Spanish for any length of time and you'll notice that many words include accent
marks. These are not different or unique letters but rather visual cues letting
us know how to pronounce a word (and they're sometimes used to distinguish one
word from another spelled the same way).
Before you start complaining that
accent marks make Spanish needlessly complicated, remember that the vast majority
of the time, you know exactly how to pronounce a word just by looking at it. The
same cannot be said of English which doesn't give the reader any clues about pronunciation
(consider the words "content" or "defense," — they are pronouced in different ways based on the context). English speakers
learn how to pronounce words through practice and repetition.
The rules regarding accent marks are fairly simple: First of
all, only a vowel can be accented: á, é,
í, ó, ú
(y is not considered a vowel for the purposes of accents).
If you find yourself writing an accent over an "n"
or a "b" something is very, very wrong. Secondly, a word does not necessarily
need an accent mark, and a word may never have more than one accent.
So why do some words have accents? And how do you know when
to write one?
to Use Accent Marks
Accent marks have to do with stress, that is, which syllable
in the word is emphasized. Consider this English word:
first of the three syllables (the "el") is stressed. Try pronouncing
"elephant" stressing a different syllable. Sounds pretty weird, doesn't
"Vowel, n, or s, the second-to-last is stressed."
If there isn't a written accent mark, every Spanish word that ends in
a vowel, an "-n," or an "-s" has the stress fall on the
second-to-last syllable (the "penultimate" syllable):
Every other word (words ending in a consonant
other than "-n" or "-s") has the stress fall on the last syllable
(the "ultimate" syllable):
Note: Many singular words with accents lose their accents
when they become plural due to the addition of an extra syllable ending in "s": calcetín → calcetines.
Some words gain accents when they become plural: examen → exámenes.
But rules are made to be broken, so
when we want to stress a syllable other than the one we should be stressing, we
use an accent mark:
The word inglés ends
in an "s" so normally we'd emphasize the second-to-last syllable (the
"in") but the accent mark tells us to stress the ("glés")
instead. Comí ends in a vowel but an accent mark tells us
to stress the last syllable rather than the second-to-last. Árbol ends in an "l" so we'd normally be emphasizing the last syllable, but the accent mark tells us to stress the first syllable instead.
If the stress
falls on anything other than the penultimate or ultimate syllables there must
be an accent mark used.
More Uses for Accent Marks
Accent Marks and Question Words
Interrogative words all have accents:
¿Quién? ¿Qué? ¿Dónde? ¿Cuándo? ¿Por qué? ¿Cómo? ¿Cuál? ¿Cuánto?
These accent marks don't
actually change the pronunciation but help keep the question words separate from the words that are
used to answer them:
Where did you find it?
Donde se venden revistas.
Where they sell magazines.
When do you watch television?
Cuando tengo tiempo.
When I have time.
Accent Marks and Homonyms
There are a number of homonyms (words
that sound the same but have different meanings) in Spanish that also use the
same spelling. Even though there isn't any other reason to do so, accent marks
are used to differentiate the two words. Some examples:
- el (meaning "the") compared
to él (meaning "he")
- que (meaning "that") compared to qué (meaning
- se (the reflexive pronoun) compared
to sé (meaning "I know")
- si (meaning "if") compared to sí (meaning "yes")
- te (the object pronoun "you") compared to té (meaning "tea")
- tu (meaning "your")
compared to tú (meaning "you")
Accent Marks and Conjugations
Accent marks also become particularly important when dealing with verb
conjugations. Certain present tense conjugations would be identical to their preterite conjugations if it weren't for the accent marks. Consider:
imperfect subjunctive and the future tense conjugations could also be confused
without accent marks:
he will listen
... if he listened
Accent Marks and Attaching Pronouns
Using object pronouns can
force us to add accent marks. The three situations where we can add a pronoun
to the end of a verb are with infinitives, present participles, and affirmative commands.
In each case we're adding an extra syllable (or two) to the end of a word. This
would likely alter the pronunciation if we don't add an accent mark to where the
stress originally fell:
But adding a syllable doesn't always require adding an accent
dar → darlo
Accent Marks and Diphthongs
marks are also occasionally used to break-up syllables in words which would otherwise
be shorter. These words contain something called a "diphthong."
on earth is a "diphthong?" It's a combination of two vowels that blend
together when spoken to create one new sound. The following words all have diphthongs:
Hablais is pronounced like "ob-lice"
because the "a" and the "i" blend together. Bien is a one syllable word pronounced like "byen." And the first syllable
of cuaderno is pronounced like "quad" rather than "coo-ad"
because the "u" and the "a" blend together.
we don't want letters to blend together so we break-up the diphthong with an accent
País is a two-syllable word thanks to the accent mark. Sonreír (and
other "-eír" verbs) needs an accent on the "-ir" ending so
it's pronounced like "son-ray-ear" and not "son-rare." Heroina is isn't pronounced "air-oy-na," but rather "air-o-ee-na" due to the accent mark.
Strong Vowel, Weak Vowel
How can you tell if two vowels form a diphthong? It has to do with their strength. In Spanish the letters "a," "e," and "o" are considered strong vowels. Two strong vowels repel each other, breaking into separate syllables. The weak vowels "i" and "u" (and sometimes "y") blend easily with other vowels to form one-syllable diphthongs.
strong / strong (2 syllables):
caos, caer, leen, tarea, zoo
strong / weak (diphthong):
aire, causa, deuda, hay, seis
weak / weak (diphthong):
ciudad, fui, fluidez, ruido, viuda
Adding an accent mark is a way of turning a weak vowel into a strong one.
Note: It may be very hard to hear separate syllables when someone is speaking Spanish, especially if they are speaking quickly.
- Remember, accent marks are only used on vowels. (And "y" doesn't count as a vowel as far as accent marks are concerned.)
- The accent mark is more accurately known as an "acute accent." In Spanish it should be drawn from the lower left
to the upper right, above the letter.
- Not all words need accent marks; words that do have accent marks will have only one.
- If a syllable other than the last or second-to-last is stressed, the word must have an accent mark.
- There are some exceptions to the Spanish accent
rules. Words that have migrated to Spanish from English often keep the English
(non-accented) spellings. For example, internet and sandwich
should have accent marks (ínternet and sándwich) but they don't.
in Spanish, capital letters which should be accented are not. This might motivate
you to write everything in capital letters and forget the accent marks, but it's
still not grammatically correct.
Special Characters in Spanish
Other than the accent marks
there are four other characters that are not found in the English language: ñ, ü, ¡ and ¿
A tilde (~) is what is used to distinguish an "ñ" from an "n." While adding a tilde to an "n" may remind you of adding accent marks to vowels, the ñ is not the same as an
"n." Nor is it considered an accented letter.
Note: Accent marks, the tilde, and the dieresis are known as "diacritical marks."
Occasionally we need to use a dieresis (two dots) on top of
the "u" to change its pronunciation when it follows the letter "g."
Normally the "u" is silent, but when a dieresis is used it tells us
to pronounce the "gu" combination like "gw." Some examples:
pingüino (penguin); vergüenza (shame); and nicaragüense
The upside-down exclamation and question marks simply precede
any sentence that ends with one. It can be helpful when reading to know at the
beginning of the sentence whether it's a question or an exclamation.
What a good idea!
Rodrigo, ¿dónde estás?
Rodrigo, where are you?