Vowel reduction in Spanish

Spanish does not have the kind of vowel reduction that many Germanic languages (like English) have, but it does have vowel reduction. The difference is that English has the kind of vowel reduction that neutralizes differences between vowel phonemes, and Spanish has a kind of vowel reduction that still maintains the differences of the five vowel phonemes found in most accents of Spanish.

In other words, the stressed allophones of /a o u e i/ are distinct from each other, and so are their unstressed allophones.

To go into a bit more detail, the fact is the pronunciation of vowels in any language is influenced to some degree by the other sounds adjacent to it (as well as other paralinguistic factors affecting the vocal organs – smiling, for instance, tends to spread the lips). Because of this, when discussing a vowel phoneme, we have to consider the different allophones; we can also think of a vowel as occupying a “vowel space” containing its different allophones. In a language like English, with more vowels and a higher degree of neutralization of vowels in certain environments, the vowel spaces will be smaller and have more overlap. In Spanish, the vowel spaces are bigger, and do not overlap. In other words, in Spanish, vowels allow for more allophonic variation, and are less likely to be misheard as other vowels by native speakers.

First off, some facts about stress in Spanish. In Spanish, stress is mainly indicated by three factors: tone, volume and vowel length. Syllables carrying stress have a higher volume and a higher tone, and vowels in stressed syllables are longer. However, Spanish being a syllable-timed language, the difference in length between a stressed and an unstressed vowel is not quite so pronounced as in English.

Let’s talk about the stressed and unstressed allophones (the Spanish vowel space) in more detail.

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Criteking yor oen ideas

When coming up with a skeme for spelling reform, i fined it useful to go bak on previos drafts and look for things that mite be improoved on.

Wun ov the things that came to mined was the spelling ov wurds like tradittional initially. I spelled it inittially, but then i thought, why not inittialy? Why not systematticaly? This reformed spelling does not concern itself too much with keeping the spelling ov the basic lexical units constant ennyway, as yoo can see from choices like different but diferentiate.

Anuther thing where i cood hav gon further is the use ov silent E to indicate sylabbic consonants, as in double -> duble. Why not go the extra step and spel it dubbel? It wood certanly make things mor consistent, what with wurds like subtle -> suttle and satchel. It wood also make it so silent E oenly indicates a previos long vowel or lexical /s/ or /z/. Maybe this is sumthing that cood be implemented in a second stage ov reform. To lay the groundwurk for that, perhaps we shood spel double -> dubble as wel.

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Un detalle mas

Cuando ya pensaba que mi esquema de reforma ortográfica del castellano ya estaba terminado, el otro día alguien me preguntó como se escribía escena, después de haberla yo pronunciado eˈsena.

Es una buena pregunta. ¿Debería escribirse ecena en una ortografía reformada? Todo depende de como la pronuncien los hablantes de distintos acentos del español. Si aquellos con acentos sin distinción la pronuncian eˈsena y los que tienen acentos con distinción la pronuncian eˈθena, entonces la ortografía debería escribirla ecena. Así de simple.

Pero la pregunta es si ese es siempre el caso o no. A mi me parecería que si, pero no lo he estudiado tanto, entonces no estoy seguro. Existen otras posibilidades. La primera es que los hablantes con distinción la pronuncien esˈθena. Pero una sucesión de sibilantes como esa me parece poco plausible en castellano.

Algo si mas probable es que los hablantes con distinción la pronuncien eˈθːena y que los hablantes sin distinción la pronuncien eˈsːena. Pero, como muestra mi pronunciación en el primer ejemplo, el castellano es propenso a la simplificación de las geminadas (consonantes largas). Por lo que deberíamos reflejar en la transcripción la opcionalidad de la geminación y transcribir eˈθ(ː)ena y eˈs(ː)ena.

Si esa es la forma en que los hablantes pronuncian la palabra (a veces con geminación y a veces no), entonces no nos queda otra opción que mantener la ortografía tradicional escena en esta palabra y otras como esta. Un cambio a ezcena no tendría mucha justificación.

La pregunta entonces es como investigar esto, si es que ya no se ha estudiado. Yo propondría un experimento de elicitación o de lectura en voz alta, pero con frases o textos completos. Una prueba con palabras aisladas tiende a veces a elicitar pronunciaciones demasiado cuidadas (fieles a la ortografía) y no naturales. Si la geminación es solo visible (escuchable) en estilos muy enfáticos (como el dictado), tiene mas conexión con la ortografía que con la lengua hablada, y no tiene mucho sentido reflejarla en la ortografía. En este sentido, sería un caso parecido al de la B y la V.

Allophony of aspirated S

In my first post about accents of Spanish, I said I’d go into more detail about aspirated S. This post breaks it down and provides examples.

To recap, “S aspiration” has to do with the pronunciation of /s/ when it is syllable final, especially when followed by another consonant sound, and, in most S-aspirating accents, also when followed by another vowel sound.

To start getting into specifics, /s/ is pronounced h when followed by most plosives (namely /p b t d g/), the affricate /tʃ/, a nasal (/m n ɲ/), /l/ and /r/; and in accents that do so, also before a vowel. Examples:

esperar / los pibes ehpeˈɾaɾ / loh ˈpiβ̞es
esbirro / las buenas ehˈbiro / lah ˈβ̞u̯enas
esto / los tipos ˈehto / loh ˈtipos
desdecirse / los dados dehð̞eˈsiɾse / loh ˈð̞að̞os
esgrima / los guantes ehˈɣ̞ɾima / loh ˈɣ̞u̯antes
tres chicas tɾeh ˈtʃikas
mismo / los mismos ˈmihmo / loh ˈmihmos
desnudo / los nenes dehˈnuð̞o / loh ˈnenes
los ñudos loh ˈnjuð̞os
isla / dos limones ˈihla / doh liˈmones
es raro eh ˈraɾo
los otros loh ˈotɾos

To make things more interesting, this h often becomes a voiced ɦ when both preceded and followed by voiced sounds. So, this happens before a vowel and before /b d g m n ɲ l/. In my experience, for some reason, it is less likely to happen before /r/.

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