I've noticed that there aren't any words in Spanish that start with sp. Latin words are altered to include an e in front of the sp. Even loan words are often modified to esp...:

  • spaghetti → espagueti
  • Sparta → Esparta

I've even heard (but for obvious reasons, not read):

  • Sprite → Esprite

The Real Academia Española's Diccionario de la Lengua Española lists a few English loan words that start sp:

  • speech, sponsor, sport, spot, spray, sprint

(It seems like several of these are technical terms related to broadcasting, but otherwise I can't see why these spellings were not altered.)

Finally, when I looked at the title of this very question, I noticed perhaps the strangest spelling change:

  • Español → Spanish

So why don't Spanish words (in general) start with the sp sound?

  • 14
    Rather... why english words start with sp?
    – Jose Luis
    Nov 28, 2011 at 21:37
  • 3
    @Joze Also other languages start with "sp", Spanish is the only one that, apparently for now at least, that doesn't have any word starting with "sp".
    – Alenanno
    Nov 28, 2011 at 21:46
  • 2
    @Joze: But in English we do have words that start esp: "especially", "espionage", "espresso", "espouse", etc. Some are on loan from French or Italian, but there's no rule against that spelling. (There are hardly any rules of English spelling, but that's a topic for another site. ;-) Nov 28, 2011 at 21:49
  • 1
    This question for spanish is symmetrical to this debate in the comments for english. Funny ! :-) Jul 27, 2014 at 13:42
  • 2
    @Alenanno — In french we say Espagne and espagnol (and Espingouin too ^^). Here it really seems that english has eaten the E. Jul 27, 2014 at 13:47

6 Answers 6


It’s a basic rule of Spanish phonotactics. In a nutshell, the structure of a Spanish syllable does not allow it:

(C1 (C2)) (S1) V (S2) (C3 (C4))

A Spanish syllable consists of an optional onset, consisting of one or two consonants; a required nucleus, consisting of a vowel optionally preceded by and/or followed by a semivowel; and an optional coda, consisting of one or two consonants.

Now take “spa” (as in Spanish) as an example syllable. First in the onset can be any consonant (here [s]), but a second consonant is allowed only if the first is [p], [t], [k], [b], [d], [ɡ], or [f]. Furthermore, the second consonant can only be [l] or [r]. “Spa” satisfies neither of these rules, therefore it cannot occur as a syllable in a (native) Spanish word.

It just happens that the most common words which do begin with [sp-] in English begin with [esp-] in Spanish, because that was usually the original spelling. English got a lot of these words via Old French; the initial [e] was reduced to [ə] and typically dropped thereafter.

Obviously Spanish speakers have the physical ability to pronounce words beginning with [sp] and other such consonant clusters. But when learning (or borrowing words from) another language, our pronunciation is often coloured by our native tongue, hence “Esprite”.

The reason Spanish lost syllable-initial /sp/ from Latin is that this sequence of sounds is a violation of the sonority sequencing principle. Normally, sounds in a syllable are more sonorous (vowels, glides, and liquids) toward the centre of the syllable, and less sonorous (nasals, stops, and clicks) toward the beginning and end. Most languages follow this structure fairly closely, typically with a few exceptional words, most often involving clusters of /s/ + stop consonant. Latin allowed /sp/ as an exception to the SSP (and Western Romance languages like Italian still do), but Spanish does not, so /sp-/ words were altered to place the /s/ at the end of a syllable, giving /esp-/.

In other words, /sp-/ is an unusual phonetic feature, and such features are often lost during contact with other languages—in this case, contact between Vulgar Latin and the local Iberian languages.

  • 4
    The tick indicates that OP thinks this answers the question, but I don't. It just formalises it. Why has Spanish phonotactics developed this restriction when it wasn't present in Latin? Or is it commonly believed among classical linguists that Latin words such as "spiro" and "spero" were pronounced with an unwritten initial vowel? Jan 2, 2012 at 13:45
  • 2
    @PeterTaylor: I’m not really versed in Spanish history, so I can’t answer that. The Iberian peninsula has a rich history of occupation, and occupation tends to result in simplifications. Look at what the Normans did to Old English. So a lot of Latin consonant clusters were reduced in Old Spanish (e.g., acetar from acceptare), and my best guess is that sp just happened to be one of the clusters that survived.
    – Jon Purdy
    Jan 2, 2012 at 20:56
  • @Peter: I'm curious about that too. But I didn't even know that there were linguistic rules that explained the issue. Maybe that would make a good separate question? Feb 3, 2012 at 18:50
  • 1
    I agree with @PeterTaylor. I don't think the selected answer solves the mystery. Rules are just a formalization of reality, and in this case it doesn't even have any relation with the question of sp/esp: it's just a rule on how to extract syllables given a word. Furthermore, there are lots and lots of exceptions, as the answer shows, so I'd say that more than a rule it's a model that captures what already was there. This is the same case as answering "because of Newton's formula" to the question: "Why does matter attract matter?"
    – user1025
    Oct 3, 2012 at 11:02
  • 2
    This may be due to influence of the ancient Iberian language. We don't know much about it, but many scholars believe modern Basque is an evolution of Iberian, and the phonetic structure of Basque is quite similar to that of Spanish. Including the syllabic onset that Jon explains here.
    – Gorpik
    Nov 4, 2013 at 15:15

Spanish words can't begin with sibilant blends, so when such a word is made or borrowed, an "e" is usually prepended to mesh with the pattern of Spanish pronunciation. It's not just "sp."

Some English cognates, either with common Latin origins or borrowed anglicisms:

  • esbelto (svelte)
  • escasez (scarcity)
  • esfera (sphere)
  • eslogan (slogan)
  • esmog (smog)
  • esnob (snob)
  • espinacas (spinach -- that's an Arabic one for variety!)
  • esquina (square)
  • estandar (standard)

So it's not just "sp."

Some of these words come from English -- like smog, snob, and slogan (the last one from Gaelic) -- and others like esfera are Greek σφαῖρα via Latin sphaera. All of those add the "e" only in Spanish. Some of the other Latin words like exquadra (squared off) or exvellere (stretched, svelte) have the Latin ex- (out of) prefix.

This is a common enough pattern that it should be a part of every Spanish translator's toolkit. If you ever need to help a native Spanish speaker with foreign pronunciation, you will find that the idea of launching into sibilant blends without a softening initial vowel is foreign enough to be a shock at first.

Spain note: As for Spain and España, the original Latin name for Iberia was Hispania, so it was the English version that dropped the characteristic vowel rather than the Spanish version that added it. It's an interesting reversal of the usual pattern where Latin words added the vowel as part of the evolution of the Spanish language and English kept them bare.

  • 1
    The concept of "sibilant blends" helps--I hadn't noticed that more general rule. (But now that I see it, the rule is intuitive.) Do Spanish words not start with them because of pronunciation patterns then? Nov 28, 2011 at 22:46
  • @JonEricson — Indeed this looks like an interesting explanation. But what are "sibilant blends" ? Jul 27, 2014 at 14:00
  • 1
    @Nicolas Barbulesco: Sibilant refers to sounds made between closed teeth (s, z, and j, for instance). A blend is when two consonants are spoken together to make a new sound (sp in this case, but also sounds like bl and gr). So the answer is saying that as a rule, none of the blends that start with s begin words in Spanish. Jul 28, 2014 at 0:45
  • @JonEricson - Thank you for the explanation. This makes sense. Jul 28, 2014 at 12:31
  • This answer makes me wonder about the correlation to the English pronunciation of the letter "S" as said while reciting the alphabet. It is almost as if Spanish speakers are enunciating the letter, "S". Jan 27, 2019 at 22:06

This doesn't answer the question directly but adds some related information.

In Spanish dialects where an s preceding a consonant, is pronounced as an english h,1 this wouldn't even be possible to pronounce, imagine pronouncing a word like hpecial or hparta.

1. Argentina, Uruguay, parts of Spain and Central America, I think.

  • This might be better as a comment?
    – mdewey
    Jan 24, 2020 at 12:10
  • @mdewey : : who?
    – Petruza
    Jan 26, 2020 at 12:04

In Spanish all syllables must have at least one "vowel sound" because without a vowel a consonant can't be pronounced. "Y" also represents a vowel sound sometimes (e.g. in words like whisky (for the syllable ky)).

So as all words starting with the sound "ESP"/"SP" should be divided in two syllables so S should be the first and P should belong to the next one. As the first syllable is S there should be an E before the S so that consonant can have a sound, for instance:

ESPAÑA --> ES - PA - ÑA 

All of this is just because the sound in english for S in Spanish is written ES, because S by itself doesn't have a sound (except you mean the letter S, but that is called "ese").

UPDATE: WHY SP sound always is 2 syllables:

Because of the rules for forming syllables in Spanish. I select some of them which affect this case

  1. A consonanat can't form by itself a syllable --> so S can't be alone

Now the word could be:

-ESP + Vowel (CASE 1) e.g. ESPAÑA
-ESP + Consonant(L/R)+vowel  (CASE2) e.g. ESPLENDOR, ESPRAY,
  1. When there is a VOWEL + CONSONANT + CONSONANT + VOWEL the syllable one ends in the first consonant and the other in the second, except for these groups: bl, br, dr, cr, cl, fr, fl, gr, gl, pl, pr, tr y dr --> For CASE 1 As "SP" is not in the group the syllables must be ES - P...

  2. When there are 3 consonants in a row the first two consonants go in the same syllable and the 3rd in the next one. But if the 3rd consonant is an L or an R the first consonant goes in the first syllable and the 2 next consonants in the next syllable. --> For CASE 2 this means that ES belongs to the first syllable and PR/PL to the second one.

    So this is how S and P can't belong to the same syllable.

  • 4
    I'm not sure why the syllable couldn't be divided elsewhere. In English, "special" is divided "spe-cial". Nov 28, 2011 at 21:57
  • 1
    @Jon Ericson updated with an explanation about it. Spanish syllables aren't the same as English ones.
    – Juanillo
    Nov 28, 2011 at 22:35
  • 1
    Got it. I didn't know about the rules for "syllablification" in Spanish. Thank you. Nov 28, 2011 at 22:40

Harris, en su artículo Syllable structure and stress in Spanish: A Nonlinear Analysis (1983), arguye que las representaciones subyacentes que inician con la secuencia /st/, /sl/, /sn/ son ataques que violan la estructura silábica del español, por lo que en las representaciones de superficie /s/ es una consonante extrasilábica del español.

Goad (2011) lo describe como un segmento complejo. De acuerdo con Blevins (2006), los patrones silábicos permitidos en español son: V, CV, CVC, VC, CCV y CCVC, pueden tener hasta dos elementos en el arranque y dos elementos en la rima.

Cuando aprendemos inglés como L2, insertamos una vocal epentética. Por ejemplo en el prestamo "snob" tendremos /esnob/. Algunos investigadores (Ramìrez, 2012; Côté, 2000) reportan en sus estudios que los aprendientes insertamos la vocal epentética para hacer más perceptible el segmento complejo /sn/. Steriade (1994) afirma que el principal correlato acústico en el que confían los oyentes para identificar rasgos de las consonantes son las transiciones formánticas de las vocales que las preceden, es decir, cualquier consonante que no se encuentre cerca de una vocal será poco perceptible. Goad (2011) propone que en variedades del español como el de Castilla, donde la /s/ presenta mayor estridencia, los aprendientes del inglés como L2, recurren al mecanismo de reparación de la vocal epéntetica con menor frecuencia.

  • ¡Excelente primera respuesta! Muchas de las respuestas que están arriba ni siquiera tienen referencias y tú incluiste más de una fuente. ¡Espero la gente de por aquí lo note! Aunque hubiera estado mejor que, como hiciste con tu primera referencia, incluyeras el título de las demás obras, para que la gente pueda dar con ellas más fácilmente. También aprovechas las herramientas de formato (negritas, texto sin formato, itálicas, bloques de cita, etc) para hacer más legible tu respuesta. Sigue contribuyendo :) Saludos.
    – prm296
    Feb 12, 2019 at 23:29
  • ¡Muchas gracias! SÍ, olvide las referencias. Aquì las envío. 1. Cóté, M-H. (2000). Consonant Cluster Phonotactics: A Perceptual Approach. PhD.Dissertation, MIT. 2.Goad,H.(2012) The representation of sC Clusters. En M.van Oostendorp. C. Ewen, E. Hume & Rice ( eds. 2012) The Blackwell companion to phonology. Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, pp. 898-923. 3. Harris, J.(1983).Syllable Structure and Stress in Spanish: A Nonlinear Analysis. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph 8. Cambridge: MIT Press.4. Ramírez, V Feb 13, 2019 at 2:35
  • 4.Ramìrez, V.C.J.(2012) Production and Perception of the Epenthetic Vowel in Obstruent + Liquid Clusters. Tesis doctoral. University of Toronto. Feb 13, 2019 at 2:38
  • Blevins, J.A. (2006). Then syllable in the phonological theory. En. J.A. Goldsmith, J. Riggle y A. Yu (Eds.), The handbook of phonological theory: Second edition (pp. 164, 196). Oxford: WileyBlackwell Feb 13, 2019 at 2:42
  • Me inicio en esto. 😊Saludos! Feb 13, 2019 at 2:44

Origin of Spanish prothetic /e/

In Latin, a prothetic /e/ was added to words where word-initial /sC/ was split by a morpheme boundary:

7.2. Prothesis

In Latin initial s followed by a consonant acquires an epenthetic e if s is separated from the consonant by a morpheme boundary as in the verb esse:

 sum   sumus
es    estis
est    sum

The root is */s with the addition of a prothetic vowel when followed by a consonant (thus no prothetic vowel in sum, sumus, sum) but 2sg. *s-s > ess > es, 3sg. *s-t > est, 2pl. *s—tis > estis. Prothesis does not occur where there is no morpheme boundary (scala, schala, stare)

s → es/ # _ + C

In Spanish the morpheme boundary is no longer required for the operation of the rule, rather any initial s followed by a consonant acquires a prothetic e (escala, escuela, estar).

In at some point in Western Vulgar Latin, pre-middle ages,1 2 this rule evolved to the more general (current Spanish) rule where all instances of word-initial /sC/ gained an prothetic /e/. This is a common phenomenon and has occurred in many different language families. Notably this can be seen not just in Spanish, but in many other Gallo- and Ibero-Romance languages:

  • lat spatha
    • pt espada
    • esp espada
    • cat espasa
    • old.fr espede
      • fr épée

And even in Old Italian:

The vowel most often identified as the non-final epenthetic vowel in Italian is [i]. Prosthetic [i] has been used before word-initial /s/ + consonant clusters since the 13th century (istamane ‘this morning’), although today the use of [i] in these contexts is limited to literary forms of the language and formal spoken Italian (in [i]Svizzera ‘in Switzerland’) (Renzi 1993: 222, Maiden 1995: 47)

This feature however was lost again in some languages. As French (for example) evolved, initial /es/ came to be pronounced /e/, and the rule /sC/ > /esC/ become non-productive. As such, new words were borrowed without the prothetic e.g:

  • lat speciālis
  • old.fr especial (naturally inherited)
  • fr spécial (learned borrowing)

English / Spanish disparity

Now, the reason for the incongruence between Spanish and English cognate words like these depends on the origin of the words. English is a Germanic language, and never developed this pattern of a prothetic vowel before /sC/, so you see many germanic words like stark, stick, spin, slick (and even /sCC/ sprite, split, strong). But loanwords to English from other languages may or may not exhibit this depending on their origin and time of borrowing. Here are some examples:

EngEsp Naturally inherited from Latin Foreign loan
Learned latinisms spontaneous, scheme espontáneo, esquema
Non-prothetic Norman French loans1 special, sphere especial, esfera
Prothetic Norman French loans especial, estate especial, estado
Foreign Loan with initial "e" espresso espreso
Foreign Loan without initial "e" Sparta, spaghetti Esparta, espagueti
English spray, sterling espray, esterlina

1. The Norman Conquest of England occurred at a time (11th C.) when this process was not uniform in Norman French, as such there are a mix of words with and without this feature inherited to English.

  • 1
    Added this since the other answers explain well the context in which this prothetic /e/ is added to Spanish words, but they don't quite explain why it happened in Spanish but not in OP's English examples.
    – jacobo
    May 16, 2019 at 16:27
  • A nitpicking note: I think Old French especial is not quite a naturally inherited form, because I believe the inherited form of the -al suffix in French is -el.
    – sumelic
    May 19, 2019 at 4:45
  • @sumelic ah thanks for the info, I took that example from wiktionary but I'll look for a better corroborated one.
    – jacobo
    May 19, 2019 at 8:29
  • Is estimate really a good example here? It had the starting "e" already in Latin aestimare, see etymonline.com/search?q=estimate. So I think it is not the case. May 6, 2021 at 7:29
  • @HonzaZidek thanks for catching that - have corrected the example.
    – jacobo
    May 6, 2021 at 7:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.