When learning a new language, the first phrases we usually learn are greetings. We learn how to say, “Good morning, good evening, and good night,” and of course, just simply “hello.” There are several greetings in the Spanish language, just as with English, but the informal greeting most often used is the word “hola.”
“Hola” does not have an accent, it has a stressed syllable. This word literally means “hello” and sticks to the rule that says if a word ends on a vowel, an “s,” or an “n,” the stress falls on the second-to-last syllable. In this case, it is the first syllable: ho-la. Because we pronounce hola to the rule, we do not spell it with an accent.
An accent could refer to the actual acute accent mark (´) or the emphasis we place on different syllables when we pronounce words. That means that we place a verbal emphasis on the first syllable of “hola,” but we do not spell it with an accent.
This article will explore how we spell words with accent marks and when we pronounce the accented syllables of words.
How Do You Know if a Word Needs an Accent in Spanish?
In order to remember when to use an accent when you are writing Spanish, just keep the below rules in mind. Think about how you say a word, and if it follows the rules, no accent is needed.
If the stress is on a syllable that does not follow the rules, you need to write the accent.
If there are two or more words that we spell in the same way, but that have different meanings, you need to use an accent. This is something that you will have to learn because there are no rules to guide you here.
Here are a few examples:
- tu vs. tú you vs. your
- si vs. sí yes vs. if
- ésta vs. está this vs. is
In this regard, practice is key. Would you write the gracias (thank you) with an accent? Let’s break down the word and find out:
- There is no other meaning for this word.
- The word ends on an “s,” so the stress falls on the second-to-last syllable.
- There’s a vowel combination of “i” and “a,” so stress is on the hard vowel.
We say: gra-cias
The first syllable or second-to-last and the “a” is emphasized. That means that “gracias” does not need an accent mark.
The words we speak in our language today are actually different combinations of the same sounds that we put together and give meaning to. We call single sounds phonemes, and these are the building blocks of our words.
When learning our native language as children, we develop phonemic awareness, which is the ability to split a word into the sounds used to make it up and blend those single sounds into words.
It also includes the ability to add, remove, or substitute new sounds in existing words (source).
This skill is really useful when we learn other languages as we grow older because our awareness of the different sounds in a language helps us to read.
Being aware of the sounds and then understanding the letters that represent them offers us the ability to read.
In fact, we must recognize that words are just a group of sounds, and when we change the sounds, we can make different words (source).
The Role of Vowels and Consonants
Sounds can be divided into consonants and vowels. Consonants are closed sounds. When we sound consonants, we use a part of our mouths to obstruct the sound:
- Think about the “th” sound in “the” — your tongue touches your teeth.
- Try “b” in “ball” — your lips are pressed together.
- What about “l” in “laugh” — your tongue is pressed against the roof of your mouth.
Vowels are open without any obstruction created in the oral cavity:
- The “oo” in “mood” — you can stretch the sound out as long as you have breath.
- When you say the “a” in “cat” — your mouth is wide open and closes on “t.”
- It is the same with “ee” in “see” — you can even sing it!
In order to build Spanish words, we need to use Spanish sounds. Letters represent sounds so that we know which sound to make when we read. Let’s first look at the most common Spanish consonants that are different than in English and the sounds they represent:
|Spanish Letter||Sound Symbol||Pronunciation Example|
|C c||/k//θ/||as in catas in think or soup|
|D d||/d/||as in desk|
|G g||/ɡ//x/||as in governmentas in Scottish loch|
|H h||silent||as in honor|
|J j||/x/||as in Scottish loch|
|LL ll||/ʎ/||as in you|
|Ñ ñ||/ɲ/||as in canyon|
|RR rr||/ɾ/||as in Roma (rolling “r”)|
|V v||/β/||as in bandage but softer|
|W w||/w/||as in Washington|
|X x||/ks/||as in excellent|
|Y y||/ʝ/||as in Yucatan|
|Z z||/θ//s/||as in think (Spain)as in sale (Latin Am.)|
As you can see, the letter “h” in the Spanish language is silent, so, even though words have the letter “h” in them, we do not pronounce it.
Here, it is important to remember that ola in Spanish is a word all by itself, meaning wave, so, yes, there is a difference between hola and ola. Although the two words sound the same, they have different meanings, and we spell them differently.
You might also have noticed that the letters “c,” “g,” and “z” have two different sounds. This depends on the vowel they appear with, but we will look at these a little bit closer in the next section (source).
|Spanish Letter||Sound Symbol||Pronunciation Example|
In Spanish, we differentiate between hard vowels (a, e, o) and soft vowels (i, u). Two soft vowels, together, or one hard vowel combined with one soft vowel, makes one sound.
Vowels also influence the way we pronounce certain consonants when they are next to each other. Do you remember the different sounds for “c” and “g” we pointed out earlier? Well, let’s have a look at when to use the correct sound for these letters.
- The soft “g,” as in Scottish loch — Before “e” and “i.”
- Genial (Great)
- Gigante (Giant)
- The hard “g,” as in government — Before “a,” “o,” and “u.”
- Gato (Cat)
- Gota (Drop)
- Guacamole (Guacamole)
- The soft “c,” as in as in think or soup — Before “e” and “i.”
- Cena (Dinner)
- Cine (Movie Theater)
- The hard “c,” as in cat — Before “a,” “o,” and “u.”
- Cuna (Cradle)
- Cocina (Kitchen)
- Cara (Face)
Now that we have the sounds, we can build syllables. Syllables are the smallest units of sounds that have meaning, and they can have only vowel sounds — think about “I,” as in “you and I,” or “a,” as in “a door,” in English — or they may be a combination of vowels and consonants.
A single syllable has a single vowel sound, and we distinguish between open and closed syllables. An open syllable ends in a vowel, and a closed syllable ends in a consonant.
Let’s look at some examples of Spanish syllables:
|Word||Syllables||Open or Closed|
As you can see in the word “cereal,” there are two hard vowels (e and a) next to each other, making two sounds and two syllables.
We call the one sound with two soft vowels, or the combination of a hard vowel and a soft vowel, a “diphthong.”
Here are a few examples; note how the two vowels are one sound and one syllable:
- puerto puer-to
- labio la-bio
- cuida cui-da
- tierra tie-rra
Now that we can build words with sounds and write these sounds down, people can read them and speak them. Still, it is not as easy as just sounding out the syllables.
Voice Pitch and Inflection
No one speaks with a monotone — we are people, not robots — so our voices change in pitch, going up and down, and we put emphasis on certain words and syllables. This inflection and stress we use when we speak can change the meaning of what we say.
Think about how you ask a question; your voice rises toward the end of the question. When we use a statement as a question, we do the same thing:
- Where is the restaurant? — your voice rises toward the end of the question.
- You’re going to be late? — This does not have to be a question, but if your voice rises toward the end, it sounds like a question.
The same thing happens when you ask questions in Spanish — not in the same way, but you also use inflection to indicate questions.
Accents or Stresses on Syllables
Apart from changing the pitch of our voices in sentences, we also stress certain syllables and words when pronouncing them. Spanish has some clear-cut rules on pronouncing certain sound combinations and putting the stresses on words.
Rules for Spanish
Let’s have a look at a few of the Spanish language rules so that we can understand the accent or stress on the word “hola” better.
|Rule||Example||Where’s the Stress?|
|1.||If a word ends on a vowel, an “s,” or an “n,” the stress falls on the second-to-last syllable||holabienzapatos||ho-la (second to last = the first)bi-en (second to last = the first)za-pa-tos (second to last = the third)|
|2.||When a word ends with any other letter than the letters indicated above, the stress falls on the last syllable.||ordenadorverdadpapel||or-de-na-dor (the last syllable)ver-dad (the last syllable)pa-pel (the last syllable)|
|3.||When there is a hard vowel next to a soft vowel, the stress falls on the hard vowel.||puertolabioaire||ue (on the hard vowel)io (on the hard vowel)ai (on the hard vowel)|
|4.||When there are two soft vowels next to each other, the stress falls on the second vowel.||cuidaciudad||ui (on the second vowel)iu (on the second vowel)|
Going forward, we will differentiate between the stress and the accent we put on syllables.
Stress refers to the emphasis we place on sections of words and diphthongs, as demonstrated in the table above. The accent refers to the acute accent mark that we write on certain letters. We are going to look at this little symbol a bit closer now.
The acute accent mark (´) is a diacritic symbol that is quite common in Spanish. It is not a symbol that we really use in English as much. This accent is used for two main reasons:
- To indicate exceptions to pronunciation rules.
- To differentiate between homonyms when we are writing.
Homonyms are words that look the same but have different meanings. You can read more about homonyms like Mi and Mí in this article.
|Rule||Exceptions||Where’s the Stress?|
|1.||If a word ends on a vowel, an “s,” or an “n,” the stress falls on the second-to-last syllable||fantásticocancióninglés||fan-tás-ti-co (third from last syllable)can-ción (last syllable)in-glés (last syllable)|
|2.||When a word ends with any other letter than the letters indicated above, the stress falls on the last syllable.||difícilárbol||di-fí-cil (second to last syllable)ár-bol (second to last syllable)|
|3.||When there is a hard vowel next to a soft vowel, the stress falls on the hard vowel.||dúoríovía||úo (on the soft vowel)|
ío (on the soft vowel)ía (on the soft vowel)
We can summarize here that words are made up of syllables, which are individual sounds that we string together to create meaning. When we speak these sounds, we also stress certain parts of words as well as sentences, and this impacts how we write our words.
Letters and punctuation marks are symbols that determine pronunciation, like the acute accent mark. In Spanish, the accent is used to show exceptions to its very clear pronunciation rules, and that is why we do not write hola with an accent.
It follows the rule because we stress the first syllable, which is the second to last, the same as a word that ends on a vowel.