried to put into "written form" the language (which was done first following phonology, years later following etimology and then back and forward). That is why Spanish has a "shallower" orthographic depth than other languages.

  • 3rd person imperative of salir is written sale, wich is pronounced like almost any other similar 2 sillabe word, calle, baile, corre, gira. – CptEric May 17 '17 at 13:43
  • isn't 2rd person imperative of salir with a pronoun, as far as i know, sal? "Sal tú a ese jugador, you voy a por el otro". conjugador.reverso.net/conjugacion-espanol-verbo-salir.html – CptEric May 17 '17 at 13:55
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    You are absolutely right. The tricky part only comes in place when used with the pronoun. Imperative form, per se doesn't add the pronoun. For example, for "poner" it would be "Pon (tú) la mesa", but "Ponle (tú) la mesa a ese cliente" (in a restaurant). The problem with "Salle" is that written as that, the double 'L' should be pronounced as in "silla", but you actually want to pronounce them "independently" with a "le" (not "lle") sound. I just included the verb tense for clarification, to make it easier to recognize what is happening with "salle". – Diego May 17 '17 at 15:07
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    In my flavour of Spanish I would say "salile", and no pronunciation ambiguity. But maybe that's because we say "salí" and not "sal". – Martin Argerami May 18 '17 at 12:34
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    @CptEric I do use "Sal-le" in Castillian. And a lot of people do, too. Kids, more than anybody. You know when? When playing football! Whenever a player from the opposing team managed to go past your defense, and you want your goalie to leave the goal (or even the penalty area) and go to their encounter so they don't get closer to the goal... "SAL-LE!!! SAL-LEEEEE!!!!!!" – walen May 18 '17 at 12:50
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Short answer: no.

Longer answer: no, as a general rule all native and nativized Spanish words are "pronounced as written", which does not mean that every speaker pronounces them in the same way, but only that for a given graph (letter or fixed combination thereof) the pronunciation in a given dialect is always the same. Also, of course, it does not mean that every difference in writing correlates with a difference in pronunciation (v and b are the best examples).

There is a group of deviations from the norm (thanks @guifa for the comment): the unstressed hiatuses in some verb endings. The rules say that the groups ia, ie, io are always pronounced as a diphthong, unless broken orthographically by an accent (ía, íe, ío), but in enviar the vowels tend to be pronounced separately (in some cases the hiatus is explicitly broken: yo envío). There a section on Wikipedia's article about Spanish irregular verbs dealing with this.

Words borrowed from other languages and which haven't been adapted to Spanish orthography are also exceptions to the phonetic rule, but even in this case, the pronunciation is not always unpredictable; in general it will wander a bit around a few realizations and then stabilize as the word becomes common.

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    The only exception is unstressed hiatuses that are unmarked. enviar per spelling is /en'bjar/ but actually /en.bi'ar/. Have to memorize them – guifa May 17 '17 at 12:35
  • That's true! Adding it now. – pablodf76 May 17 '17 at 14:34
  • @guifa Odd, I've always pronounced enviar as /enˈbjar/. In this verb's conjugation, the hiatus is clearly marked where it applies (c.f. “envío” (present first-person singular) vs “envió” (preterite third-person singular)). – Locoluis May 17 '17 at 14:38
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    @Locoluis the hiatus can be reduced frequently in speech, c.f. toalla. Note that where the hiatus is marked with an accent, it is always on a stressed syllable. My comment referred to when the the weak vowel is unstressed (do you say the U on a separate syllable in careful speech in estadounidense or the I in confiamos or the preterite of rehacer (note rehíce but rehiciste). Those are other examples where most Spanish speakers have a hiatus that cannot be indicated in prose writing – guifa May 17 '17 at 14:46
  • @guifa Oh, I get it. It's dialectal (most common in Peninsular Spanish). An exceptional hiatus happens when the stress goes in the open vowel (li-a-ba, en-vi-a-ba). And yes, it's inconsistent (du-e-to but due-lo) – Locoluis May 17 '17 at 14:53
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The RAE dictionary includes a lot of loan words from other languages (example). In those cases, the entry will be written in italics and will be marked as "voz inglesa" or whichever language it comes from.

Obviously, in such cases the word will not be pronounced as in Spanish, but as it is pronounced in its original language. You can see in the example that the definition just redirects you to the Spanish-ised version of the word.

It gets funnier when we find that there are Spanish words based in foreign names, such as shakespeariano. You can pronounce it following the English pronunciation, an Spanish-ised one, or even a mix of them.

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    Another tasty example where there's no Spanish-ized alternative: dle.rae.es/?id=THUjqhF – jas May 17 '17 at 14:45
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    In Barcelona I hear piTsa and never piTHa, but admittedly there's a lot of international influence on things, here. In any case, I agree with your answer that words not pronounced as expected are certain loan words from other languages. – jas May 17 '17 at 14:52
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    @jas sorry my comment was incomplete and misleading. I pronounce pizza as 'pisa', so as it is written. – DGaleano May 17 '17 at 15:01
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    I do not disagree with the answer, just with the example. But... Well shakespeariano is a better example. You should add it to your answer. :-) – DGaleano May 17 '17 at 15:08
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    @DGaleano: why would pronouncing "pizza" as it is said in its original language, be "just wrong"? – Martin Argerami May 18 '17 at 12:58
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One unexpected pronunciation for me was México, as a Peninsular speaker I would ofter pronounce it as Méksico, but then I learned that it should be a J-sound because they just refused the spelling reform, hence, Don Quixote, Texas and México

  • And yet, interestingly, a number of proper nouns ending in "-mex", obviously based on "México," are pronounced as "-eks." For instance, Pemex, Banamex, Cinemex. – Michael Wolf May 20 '17 at 19:34
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Some people might not expect México to be pronounced as Méjico. The older spelling was kept after the spelling update. Proper nouns sometimes kept the old spellings.

The common noun tejas, the red tiles found in roofing, is the same word as Texas, the name of a US state.

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Spanish words containing a "w" come from other languages and depending on their origin this letter sounds different. For example, "wolframio" [bolˈfɾa.mjo] (german), or "sándwich" [ˈsan.dwitʃ] (english)

Although there is a rule for this (if german origin, sounds like "b" or "v", otherwise nearly always sounds like "gua", "gue", "güi", "guo" "gu" or "u"), you can't know only from its spelling.

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I think that I could also add a very interesting example on this matter. It clearly separates Peninsular Spanish users from us, American users of the language. I refer to the combination -tl- in words like Atlántico or atleta. In Spain you may always hear the words pronounced like. At-lántico or at-leta and if I'm not mistaken,on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; all of us "liquify" this combination in -tl- and we say.Atl-ántico and atl-eta. Even though,both variations can be perfectly understood by both groups of users of this almost totally phonetic language.

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    Actually, the tl combination goes on the other side: /a'tlan.ti.co/. But it's not "liquefied", it's just that tl is a valid onset consonant cluster in some dialects and not in other dialects (the distribution is not, however, exactly American vs Peninsular, as there are speakers on both sides the pronounce it both ways). While it's possible that in some areas of Mexico some speakers lateralize the cluster, getting [t͡ɬ], it is not part of general Mexican Spanish. See stel.ub.edu/labfon/sites/default/files/XVIII-15.pdf – guifa May 24 '17 at 21:28
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A couple of exceptions I can think from the top of my head:

Pijama is pronounced as "piyama" in Latin America.

México is pronounced "méjico".

  • According to the DRAE it is spelled piyama in America dle.rae.es/?id=TGwDDwC – mdewey May 17 '17 at 14:54
  • Correct spelling is piyama and regarding the X it is has more that one sound See lema.rae.es/dpd/srv/search?id=genTPtyahD6kw8AJ2P specially definition #4 So México is pronounced as it is written. – DGaleano May 17 '17 at 14:57
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    DRAE notwithstanding, as a native South American I have never seen it spelled piyama, and I have never heard it pronounced pijama. So in practice there are (very few) exceptions. – Roberto Bonvallet May 17 '17 at 15:21
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Allow me to add another answer, as I have just read something in the RAE web that made me remember this question.

I was looking for the plural form of CD, and you can find this in the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas:

Como corresponde a las siglas, se escribe con letras mayúsculas y, en la lengua escrita, es invariable en plural, aunque oralmente sí suele añadirse la /s/ de plural ([sedés, zedés]): «Localizó uno de los CD que quería poner» (Época [Esp.] 11.8.97). (Source)

The dictionary contains an entry for disco compacto, but also for the abbreviated version CD, which is invariable in plural, but as the acronym is read /zedé/ or /sedé/, in plural even the RAE recognises you can read it as /zedés/ or /sedés/, even though you cannot write "CDs". So it can be thought of as another word that is not read as it is written.

  • +1. Esta la estuve pensando yo también. No sabía si "expandirla" a las abreviaturas en general, porque cuando uno ve E.E.U.U., no lo lee/pronuncia tal cual, ya que es consciente de que hay reglas para abreviaturas (no se pronuncian o leen en voz alta tal cual están escritas, pero sí como uno podría esperar de acuerdo a ciertas normas). Este creo es un caso especial entre ellas, por la cuestión que expones con el plural. – Diego May 22 '17 at 13:12
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The spanish word "subrayar" should be pronounced as "su bra yar", but people says "sub ra yar". Is the only case I know.

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    If you think about what the word means then it makes sense. Subrayar means to underline. Rayar is to strikethrough from a writing (MS Word perspective). It has other meanings as well like if somebody keys your car, loosely translated : me han rayado el carro con una llave. Sub is a prefix and the root word is rayar. Thats why its pronounces sub-ra-yar and not su-bra-yar. – PJEscalona May 18 '17 at 14:47
  • Nop. It is sub as a prefix to the two syllables verb rayar so it is sub-ra-yar – DGaleano May 18 '17 at 18:36
  • It'll be /sub.ra'yar/ as long as speakers continue to recognize it as a prefix+base combination. Once that connection is lost (if ever), you'll see a trend towards /su.bra'yar/ — you can see that happening pretty often with the des- prefix. (in older orthographies it wasn't unheard of to see prefixes written completely separated from the base word, joining them is a relatively new thing). That said, it does create an situation of ambiguous pronunciation so this answer isn't exactly wrong. – guifa May 24 '17 at 21:33
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Se llaman palabras homónimas a aquellas cuya pronunciación es igual o similar pero difieren en su significado. Dentro de éstas, se distingue entre las palabras homófonas y las homógrafas. Las primeras se pronuncian igual pero se escriben de un modo diferente y tienen significados distintos, y las segundas difieren también en su significado pero la grafía es idéntica

Here you have a list:

Example: Asia (continente) hacia (preposición)

Incluye pares de palabras que son homófonas para los hablantes que no distinguen /z/ y /s/ o /y/ y /ll/

In this example there are some Spanish countries or regionalisms where /s/ and /c/ might have a different pronunciation. Like 'Earth', some English accents ignore the 'R' or make it softer.

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    Interesting answer, but I think perhaps you are going in the opposite direction: Asia and hacia sound the same with different spellings. What I understand the OP to want is a word where from the spelling you cannot guess how to pronounce it. – mdewey May 17 '17 at 10:15

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