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The Spanish Alphabet

The alphabet in Spanish is similar to the one that you know, though there are some extra letters. Unlike in English, Spanish undergoes constant revision by an academy of scholars to make sure that the official spelling of words actually matches the pronunciation, and when it is determined that a change is needed, the academy makes that change and printed dictionaries in subsequent editions will have to reflect those changes.

This oversight by an academy (the Real Academia de Español: RAE) even includes changing the alphabet! So, the alphabet that you learned in grade school may not be the current one!

One thing that is very different about the alphabet in Spanish is that some letters appear to us to be more than one letter. For example, ‘ll’ is considered to be a single letter in Spanish, and you have to look it up as such in a dictionary (all the more reason to use!)

In older, printed dictionaries, ‘ch’ was considered a distinct and separate letter. It is, after all, only a single sound, and in some languages of the world, there is a single character that represents that sound. That was really confusing for students back then when they had to use paper dictionaries to look up words!

The letters

  • a ‘ah’ as in ‘father’
  • b ‘bay’ as in ‘bate’, or a bi-labial fricative when intervocalic (no equivalent sound in English.)
  • c ‘say’, or, ‘thay’ (with a soft ‘th’ in the Castilian dialect.
  • d ‘day’, as in ‘date’
  • e ‘ay’, as in ‘date’ (the same sound as our ‘a’ in that word)
  • f ‘ay-fay’. Same sound as in English
  • g ‘hay’ as in ‘hate’ when followed by ‘e’ or ‘i’; hard ‘g’ sound as in ‘gate’ when followed by ‘a’, ‘o’, or ‘u’.
  • h ‘ah-chay’. This letter is always silent in Spanish and really only exists for historical reasons and to break up dipthongs.
  • i ‘ee’. Always pronounced as in ‘beet’.
  • j ‘jota’. This has a much throatier sound than the English ‘h’ sound.
  • k ‘kah’. Only exists in borrowed words.
  • l ‘ay-lay’. Always pronounced in the front of the mouth, never as a “dark” ‘l’ as in ‘hall’.
  • ll ‘ay-yay’. In most Spanish dialects, this is pronounced just like the English consonantal ‘y’.
  • m ’em-may’. Same sound as in English.
  • n ‘en-ay’. Same sound as in English
  • ñ ‘en-yay’. Like the ‘n’ in the English word “onion”
  • o ‘oh’ as in the English ‘coat’, never ‘ah’.
  • p ‘pay’ like the English sound except that there is no puff of air. Sometimes hard to distinguish from the ‘b’.
  • q ‘coo’ as in the English ‘cool’. Always followed by ‘u’ and exists to make the ‘k’ sound in front of ‘e’ and ‘i’.
  • r ‘eh-ray’. Always pronounced with the tongue just behind the upper front teeth with a quick flap. Never a “dark” ‘r’ as in the English ‘car’. Often hard to distinguish from the ‘d’ sound
  • rr ‘eh-rrrray’. The rolled ‘r’ with no equivalent in English.
  • s ‘ay-say’ as in the English ‘sane’ with a slightly more ‘sh’ sound.
  • t ‘tay’. Similar to the English ‘t’ but with less of a puff of air.
  • u ‘oo’ and in the English ‘boot’, never ‘uh’.
  • v ‘oo-bay’ (sometimes call ‘bay-chica’, or “little ‘b'”). Pronounced identically to the Spanish ‘b’ with both the “hard b” sound as well as the bi-labial fricative when between vowels. It is never like the English ‘v’ with the labial-dental fricative.
  • w ‘doh-blay oo-bay’ Exists only in borrowed words, and is sometimes pronounced like a hard ‘b’.
  • x ‘ay-keese’. Like the ‘ks’ sound in English, but in some words of Mexican/Nahuatl origin, pronounced like either the English ‘sh’ or a throaty ‘h’.
  • y ‘yay’ Formerly known as the ‘i griega’, or Greek ‘i’. Recently renamed by the academy. Most often has the same sound as the consonantal English ‘y’ as in ‘yellow’, but in word final position has a vowel sound like the English ‘boy’.
  • z ‘say-tah’, or ‘thay-tah’ in Castilian.