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Recently, I started to learn Spanish and like many before me I feel confused about b/v pronunciation. I found a good explanation here. One thing is still not crystal clear, though. It seems that either «b» or «v» is supposed to be pronounced as [b] rather than [β] in the following situations:

  1. «b» or «v» is the first letter of the sentence's first word;
  2. «b» or «v» is the first letter of a word and there is comma before it (so, pause is unavoidable);
  3. there is either «m» or «n» before «b» or «v» (it includes the case when the word starts with «b» or «v» and the previous word ends with «m» or «n», like «un vaso»);
  4. words loaned from other languages, foreign names, abbreviations and similar stuff.

Are there any cases where one should clearly pronounce [b]? If so, could you please give examples and briefly explain why it is the case?

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    Beati hispani, quibus vivere bibere est.
    – 0x2b3bfa0
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 12:22
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    @0x2b3bfa0 translation, "Blessed are the Spanish, for whom living is drinking.", or "Bendecidos son los españoles, para los que vivir es beber." Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 11:09

2 Answers 2

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Your summary seems not quite accurate.

In reality, there is variation, not a single absolute rule. Supposedly, some Spanish speakers even distinguish a [b] sound from a labiodental [v] sound—for example, if they speak another language where such a distinction exists.

But for most Spanish speakers, there is no phonemic distinction—meaning no possibility of meaningful contrast—between [b] and [β]. This means it's not possible for "words loaned from other languages, foreign names, abbreviations and similar stuff" to follow a different rule from regular words.

The general pattern, which I've been told is advisable for learners, is is simply to use [b] after a pause or after a nasal consonant (the preceding nasal consonant will be pronounced [m], but can be spelled M or N, and as you note, doesn't have to be in the same word as the [b]), and to use [β] anywhere else. So:

  1. «b» or «v» is the first letter of the sentence's first word;

Yes if this is the first sentence that is being said after a pause. If multiple sentences are being pronounced one after another, the B or V at the start of one of the middle sentences might be pronounced as [β] if the speaker doesn't pause before it.

  1. «b» or «v» is the first letter of a word and there is comma before it (so, pause is unavoidable);

I don't think people really always pause after a comma. If you do pause, then you can say [b]; but if you don't pause, it could be [β] (or [b] in the cluster [mb]). It would depend not on how the sentence is punctuated, but how it is actually pronounced.

  1. there is either «m» or «n» before «b» or «v» (it includes the case when the word starts with «b» or «v» and the previous word ends with «m» or «n», like «un vaso»);

Yes, that's correct.

  1. words loaned from other languages, foreign names, abbreviations and similar stuff.

No: as I said above, these would follow the general rule for [b] vs. [β] (assuming the speaker is pronouncing the loaned words/named in Spanish and not "code-switching" to another language entirely: in the latter case, anything goes, and not only [b] and [β] but other sounds foreign to Spanish could well be involved).

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    Thank you for such thorough explanation! Everything seems to be quite clear now.
    – S. N.
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 12:50
  • well, I have been speaking spanish for over 30 years and never made any difference between them, or pay attention to any difference from other native speakers (that is, some people may pronounce them differently, but it makes not practical difference on the understanding). I do pronounce them (b and w) differently when speaking German, because they can't understand you if you use the wrong one, but I can barely hear any difference either
    – Einacio
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 14:30
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B is pronounced [b] after a period, m, or n. It is [β] anywhere else. V is pronounced [b] after a period, m, or n. It is [β] anywhere else.

There are no other rules to it. You are exactly correct.

To memorize it, I treat them as separate letters (b, .b, mb, .v, nv). NB and MV don't happen in Spanish very often.

I can share a full guide written like this if you want for all Spanish letters.

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    If you refer to spelling, the consonant groups NB and MV actually NEVER occur in Spanish.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:41
  • I left it open for the odd loanword or two.
    – ILEM World
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:46
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    I think you mean 'after', not 'before'. Apart from that, as another answer has mentioned, this shouldn't be seen as a 'rule', just as a gross simplification of how phonologists have identified a distribution pattern for two allophones of what native speakers perceive as one single sound. For what it's worth, I've never been too sure about how valid it is. It doesn't match my perception of how I pronounce the /b/ sound (I think I say an approximant [β] after pause and maybe a stop [b] in some environments other than after /n/). Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 8:42
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    @S.N. What I mean is that the difference between [b] and [β] is only known to phonologists. Your average José or María on the street only knows that there is one sound /b/ that can be spelt with either a 'b' or a 'v'. So Spanish speakers don't really decide which one to use because we are not even aware of there being two pronunciations at all! This is like the situation with the English /t/ sound on the words 'stop' and 'top'. Native speakers perceive just one /t/ sound in both words, while phonologists will claim that there are two variants ('allophones', in the jargon) of one /t/ 'phoneme'. Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 12:48
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    @S.N. As for 'nv' and 'mb', note that Spanish speakers find it difficult to differentiate between 'm' and 'n' at the end of a syllable, so things like 'am' and 'an' sound the same. Children think of this final sound as an 'n', so they would write 'canbio' or 'canpo' if it weren't for the famous spelling rule "se escribe 'm' delante de 'b' y 'p'". So, when a child writes *'canbio', they see that the 'n' is next to a 'b' and apply the rule, correcting it to 'm': 'cambio'. But when it is an 'n' before 'v', as in 'enviar', the rule doesn't apply and the 'n' stays. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 1:45

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