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The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters. Learn more about the letters of the Spanish alphabet and the different sounds.
The Spanish alphabet contains 27 letters. However, as in many other languages, they combine to create a greater number of sounds. The Spanish language has about 30 different phonemes that increase or decrease according to the dialectal variety.
Knowing the sounds of a language, as well as its alphabet is essential to be able to communicate and pronounce correctly. If you are taking your first steps in learning Spanish or just want to discover something new about its writing and pronunciation, we encourage you to continue reading this article.
Like most European languages, the Spanish alphabet uses a variant of the Latin alphabet. It contains the same 26 letters that are present in many other Indo-European languages, such as English or Italian, and adds one more: the characteristic letter ñ.In addition to the 27 letters present in the Spanish alphabet, there are five graphics, or combinations of letters, that serve other sounds. These are "ch", "ll", "rr", "gu", and "qu".
Spelling rules have changed a lot throughout history. The Spanish alphabet we use today is the result of a reform that took place in 2010. The new Ortografía de la lengua española (Spelling System of the Spanish Language) presented by the RAE (Real Academia de la Lengua Española) in that year established that the letters of the alphabet were only 27. The digraphs, although still used in the writing of the words, stopped being part of the Spanish alphabet in said reform.
For a language to be completely regular in terms of its spelling, each letter must be pronounced in only one way and each sound must correspond to a single letter of the alphabet. Although, compared to other European languages, the spelling of Spanish is quite consistent, it is impossible to say that it is completely regular.
Sometimes, the same sound can be written in different letters according to the spelling rules of Spanish. This phenomenon is called “polygraphy”. For example, the sound / k / can be identified with the letters
Other times, the opposite phenomenon occurs. Polyphony means that the same letter of the alphabet can be pronounced in different ways, according to the accompanying letters. This is the case of the letter
But don't worry about these irregularities. Next, we will review all the letters of the Spanish alphabet explaining the peculiarities of each one. Let us begin!
The letter "a" is the first letter and also the first vowel, both in the Spanish alphabet and most of the Indo-European languages. Apparently, its shape comes from an Egyptian hieroglyph of hieratic-italic writing that represents the head of the god Apis.
The Phoenicians called this letter “alph” ("ox"), because of its remote resemblance to the animal's head and horns. Then, the Hebrews named it “aleph”. In the ancient Greek alphabet, it was found in the “alpha” letter. This, in turn, became the letter of the Roman alphabet, whose shape and value were perpetuated in many others, such as the Spanish alphabet.
In nowadays Spanish, "a" is the graphic representation of the phoneme /a/. It is the one that occurs when opening the mouth, separating the lips and placing the tongue slightly curved and supported in the hollow of the lower jaw. That's how “mamá” (mom) and "Alicante" 's "a" sound. Although its sound may vary slightly in the different dialects of Spanish, it hardly changes.
“B” is the second letter of the Spanish alphabet. Find equivalent signs in the Greek, Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, among others. His name is “be”, and the Phoenicians shaped it from the representation of the crane in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, they called her “beth”, ('house'). It is present in words such as ”cabeza” (“head”), “bruma” (“mist”), or “Bogotá”, and represents the sound that is produced by putting the lips together and the implosion of the air by the mouth, closing the veil of the palate and making the vocal cords vibrate.
Its name is “ce”. The sign comes from the Latin “C”, by rounding the Greek letter Γ, "gamma". In turn, it was derived from a Phoenician symbol called “gimel” or "camel." The latter descends from an Egyptian symbol.
The “C” of archaic Latin was pronounced in two ways. The first is similar to the current “ga”, “gue”, “gui”, “go”, “gu”, which disappeared in the classical era. The other, equivalent to “ca” and its series, was transmitted to the Romance languages.
Since the sixteenth century, this letter of the Spanish alphabet represents two different sounds. The first is the one in “cama” (“bed”), “copa” (“cup”) or “cuna” (“crib”). It is produced by approaching the back of the tongue to the veil of the palate and letting the air out through a small implosion, without vibrating the vocal cords. This sound is what the letter “c” has before the vowels “a”, “o”, “u”; before consonants “l” and “r”; and when it carries a consonant behind, as in the word “pacto” (“pacto”).
The other sound is produced by approaching the anterior part of the tongue to the upper incisors, letting out the air rubbing that barrier and closing the veil of the palate without vibrating the vocal cords. It is the one corresponding to “cena” (“dinner”), “cine” (“cinema”), and "Valencia", before vowels “e” and “I”.
In Spanish, the letter “c” is combined with the letter “h” to form the digraph “ch”, which was previously considered a single letter within the Spanish alphabet. It represents the sound produced by the contact of the edges of the tongue with those of the palate, joining first and then separating. The air passes through that barrier, rubbing and exploding, the veil of the palate closes, and the vocal cords do not vibrate. This sign is that of words like “chocolate” (“chocolate”), “corcho” (“cork”), and “Chile”.
The name of this letter is “de”, and its shape comes from an Egyptian hieroglyph that represented a hand. When the Phoenicians adopted this sign, it was called “daleth”, (‘door’), because of its resemblance to the opening of a tent. Similar resemblance can be seen in the Greek letter “delta” (Δ).
In Spanish, the phoneme /d/ is produced by supporting the tip of the tongue in the upper incisors, thus forming a barrier through which the air passes producing a small explosion, while the vocal cords vibrate. It’s the sound in “dedo” (“finger”), and “drama”. There are hardly slight variations. There is only a relaxed pronunciation in certain words, as in “Madrid”.
This is the second vowel of the Spanish alphabet and the letter that appears most frequently in that language. Its name is “e”. Its shape, without any alteration, comes from the fifth letter of the classical Roman alphabet, which was an adaptation of the Greek letter “epsilon” (Ε, ε). The Greek letter was derived from the Semitic “he”, which in turn was the development of an Egyptian hieroglyph.
The phoneme /e/ is produced if we open our mouth less than to pronounce /a/, slightly raising and curving the tongue towards the anterior part of the palate and slightly stretching the lips to the sides. We find it in words like “elefante” (“elephant”), “perro” (“dog”) or “Ecuador”. Upon contact with a nasal consonant, it acquires some nasality. So it happens in “bien” (“good”), or “menta” (“mint”).
Its name is “efe”. In Greek it was “digamma”, due to its resemblance to two superimposed uppercase “gammas”, and represented the English phoneme of the /w/ in Washington. Latin assigned the letter “v” that sound and the letter “f” went on to represent the same sound it has in Spanish.
The sound of the letter “f” is produced by putting the upper incisors in contact with the lower lip, forming a narrow passage for the air, which passes by rubbing, lowering the palate veil and without vibrating the vocal cords. For example, in words “fin” (“end”), “foca” (“seal”), or “Tenerife”.
The name of this letter is pronounced “ge”. The capital letter “G” is derived from the Latin letter “C”, which in turn comes from the Greek letter gamma (Γ). The lowercase “g” evolved from a form that emerged in the seventh century.
This letter of the Spanish alphabet represents two sounds. The first, before “a”, “o”, and “u”, is produced by contacting the back of the tongue with the soft palate, producing a small explosion of air with the vocal cords vibrating. This sound is the one in “gato” (“cat”) or “Guatemala”. It is also pronounced that way when it carries a consonant behind, as in “gracias” (“thanks”).
The other sound of the letter “g” is the one it represents when it goes before “e” or “i”. It is equivalent to the pronunciation of the letter “j” of Spanish, as in “gente” (“people”) and “girar” (“to turn”). If there is a mute “u” between the letter “g” and the vowels “e” or “I”, it is pronounced smoothly, as follows or “Águeda” or “Guanajuato”.
This letter is called “hache”. It comes from the Semitic “cheth”, which represented both the Greek and Latin alphabet an aspirated sound similar to that in Arabic or English. In spoken Latin, little by little, it was disappearing or degrading the aspiration. As a result, the letter “h” became mute in the Romance languages and also in Spanish.
The aspiration of this letter is common in some dialect varieties of Spanish. In addition, it is combined with the sign “c” to form the “ch”, a digraph with palatal sound, as in “choque” (“shock”).
This is the third vowel of the Spanish alphabet. The Greeks called it “iota” from its Semitic name, “yodh”, which means hand. It comes from the way this sign had in the Egyptian hieratic alphabet.
The point over the lower case “i” began to be used in the eleventh century. Originally, it was a graphic accent. It served first to indicate the existence of a long vowel and later to distinguish the two written “ies” from the letter “u”. We find it in words like “inventos” (“inventions”) or “Italy”.
Its name is “jota”, because it arises from the Greek letter “iota”. It is the last letter incorporated into the Spanish alphabet and, therefore, its writing. The “j” sign appeared first in the Roman alphabet, with different uses. In the middle ages, its elongated shape was used with an ornamental character.
In Latin and ancient Spanish, it could have the value of a vowel or a semi-vowel. In addition, it showed a restricted use of its function as a consonant. That explains the spelling variations that appeared in two well-known Spanish words: "Mexico" / "Mejico" and "Quixote" / "Quijote".
In nowadays Spanish, this letter represents the sound that is produced by approaching the back of the tongue, which is curved, to the veil of the palate. The air passes and the vocal cords do not vibrate. For example, in the words “caja” (“box”) or “rojo” (“red”). There is also a relaxed sound of the “j” in the final word position, as in “reloj” (“clock”).
It appears with its current form in the Roman alphabet, as corresponding to the Greek letter “kappa”. This, in turn, had its origin in an Egyptian hieroglyph. In the Spanish alphabet it was introduced only to transcribe terms from other languages, such as “kilómetro” (“kilometer”).
In many cases, the RAE, Real Academia de la Lengua Española, allows to write foreign terms with “c” or “qu” whenever possible. However, the proper names of foreign origin must maintain letter “k”, such as “Kant”, or “Kelvin”.
In Spanish, the phoneme /k/ represents an occlusive and deaf velar consonant. It is identical to the sound represented by letter “qu”, before “e” and “i”, and to letter “c” before the vowels “a”, “o”, and “u”.
Its name is “ele”. In Latin, the “L” form of the uppercase letter, from the Greek letter “lambda”, appeared first. It had its origin in an Egyptian hieroglyph.
In Spanish, the phoneme /l/ is produced by supporting the tip of the tongue against the alveoli and letting air pass through the sides of that barrier. Thus, the “l” is pronounced in “lado” (“side”), and “malo” (“bad”).
In the Spanish alphabet, there is a digraph consisting of two consecutive “eles”: “ll”. Its sound is produced by supporting the central part of the curved tongue in the center of the palate, while letting air pass through the sides in a slight implosion. That sound is that of “calle” (“street”), “lluvia” (“rain”) or “Sevilla” (“Seville”).
There are important differences in the pronunciation of this consonant, depending on the dialectal area. A widespread use is to pronounce “elle” and the “y” (i Greek) in the same way. This phenomenon is called “yeísmo”.
The letter “eme” is a letter found in the Spanish alphabet that comes from Latin, which took it from the Greek letter “mu”. This, in turn, had its origin in an Egyptian hieroglyph that represented an owl.
The phoneme /m/ is emitted preventing the exit of air through the mouth with the lips, opening the veil of the palate to give nasal resonance and vibrating the vocal cords. Thus, the air is emitted through the nose. This sound is found in “mama” (“mom”), and “Malaga” ("Malaga").
Before letters “p” and “b”, as in “hombre” (“man”), “campo” (“field”), or “cumpleaños” (“birthday”), it has a sound close to /n/, as well as at the end of words such as “álbum” (“album”) and “ultimátum" (“ultimatum”). It is not pronounced in the “mn” group when it is initial in word, as in “mnemotécnico” (“mnemonic”).
The origin of the “ene” is in Latin. In turn, this language had taken it from the Greeks, who called it “nu” by its Semitic denomination and Phoenician “nun” (‘fish’). Its most ancestral origin dates back to an Egyptian hieroglyph.
The phoneme /n/ is emitted through the nose, with the vibration of the vocal cords. The tongue, supported by the alveoli, prevents the passage of air through the mouth. This is how “nena” (“baby girl”) and “nativo” (“native”) are pronounced.
There is a dental /n/ produced by the position of the tongue in contact with the back of the teeth, when it goes before “t” or “d”. This is the case of “antes” (“before”) and “andar” (“to walk”). It approaches the sound of “m” when it goes next to “v”, as in the word “envidia” (“envy”). We barely articulate the sound when “n” goes next to “m” in the “nm” group, as in “inmenso” (“immense”).
The so called “eñe” is the most characteristic letter of the Spanish alphabet. So much so, that it is even inside the word “español” (“Spanish”). Its shape comes from the consonant “n”.
The “virgulilla” located over this this letter finds its origin in the writing of the medieval copyists. It was used in the twelfth century as a written sign on the letters to indicate that they were repeated. Thus, “ñ” was an equivalent to “nn”, and “õ” to “oo”. Two centuries later, this use was restricted to the letter “n”. In the fifteenth century, Antonio de Nebrija included this letter and its sound as an element unique to the Spanish alphabet for having no precedent neither in Greek, nor in Latin, nor in Arabic alphabets.
The sound of letter “ñ” is the one present in words such as “caña” (small draft beer very typical from Spain) or “señora” (“lady”). In some Romance languages, such as Portuguese, this sound is represented by the digraphs “ny” or “nh”. In other, such as French or Italian, the “gn” digraph is used instead.
At first, “o” was used as a Phoenician sign that represented an aspirated guttural sound. The Greeks adopted it to represent the “omicron” and added a different sign for the long version: “omega” (Ω). In the Latin alphabet a single letter was incorporated to represent both sounds.
In Spanish, most uses of the letter “o” have their origin in the Latin diphthong “AU”. The Spanish words “hoja” (“leaf”), “lobo” (“wolf”), and “pobre” (“poor”) come from the Latin “folia”, “lupum”, and “pauperem”. The Spanish “O” has no appreciable differences in pronunciation and the sound /o/ can only be represented by this letter. However, in other Romance languages this sound can receive also the spelling “AU”.
Letter “pe” comes from Latin as an adaptation of the “Greek letter pi”, which in turn had its origin in an Egyptian hieroglyph. We find it in words like “pelota” (“ball”), “pescado” (“fish”), or “Perú” (“Peru”).
Phonetically, it is described as a deaf and bilabial occlusive consonant, with the same point of articulation than “b”. The letter “p” is mute when it is in initial position in the “ps” and “pn” groups as in “psicólogo” (“psychologist”) or “pneumólogo” (“pneumologist”).
In Spanish, there is no combination “ph” to represent the sound /f/, which does happen in the other Romance languages.
Through Latin and Greek, the Phoenician letter “qoph” reached the Spanish alphabet in the form of “cu”. In turn, it developed from an Egyptian hieroglyph. In Semitic languages, the “qoph” represented an explosive sound.
In many modern languages, it always goes before the letter “u”, except in the transcripts of the Semitic “Qoph”, as in the word “Iraq”. In Spanish, it is only used accompanied by the mute “u” with vowels “e” and “i”; as in “queso” (“cheese”), or “Quijote”. It has the same consonant sound as “c” before “a”, “o”, “u”.
Its name is “erre”. The capital form appeared in the Roman alphabet as an adaptation of the Greek letter “ro”. This character corresponded to the Phoenician “resh”, which in turn originated from an Egyptian hieroglyph.
The letter “r” presents several sounds in Spanish. Depending on its position within a word, you can make your tongue vibrate once or twice. For example, it vibrates less in “caro” (“expensive”) than in “ropa” (“clothing”). Besides, depending on the country, there are different pronunciation rules for this letter. For example, in Cuba and the Dominican Republic it is often pronounced as a “l”.
As for its writing, a single letter is used when a shorter vibration occurs, as in “América” (“America”). When the vibration lasts longer, there are two possibilities. In the initial position, only one “r” is used, as in “Rome”. Inside the word and in an intervocalic position, double “r” is used insted: “perro” (“dog”).
Its name is “ese” and its modern form appeared in the Roman alphabet as equivalent to the Greek letter "sigma". This came from an Egyptian hieratic character based on a hieroglyph representing a flooded garden.
In the Spanish alphabet, the letter “s” represents the sound of a deaf consonant with two varieties in pronunciation. One is produced by placing the apex of the tongue almost supported on the socket, giving way to the air that comes out rubbing and without vibrating the vocal cords. The other variety, common in the north of Spain, is pronounced by placing the back of the tongue slightly curved, almost resting on the back of the incisors, which gives way to the air through that duct. The letter “s” can be found in words like “siesta” or “serpiente” (“snake”), but also receives the phonetic value of /z/ when there is lisping due to dialectical reasons, especially in southern areas.
Its name is “te”. It is derived from a Roman character of the same name, which was taken from the Greek letter “tau”. It comes from “taw”, the last letter of the Phoenician alphabet, and represents a cross, which, in turn, has its origin in an Egyptian hieroglyph. It represents the sound that is produced when the air passes through the tip of the tongue, which is supported on the inside of the teeth, while the vocal cords remain inactive, as in “toro” (“bull”).
The letter “u” is the last vowel of the Spanish alphabet. It evolved from the Semitic “Vau”, which has its origin in an Egyptian hieroglyph. From the Phoenician symbol, which had an intermediate form between “f” and “y”, the Greeks produced two characters: digamma and upsilon. The first has become our current letter “f”. The second one evolved to become our current “u”: a closed back vowel present in words like “uva” (“grapes”).
The capital form of the “v” appeared first in Latin, which had adapted it from the Greek letter “upsilon”. In turn, it came from an Egyptian hieroglyph. In Spanish, the letters “u” and “v” were used interchangeably at least until the seventeenth century.
In modern Spanish, there is no difference between the sound of the letter “v” and that of the letter “b”, except in some Latin American countries and in the bilingual areas of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia. Thus, the initial consonants of “vaca” (“cow”) and “Barcelona” are pronounced exactly the same: joining the two lips to momentarily close the passage of air, while the vocal cords vibrate.
The name of this letter in Spain is “uve doble”. Its primitive form was a “geminated v” (vv) and was used in the seventh century by the Anglo-Saxons to represent the digraph “uu”. This sound had its own rune: the wynn (Ƿ).
Although it was not very popular among the Romanesque languages since “V” had become labiodental, around the year 1,300 the modern “w” grapheme settled down. This sign of the Spanish alphabet is more the union of two characters than a letter itself. In Spanish, it is only used in words from other languages.
If they are loans of voices taken from the Goths or Germans, it is pronounced as a vibrant “v”, like in “Wagner” or “Westphalia”. If they are loans from modern English, they have a semi-consonant sound, as in “Washington”.
The shape, the phonetic value and the name of the “X” came from Latin through Greek. Its ultimate origin is an Egyptian hieroglyph. The letter “x” represents a consonant composed of a sound /g/ sound or /k/ deaf followed by another sound /s/.
When “x” is pronounced correctly, it sounds like in “examen” (“exam”) and “éxito” (“success”). If it is followed by a consonant, its sound is closer to /s/, as in “except” (“except”). In ancient Spanish, it represented a single sound similar to that of the English “sh”. Afterwards, it evolved into a “j”.
In words of Nahuatl origin, the letter “x” can be pronounced as “s”, like in “Xochimilco”; as a “j”, like in "mexicano" (“Mexican”) and “Oaxaca”; or as a “sh”, like in “xocoyote”. On the other hand, those Spanish words written with an initial “x” come from the Greek, like “xylophone”.
The “Greek i” comes from the Roman transliteration of the Greek letter upsilon “υ”. At first, the Romans had transcribed it with grapheme “V”, but by the 1st century BC. C. they introduced the “y”. In 1726, the RAE (Real Academia de la Lengua Española) differentiated the use of “i” and “y”. Even today, it is possible to read “Yglesia” instead of “Iglesia” (“Church”) on the facades of some ancient temples.
In nowadays Spanish, it represents two phonetic values. One is the same than the vowel “I”, /i/, and the other the palatal sound consonant /y/. The last phonetic value coincides, in many varieties, with the one represented by the digraph “elle” / “ll”. The confusion of these two sounds is called “yeismo”.
Its consonant sound is produced by putting the back of the tongue in contact with the hard palate and vibrating the vocal cords. It coincides with the current sound of the “j” in English or French and is only preserved in some central regions of Spain. In Uruguay and Argentina there is another variation with a special vibration, a reminiscent of “ch”.
As a vowel, its use dates back to the Middle Ages, at the time of the copyists. The letter “y” has the phonetic value of /i/ when it goes before a break and in the final position, as in “Monterrey”. Also, when it works as a conjunction “mujeres y niños” (“women and children”).
The “zeta” is the last letter of the Spanish alphabet. It comes from the Roman alphabet that derived it from a Greek letter, originally from an Egyptian hieroglyph.
The usual /z/ sound appears in words like “zafiro” (“sapphire”) and “feliz” (“happy”). It is always pronounced as “c” before “e”or “I”. Its sound is produced by supporting the tip of the tongue between the teeth, allowing air through them and without vibrating the vocal cords. There is another variety of sound that places the tongue on the hard palate sounds like the /s/. This pronunciation is very common in Andalusia, the Canary Islands and most Spanish-speaking countries in America.