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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A mor moddest proposal

What if we cood put into place a spelling reform that concerned itself oenly, or mainly, with reading, aiming at a French-style transparency where the langwej wood stil be difficult to spel, but easy to read?

Inittially, the usual suspects wood come under atack: silent letters. Debt, biscuit, salmon, knife wood become det, biskit, sammon, nife, and so on. Sum restraint wood be exercised: light wood remain as is, as wood come; the first because of so menny wurds folloeing that same pattern, the seccond to avoid the uther implications of a cum spelling. Knight, acordingly, wood become night. Uther certan glaring exeptions to the regularity of the system cood also remain, like of, is, etc*. Final E wood be remooved unless it shows the previos vowel is long or it is part of an -SE ending indicating that S is a part of the wurd and not a plural morpheme; or to indicate a previos sylabbic consonant, like in double -> duble.

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Teaching Spanish pronunciation: pronouncing D

Ask a native English speaker from America to pronounce todas las noches and they will likely say

tʰoɾaz laz notʃes

While a native speaker from Lima, Peru, would instead say

toðaz laz notʃes

And I, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, would say

toðah lah notʃes.

Assuming the speaker gets all the vowel sounds right or close enough, and leaving aside the aspiration on the t, what sticks out like a sore thumb is the pronunciation of the D as ɾ (that is, like a Spanish ere, i.e. an R, specifically the R in hora) instead of as ð (that is, like a Spanish intervocalic de, i.e. a D).

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Three basic patterns

I have taught English to Spanish speakers and Spanish to English speakers. Because of this, I am quite familiar with common pronunciation problems these learners come across, as well as lexical difficulties. Today, though, I’m going to concentrate on one aspect of Spanish and English syntax that trips learners up, comes up very early in the learning procress, and I consider absolutely basic if you want to get closer to mastering either of these languages.

Let’s start with English. In English, there is a very important syntactic difference between declarative sentences, negative sentences, and yes/no questions. Some examples:

He speaks English
She does not speak English
Do they speak English?
I am Argentinian
She is not American
Are they American?

A declarative sentence in English must contain an overt subject (either mentioned outright or expressed with a pronoun), followed by a verb, and optionally followed by an object if the verb requires it. In some cases, the subject pronoun is dropped, but these cases are, compared to the amount of subject pronoun dropping in Spanish, few and far between.

Spanish speakers have to learn right away not to drop the subject pronoun, and to use subject it (as in it is big), and to use “dummy” subject it (as in it’s raining), and to pay attention so as not to mix up he and she. There is no subject it in Spanish, and consequently no dummy subject it, and since the subject pronoun is so often dropped, it is inserted as a sort of afterthought when speaking English, therefore creating many mixups of he and she, despite the fact that they correspond to Spanish el and ella.

An English negative sentence, on the other hand, must contain not and the auxiliary verb do (conjugated for person in the present, having the alternative form does for the third person singular, i.e. he/she/it), which in turn, as is the case when using auxiliary verbs, means that the main verb will not be conjugated. This is unless the main verb in the sentence is be. In that case, there is no auxiliary verb. So the negative equivalents to declarative he speaks English and I am Argentinian are he does not speak English and I am not Argentinian.

Spanish speakers have to learn first the difference between no and not in English, which does not exist in Spanish, and then how to use the do auxiliary, and then the different word order.

An English yes/no question will have the do auxiliary like in negative sentences, unless the main verb is be; and will have a very different word order from a declarative or a negative sentence. So the yes/no question versions of he speaks English and I am Argentinian are does he speak English? and am I Argentinian?

Because Spanish forms yes/no questions in a much simpler way (see below), Spanish speakers typically have a hard time getting used to using the English yes/no question word order.

These are what I call the “three basic patterns” of English syntax. If a learner does not master them, they will have a hard time getting to anything resembling nativelike syntax.

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