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In another question, a Wikipedia article was quoted saying:

The letters ⟨b⟩ and ⟨v⟩ were originally simply known as be and ve. However, there is no longer any distinction between the sounds of these letters—their accepted names are be and uve.

What were the historical sounds of the letters b and v? When did they change to their current forms as pronounced today?

9

En efecto, en español, las dos letras representan el sonido bilabial sonoro /b/. Las dos letras llegaron al español provenientes del latín, en donde sí tenían sonidos diferentes (bilabial para la b y labidental para la v) pero, en español siempre han tenido el mismo sonido, salvo por algunas excepciones regionales (por ejemplo en Valencia, en los hispanoparlantes de Cataluña y en ciertas regiones de América) debidas a efectos espontáneos de la pronunciación en tales regiones.

Aparte de las anteriores excepciones regionales, la distinción en la pronunciación de la b y la v es considerada un error por la Real Academia Española desde 1726, aunque hasta comienzos del siglo XX hubo cierta ambigüedad y confusión ya que en la Ortografía y la Gramática se recomendaba la pronunciación labiodental de la b (una decisión un tanto chauvinista inspirada en la distinción que otras lenguas hacían entre los sonidos de la b y la v).

La situación quedó zanjada definitivamente en 1911 cuando la Real Academia Española dejó de recomendar la distinción.

El numeral 3 de esta entrada del Diccionario panhispánico de dudas contiene detalles adicionales.

  • As a side note, a regional exception occurs in the north of Mexico, as I was taught as a child (less than 40 years ago) that the correct pronunciation is the one that Gonzalo states in the first paragraph. – Omar Salinas Nov 23 '11 at 17:05
  • A regional exception also occurs in areas of Patagonia, where I was taught at school that V is vibrated. I have seen this also in other regions of Argentina and Chile. Agree with Mexico too, since I have live there and have heard the 'labio-dental' V in some people. – Lola Berwoots Jun 5 '15 at 14:16
  • @LolaBerwoots there is no such “vibrated” sound in Spanish. The term in English you're looking for (vibrante in Spanish) is either flap (vibrante simple) or trill (vibrante múltiple). The historical pronunciation is [v] not [ɾ~r], which is a voiced labiodental fricative (not flap/trill). I'm not even sure a labiodental trill exists in any language. In any case, what one is taught, and what is actually used in the language are two very different things. In English as children we're taught that sentences can't end with prepositions. And in English linguistics, we learn that is wrong. – guifa Jun 5 '15 at 16:08
  • @guifa I call labio-dental a vibrational V, so any reader can understand (mind that we ar etalking about Spanish here, not English). Technically speaking we would call it a labio-dental. Children and people in general, understand what a vibration is, but not the meaning of labio-dental. I hope that clarifies it. – Lola Berwoots Jun 5 '15 at 16:17
  • @LolaBerwoots En el contexto de la llingüística hispánica de que hablamos, el término vibrante solo refiere a los sonidos representados por la r (simple o doble, sea alveolar/uvular/etc). La f representa normalmente la fricativa labiodental sorda y adquiere sonoridad bajo ciertas condiciones. La b y la v varían su realización bastante según contexto convirtiéndose, por ejemplo, intervocálicamente en aproximantes o inicialmente en velares. Puede que sea el término usado en tu país para decir «labiodental», pero es confuso para los que usamos los términos llingüísticos estándares. – guifa Jun 5 '15 at 16:54
6

The historical pronunciation of these letters underwent a few changes in the evolution from Latin to modern Spanish.


Word initial "u/v", word initial "b"

This phonetic contrast appears to have continued into Old Spanish, given that medieval scribes distinguished fairly consistently between words that began with "u/v" (= /β/) and words which began with "b" (= /b/):

/w-//β-//b-/

vacca/uacca → vaca
/ˈwak.ka/ → /ˈβa.ka/ → /ˈβa.ka/ → /ˈba.ka/
LatinVul LatOld Spa15C Spa.

/b-/

bucca(m) → boca
/ˈbuk.ka/ → /ˈbo.ka/ → /ˈbo.ka/
Vul LatOld SpaMod. Spa.


Word internal "u/v", "b"

Though the phonetic contrast between these was lost in Old Spanish, and as such the spellings in Old Spanish mostly used "v/u" to represent [-β-], the modern revised orthographies maintain the etymological spellings:

/-b-//-β-/

habēre → auer → haber
/aˈbeɾe/ → /aˈβeɾ/ → /aˈβeɾ/
Vul LatOld SpaMod. Spa.

/-w-//-β-/

sĕrvīre → seruir → servir
/seɾˈwiɾe/ → /seɾˈβiɾ/ → /seɾˈβiɾ/
Vul LatOld SpaMod. Spa.


Word internal "p"

In medieval Spanish, words that had /-p-/ in Latin are fairly consistently spelled with a b, implying that they were actually pronounced with [-b-] rather than [-β-].

/-p-//-b-//-β-/

lupus → lobo
/ˈlu.pus/ → /ˈlobo/ → /ˈloβo/
LatinMed SpaOld Spa. (15c)


Syllable final /b/

8. Adjustments due to vowel syncope

...

Finally, syllable-final /b/ (realized as [β]) was generally semivocalized to [w], although this latter sound was later lost through assimilation if it followed a back vowel (see the codo example below):

/-p//-b//-β//-w/

capitālis → cabdal → caudal
cap(i)tālem → [kaβˈðal] → [kawˈðal]

     /-b//-β//-w/

debita → debda → deuda
dēb(i)ta → [ˈdeβða] → [ˈdewða]

     /-b//-β//-w/

cubitus → cobdo → codo
cŭb(i)tum → [ˈkoβðo] → [ˈkowðo] → [ˈkoðo]

Also:

  • absentiaausencia
  • baptistabautista
  • captivarcautivar
  • rapĭdusraudo etc

Fuentes:

https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/i.e.mackenzie/cons.htm#semivowels
Fonología y fonética históricas del español, Manuel Ariza Viguera (p.120-130)

  • 1
    Nebrija, in chapter VII of his Ortografía from 1512, said: "Tambien algunas veces (escrevimos) B, i pronunciamos U Vocal : como Cibdad, Ciudad ; debdo, deudo ; recabdo, recaudo." Translated for everybody: people in late XV - early XVI century pronounced B like U in certain words like CIBDAD, DEBDO, RECABDO. Should that be considered as a different pronunciation of B? Or just as mispelled words? – walen May 23 '18 at 13:48
  • 2
    @Walen these are variants remnant of when syllable final /b/ was realised as [β], not yet having been semivocalized to [w] (or assimilated and lost altogether if it followed a back vowel). At that time it may still have been pronounced as [β] in some (rural) dialects. I'll update my answer to include a section on syllable final /b/. – ukemi May 23 '18 at 14:37
5

At Spain, you'll hear people using different sounds for b and v if they grew on bilingual environments or families (talking Spanish and Catalan), since the Catalan language enforces the difference.

So that occurs exactly at Valencia, Cataluña and Balearic Islands. At those islands we also have a 'nice feature' (among others) where some people are unable to pronounce the 'ch' sound from Spanish words like "chocolate", making it sound /xo/ like it sounds in the word "shower" in English :) This also comes from the different pronunciation of Catalan words containing ch.

  • Agreed, same happens in certain parts of America, as the result of either, a natural process or educational process. dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=4420974 – Lola Berwoots Jun 5 '15 at 20:52
  • Note: This doesn't happen everywhere in Catalunya, as in most Catalan dialects the distinction between b and v has also been lost, as in Spanish. According to the RAE this is limited tosome areas of the south of Catalunya (plus Valencia and the Balearics as you say): La pronunciación de la v como labiodental no ha existido nunca en español, y solo se da de forma espontánea en hablantes valencianos o mallorquines y en los de algunas zonas del sur de Cataluña, cuando hablan castellano, por influencia de su lengua regional. – ukemi May 3 '18 at 12:07

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