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I learned long ago to not distinguish B and V. For example, beber and vivir look very different in writing yet differ in phonemes only in their vowels.

However, a Colombian friend insists that initial V is sometimes like English V rather than B. This occurred when we were comparing Italian and Spanish and I commented that although written the same, vino was pronounced differently (when in isolation). She claimed that the Italian and Spanish sound the same: that it starts with an English like V even when said alone.

Oddly, although she is quite aware of the English B / V difference, she cannot distinguish English S and Z. To her, the S in mismo is just like S in any other Spanish word.

One possibility is that her knowledge of English has influenced her perception. Another is a phenomenon called phonetic self-deception. I am quite aware of this from English. My variety of English is non-rhotic i.e. we only pronounce R if a vowel follows. For me, sauce and source, are homonyms. Most other speakers are quite unaware of this; they believe that they are pronouncing R since many pairs of words that differ only by a written R do not sound the same e.g had and hard. What is really happening is that the R is changing the preceding vowel.

Might this be the explanation, she is so aware of the written difference that she sees a difference in speech as well? Might her knowledge of English (fluent but not native) have influenced her?

Clarification:

To make this question more clearly about Spanish than linguistics in general: are some native Spanish speakers influenced by the standard orthography into believing that they distinguish B and V even though they don't?

  • I wonder whether this might be a better fit on the Linguistics site? It is not off-topic here since it is predominantly about sounds in Spanish but there may be wider expertise on the other site. – mdewey Jun 14 at 12:48
  • Maybe depending on what the explanation is. I started here in case it was specific to Spanish in general or maybe specifically Spanish in Colombia but it might be part of a more general phenomenon not specific to Spanish. – badjohn Jun 14 at 13:19
  • There certainly are people here who might know but we are a small site so if nobody answers within a few days ... – mdewey Jun 14 at 13:58
  • It's just a curiosity. If someone can answer then that would be nice. If no one can then it's not serious. – badjohn Jun 14 at 14:00
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You are right and the Colombian, as many other Latinamericans are wrong, here you have an article from RAE talking about that:

https://translate.google.es/translate?sl=es&tl=en&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.rae.es%2Fdpd%2Fv

In some areas could be an influence from some aborigin languages, but it is most likely that an over-correction leads the speakers to pronounce the v in the English way, well, nowadays, prorbably because of the huge influence from English, the Spanish speakers could be tempted to make the difference.

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  • This friend has lived in England for a long time. So, it is quite possible that English has influenced her Spanish. – badjohn Jun 17 at 15:19
  • A great article. Reading the original was great practice and the bit "the names of go, go low, go short or go girl" made more sense in Spanish than English. – badjohn Jun 17 at 15:35
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    Thanks @badjohn, here's the original article, rae.es/dpd/v – Andrés Chandía Jun 18 at 11:21
  • I managed to find that - thanks. – badjohn Jun 18 at 11:43
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The B and V are pronounced the same; in some dialects, it's a pure B and in others it's more like a V (somewhere between [b]~[β]~[v]). The point is that there is no distinction beween the two letters. They are allophones. In Chile they try to teach kids to pronounce B and V differently, but it's a put-on pronunciation, and no hispanohablante would differentiate them in spontaneous conversation without outside influence. (This confusion is the cause for some common spelling mistakes, p.ej. haber/a ver, etc.)

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  • I guess that my friend's knowledge of English might be that outside influence. Certainly, she can differentiate them in English. Conversely, she struggles with S and Z in English. – badjohn Jun 14 at 15:58
  • I have read of that distinction but I don't notice it or try to achieve it. I am sure that there are many much more important aspects of my pronunciation to work on first e.g. R and RR. – badjohn Jun 14 at 16:00
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    In Latin, B was [β] and V was [w]. From there the two letters only became more similar, leading to them being pronounced the same in Spanish. There has been confusion between them since the first manuscripts written in el romance castellano. The same situation exists in Asturian, Valencian, northern Portuguese, Gallego, etc. – nopaltepec Jun 14 at 16:23
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As you and people in the comments pointed out, there is no difference between the pronunciation of b and v.

That's true in Colombia as well, even when in other aspects we do make a difference with the Spanish from Spain, like pronouncing s and z as the same sound, as you mentioned.

There was a time ( XVIII, XIX and early twentieth centuries) where having a labiodental pronunciation was recommended by the academic authorities, as the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas mentions.

However, after 1911 the Academy stopped recommending that pronunciation and the name of v was changed to uve instead of v labidental as it was known.

So it seemed to be clear by then. The difference between both letters will only exist in the written form. But, even in the 50's and 60's (and I'm sure later too), at least in Colombia, it was still common to teach that both sounds were different. It's interesting that this happened as well in some schools of high quality and it even started to be a sign of status and proper education or "being cult".

As the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas also says:

es un error que cometen algunas personas por un equivocado prurito de corrección, basado en recomendaciones del pasado

Free translation:

[it] is a mistake that some people make because of a misguided sense of propriety, based on recommendations from the past

As a result, it's not difficult to still find some people in Colombia who think that the correct way to pronounce the v is the labidental one.

So I guess that in the case of your friend, it can be what you say (self-deception) but also it can be that that's why she was taught and she actually does pronounce them differently, even when most of the people use the same sound for them.

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    This was common in many places, it seems. In the 1980s teachers gave dictation using this (completely artificial) contrast, and still in the 1990s I had a professor who insisted that v was to be called ve labiodental and pronounced as such. – pablodf76 Jun 16 at 22:46

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