Spanish Pronunciation Guidelines for the Media and Others

Brian Steel

Copyright © 2007 Brian Steel

(Downloadable from: www.briansteel.net/articsylibros/spanishpron.htm)

 


Professionals of the English-speaking media (journalists, newsreaders, sports commentators and so on) have a reasonable record with pronouncing newsworthy French, German or Italian words and names. In recent years, in spite of the massive growth in political and economic importance (= newsworthiness) of Spain and Hispanic America, media pronunciation of Spanish language names and titles has been far less satisfactory.

In a globalised, media-dominated 21st century environment, where information is only one click away on the Internet, ignorance of the basic characteristics of Spanish (the language of well over 300 million people, it is claimed) is totally unforgiveable. It is not good enough for broadcasters (or their well-paid production teams!) who encounter a Hispanic name or title on the script in front of them to lazily improvise from their knowledge of French or Italian. It is quite absurd to hear from trusted sources of public information (Frenchified) On-Reek (Enrique, correct pronunciations and stress come later in this piece), Knee-Co-Lah (Nicolás), On-Dress (Andrés), Al-Vuh-Ray (Álvarez) or Duh (the basic preposition 'de': = Day).

It is also due to laziness that listeners / viewers are palmed off by newsreaders, sports commentators or foreign correspondents with italianate approximations such as Veen-Chenty (for Spanish Vicente, which, as you will have observed yourselves, only has ONE 'n'), Ma-Keez-Mo (machismo), Mo-Ree-Cho (Mauricio) and Con-Cherto (Concierto, most usually 'Duh Aran-Weth', otherwise known as the Concierto de Aranjuez - see solution later, if needed). At other times, since no one in the broadcasting studio seems to worry, or care, broadcasters are free to make more virtuoso renderings (which might be very funny if they were not so crass), like the following 'gems':

Bwana's-Eye-Reez (or Bwa-noss ...) (the capital of Argentina, of course), King Wan Carlos (whose image and personality, fortunately, are far from 'wan'), Whore-Gay (for Jorge, which is none other than the Spanish version of George), Pluh-SEE-Dough Domingo. (A decade or so ago one used to hear newsreaders refer to Harvey Puh-Rezz Duh-Choir (Javier Pérez de Cuéllar), a former United Nations Secretary-General, even though he had been in office for several years and his name featured on the news every week In that same period, before the seven year record-breaking run of (Anglo-Saxonly named) Lance Armstrong (1999-2005), journalists had several years to learn an acceptable pronunciation of the name of the renowned Spanish (Basque) cyclist and multiple winner of the Tour de France (1991-1995) to whom, more often than not, they referred to, carelessly, as Me-Gwell In-Duh-Rain - fortunately, his first name is not 'Singing').

 


Enlightenment for such blasé broadcasters is at hand. (It was always at hand, but they didn't bother to check.) More importantly, by the end of the article, those of you not conversant with the basics of Spanish will, I hope, be enlightened and in a position to pass judgement on the spoken media's performance. So, why not tell them when they get it wrong!

Spanish pronunciation is basically very straightforward, much more so than most of its sibling Romance languages, and perhaps disarmingly simple. It has been said with some truth that "Spanish is an easy language to learn - badly." (I think this was coined by Anthony Gooch.)

By the way, if you find the following language notes boring, please don't leave the article before reading the practical guide at the end, which I am sure you will find useful.

Of the consonant sounds, there is really only one to bother the speaker of English: the throaty sound usually associated with Spanish 'j' although, in fact, it can be spelled in the following two ways (Italianophiles, beware!):

'j' and 'g' followed by 'e' or 'i' are pronounced gutterally, "like the ch in Loch" say most elementary primers - which is close enough. Let us further simplify this (clearing the) throat sound by the (aspirated) English letter 'h'. I repeat: 'h' will represent the 'ch' sound in Scottish 'Loch'. So, King Juan Carlos of Spain (or any old Juan, Don Juan for example, of operatic and literary fame) is really Hwan (Carlos) (Don Hwan,etc.). At one fell swoop, we can now master the name of the renowned balladeer and Miami millionnaire, Julio Iglesias. This will also help us to avoid pronouncing the male name Jorge (note the g followed by an 'e', as I told you) as Whore-Gay; it is really Hore-hay (or Whore-hay, if you prefer).

'll': the double 'l' is most usually equivalent to an English 'y', so, instead of 'Pa-Ella', 'pa-ay-ya' would be a reasonable anglicised version of this prominent feature on Spanish menus.

Apart from that, there are two other consonants that cause trouble if one knows French or Italian: 'c' and 'g':

'c' before a, o or u is easy, a 'k' sound: casa, costa.

More care is needed with 'c' (before e or i) and 'z'. These are pronounced 'th' (as in 'thin') in most of Spain, but as 's' in Andalusia, Catalonia and the whole of Spanish America: Pérez, Velázquez, Márquez, Marqués, etc. (The question of the written accent (especially on surnames) is also vital to reasonable media pronunciation but will have await later treatment.)
So the name Vicente (= Vincent, but notice the single 'n') is Vee-THEN-Tay or Vee-SEN-Tay in Spanish, whatever it is in Italian. So too, Mauricio ('c' before 'i' = 'th' or 's') becomes 'Mao-REE-Theo' (as in 'mouth') or Mao-REE-See-Oh.

'g' also has two pronunciations according to its following vowel:

1. 'g' + a,o, u is usually hard ('g' as in 'go'), e.g. Gómez.
In the case of 'gue', this remains true because the diphthong 'ue' is pronounced 'we' (as in 'wet', or 'way'), following all consonants except 'g' and 'q' (que is pronounced 'kay'): KWEN-ca (Cuenca), FWAY-go (fuego). So the man's name Miguel (usually mangled by the spoken media into the incorrect 'Me-gwell') is really 'Mee-GEL' (as in 'gelding' or 'get'). In fact any occurrence of the syllable 'gue' will be pronounced 'ge', (e.g. Miguel, Che Guevara, guerrilla, or the northern Catalan town of Figueras, famous for its Dalí museum [Da-LEE]). However, if there is a dieresis on the 'u': -güe, the combination will be pronounced 'gwe' (as in Gwen): ¬°Qué vergüenza, for example: How embarrassing! / shameful! But it is unlikely that you will need this information very often.

Final notes on the 'gu' combination: gua is pronounced 'gwa' (Guantánamo) and 'gui' is pronounced 'ghee' (for example, Cristina Aguilera).

2. This leaves 'g' before e or i. But, as we saw already, this is equivalent to 'j' (= the guttural 'kh' sound). For example, the male name Ángel is pronounced ANN-Khell, or, simpler, ANN-Hell). Gerona, the Castilian equivalent of Girona, the Catalan city northeast of Barcelona, is pronounced Hay-RO-na.


Other consonants or groups of consonants to be careful with are:

1. 'ch' (NOT like French or Italian but easier for us because it corresponds to the 2 'ch' sounds in 'church'). So 'machismo' is not 'makismo' but, as it says, Ma-Cheese-Mo.

2. que (again NOT like French), is close enough to English 'Kay' or 'ke'. This is useful for all those surnames ending in -quez: Márquez, Vázquez or Vásquez (often mispronounced 'Vath-qwezz' or 'Vass-qwezz' instead of 'Vath-Keth' or 'Vass-kess'), etc.
Also, the male name Enrique should not be thought of as 'En-reek', 'En-ree-qwee' or (following the already deplored French influence), 'On-reek', but 'En-REE-Kay'. Simplicity itself, n'est-ce pas?

3. Spanish 's' is usually 'soft', which also distances it from French or Italian. So Spanish casa is KA-sa.


As for the vowels of Spanish, they are very simple, with none of the nasal complications of French or Portuguese:

'a' is as in 'bat', 'i' is long as the 'ee' in 'feet', 'o' is short as in 'boss',

'u' is long like the 'oo' in 'boot';

'e' (the main one to be careful with) is like a French 'e acute' (é). So Spanish 'de' is pronounced rather like English 'day', and not at all like French 'duh'.

Remember that the diphthong 'ue', following a consonant except 'g' or 'q' (b, c, d, etc.) is pronounced as follows: 'we' as in wet or 'way': e.g. HWAY-go (juego), LWAY-go (luego).

And that's basically it!


However, there is the matter of word stress or accentuation, which is why the written accents are used in Spanish (not as in French, where they may denote a difference of vowel sound). Basic Spanish word stress is quite simple.

You EITHER accentuate the final syllable (if the word ends in a consonant except n or s): ho-TEL, Mi-GUEL, Ja-VIER.

OR you accentuate the penultimate syllable if the word ends in a vowel or n or s: JAI-me, En-RI-que, ma-CHIS-mo, CAR-los.

If, however, a word bears an acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú), it usually simply denotes that one of these two basic rules has been broken and that you must stress the syllable on which that accent occurs, including a fair number of 3 or 4-syllable words stressed on the antepenultimate syllable, i.e. three syllables from the end: Guantánamo Bay (Gwan-TA-na-mo) and ob-STA-cu-lo (obstáculo).

Thus, Andrés, Nicolás, Martínez, Pérez, etc. are to be read as Knee-Co-LASS, Mar-TEA-neth, PEH-reth.

So if the mother of the famous tenor decided to call her bouncing baby boy Plácido, we must take into account and respect the accent on the 'á' and pronounce the name of Mrs Domingo's son's name as Plah-thee-dough (or in Southern Spain and Latin America, Plah-see-dough). It is NOT, repeat NOT, Pla-thee-dough or Pla-see-dough, with the stress on the middle syllable.

Finally, here is a list of points to watch, or rather listen to, on the radio and TV. There is no reason why journalists in the spoken media should not take notice of this guide and discipline themselves to offer the sort of standards of language accuracy that are offered by a praiseworthy minority of their colleagues.

Christian Names

Pronunciation & Stress

Incorrect

Enrique (= Henry)

En-REE-Kay

On-REEK

Miguel (= Michael)

Me-GEL

Me-GWELL

Vicente (= Vincent)

Vee-THEN-Tay

or Vee-SEN-Tay

Veen-CHEN-Tee

Ángel

AN-Hell

Angel (as in English)

Luis (= Lewis)

Loo-EESS

Lewis

Nicolás

Knee-co-LASS

Knee-CO-la

Felipe (= Phillip)

Fay-LEE-Pay

Fuh-LEAP

Plácido (= Peaceful)

PLA-Thee-Dough

Pla-THEE-Dough

Or: in Latin America

PLA-See-Dough

Pla-SEE-Dough

Juan (=John)

Hwan

Wan or Djooan

Jaime (=James)

HIGH-May

Djigh-May

Javier or Xavier

Joaquín

Ha-VYER

Hwa-KEEN

K'saviour

JOah-Quin

Jorge (=George)

José (=Joseph; Joe)

WHORE-Hay

Ho-SAY or HO-Say

Whore-Gay

JOE-Say

Julio (=Jules)

WHO-Leo

Djoo-Leo

Mauricio (=Maurice)

Mao-REE-Theo

Mo-REE-Cho

Sergio

SAIR-He-Oh

SAIR-Gee-OH

Andrés (=Andrew)

An-DRACE

On-Dress

Eugenio (=Eugene)

Eh-Oo-HEN-Eeyo

You-Gennio

Arantxa (a Basque name)

Ah-RAN-Cha

 

Other female names that occur in these contexts seem to be much easier to deal with: Ana, Carmen, Conchita, Dolores, Isabel, Margarita, María, Rosa, Susana, Teresa, etc.


Surnames

Pronunciation & Stress

Incorrect

González

Gone-THAH-Leth or: Gone-SAH-Less

Gone-Zah-Leas

Martínez

Mar-TEA-Neth or: Mar-TEA-Ness

MAR-Tea-Neth or: MAR-Tea-Ness

Pérez

PEH-Reth // PEH-Ress

Puh-REZZ

Fernández

Fer-NAN-Death /-Dess

 

Sánchez

SAN-Cheth // -Chess

 

Álvarez

AL-Vah-Reth // -Ress

Al-VAH-Rezz

Márquez

MAR-Keth //-Kess

Mar-KEZZ

Marqués

Mar-CASE

MAR-Kess

Almodóvar

Al-Mo-DOUGH-Var

Al-MO-Dough-Var

Induráin (Basque)

Een-Doo-RHINE

In-Duh-Rain

Olazábal (Basque)

Oh-La-THAH-Bal

Oh-LA-Thah-Bal

Satrústegui (Basque)

Sa-TRUCE-Tay-Ghee

Sa-Truce-TAY-Ghee

Other Common Items

Pronunciation & Stress

Incorrect

Concierto de Aranjuez

Kon-THYER-Toe Day Ah-Ran-HWETH

Con-Cherto Duh Ah-RAN-Weth

Buenos Aires

BWAY-Noss EYE-Rays

Bwana's Eye-Reez

La Vida Breve

La VEE-Da BRAY-vay

 

Marisa Robles

Marisa ROBE-lace

 

Machismo

Ma-CHEESE-Mo

Ma-KEYS-Mo

Aficionado

Ah-Fee-Thyo-NAH-Dough

 

La Giralda (Seville)

La Hee-RAL-Da

 

El Niño

La Niña

Elle KNEE-Nyoh

La KNEE-Nyah

Elle KNEE-No

La KNEE-Na

Guía (guide book or guide)

GHEE-Ya

 
 

***

 

 

Trivia:

1. For 4WD / SUV fans, PAJERO is colloquial Spanish for 'wanker' (British style).

2. Even the much-vaunted Australian ethnic broadcaster (SBS), which advertises its commercial services in multiple languages, often seems to manifest on its TV programmes an inexplicably cavalier interest in accuracy as far as Spanish pronunciation is concerned. The most recent example that can be offered is the 2006 Tour de France, for which SBS had obtained exclusive TV rights for Australia (where this 3 week event is a smash hit, year after year). In spite of two friendly critical emails from the author at the beginning of the 2006 Tour, nothing could deter the SBS TV commentator from constantly pronouncing the name of the very prominent and successful Spanish rider Sastre [literally, Tailor] as SASS-truh, as of he were a Frenchman. For Le Tour de France 2007, SASS-tray, please, SBS, and take care with Óscar Freire (FRAY-ray) and Íñigo Landaluce (EEN-ye-go Lan-da-LOO-thay).


Note for Catalan fans (aficionados) and others who love Barcelona.

Barcelona is in the autonomous province of Catalonia, where the national language (not dialect) is CATALAN. Catalans are fiercely proud of their language and culture and preserved its use in spite of strict bans during the Franco Dictatorship. So here we have an additional set of linguistic problems to contend with (as the two Romance languages, although closely related, are also very different), but these will not be much of a problem since in tourist-filled Barcelona nearly everyone will be speaking to them in English, perhaps at a price. However, the following notes on Catalan names and pronunciation may be of use to the more adventurous.

To illustrate one or two differences between the two languages, here are a few examples. One of the main Olympic Stadiums is called San Jordí in Catalan, that is (roughly) Zhoor (as in French Jour)-DEE. To Spaniards this saint is known as San Jorge and to us he is Saint George. Spanish Jaime becomes in Catalan Jaume, that is ZHOW-Muh. Yes, the Catalan 'J' (or 'Ge' / 'Gi') should really be pronounced as Zh-, and the 'e' is 'uh', as often in French. (Spanish - or Castellano, as it is officially known in Spain - and Catalan are that different in sound. And, for its inhabitants and all other Catalans, Gerona is really Girona: Zhee-ro-na)

The vocabulary, although also mainly derived from Latin is also often very different. As the millions of tourists who visit Barcelona every year will see, a street, rather than being a calle (KA-Yay), an Avenida or a Paseo becomes in Catalan a Carrer (Kuh-RAY - the final 'r' in the common Catalan combination -er is not pronounced), an Avinguda (Ah-Veen-GU-Da) or a Passeig (Puh-SETCH). Many Catalan surnames end, like Carrer above, in -er. So a Catalan person named Ferrer (which is equivalent to the English noun and name Smith, by the way) should be referred to as Fuh-RAY.

The following signs should be noted:

Red trucks with BOMBERS (Boom-BAYS) painted on them do not usually belong to the Spanish Air Force or to the Basque terrorist organisation ETA but to the Fire Department.

Distinguishing between HOMES and DONES (whether written or spoken) could be crucial at times in Barcelona and the provinces of Catalonia since HOMES (OH-Ms. / OH-muzz) is Gents (toilet) and DONES (DOUGH-Nuz) is the Ladies.

SORTIDA (Soor-TEA-Duh), you will be glad to hear, is the EXIT.

For time warp travellers, the Jocs Olímpics (Jocks-Oo-Leem-PEAKS) are the Olympic Games in Catalan (held in 1992 in ... Barcelona).


(Note: The original version of this simple pronunciation guide was written for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and an edited version was published in The Age, 'Green Pages', Melbourne, in 1992. I have tinkered with it on and off since then because, although Spain became flavour of the month after 1992, many of these notes, after nearly 15 years, are still, alas!, relevant for many Australian TV and Radio Newsreaders, Sports Commentators, foreign correspondents, and other journalists.)

 

 

 

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