Wednesday, March 30, 2016

PRONUNCIATION – Vocal Chord Vibration

A crucial difference to reduce your accent: In Spanish, as opposed to English, the vibration of the vocal chords is not heard as much and as often as in English.

In English (a Germanic language) we speak more from the back of the mouth. But Spanish (from Latin) is much more of a front-mouth language.

When speaking English I still have to remind myself of this fundamental difference –a difference that accounts in part for the Hispanic accent in English.

That’s why Hispanics learning English find it difficult to differentiate between, say:

                                   ‘bag’ and ‘back
                                   ‘lab’ and ‘lap
          They fail to vibrate the vocal chords as much as they should 
          when pronouncing the final ‘g’ and ‘b’ –and other voiced consonants.

As for vowels:

All vowels are voiced (pronounced with audible vocal chord vibration)

Even the short-sounding vowels are voiced: 

                      pat -  sit -  of - pull 

Also, the vowels in stressed syllables are pronounced longer and that also accounts for more audible vibration. Remember that in Spanish we do not elongate the stressed vowels, but pronounce them with a somewhat higher pitch.

We do not have short- and long-sounding vowels. As you know, each vowel has only one possible sound.

The only vowels that are pronounced in the back of the mouth are the ‘o’ and ‘u’ and even in these cases you do not hear the vocal chord vibration as in English.

Examples:   too   -  tú
                    pot  -  pote    

Bottom line:  Speak Spanish from the front of your mouth and you’ll be on safe ground 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


In relaxed conversation, we usually stress the important words --the “content words,” as we say in linguistics-- and do not stress the unimportant words --the “function words.”

Content Words                                       Function Words
Nouns                                                      Subject Pronouns: I, you, he, etc. 
Possessive Pronouns: mine, yours, etc. Object Pronouns: me, him, her, etc.
Interrogative Pronouns: what, why, etc.
Main verbs                                               Auxiliary verbs
                                                                Modals: should, may, might, etc.
                                                                Prepositions: to, for, in, etc.
                                                                Conjunctions: and, so, but, etc.
                                                                Articles: a, an, the, etc.

Example:  I’m going to talk to her. (“I’m gonna talk to‘er.”)

No such thing as function words, or unstressed words in Spanish.  

To the extent that you do not pay attention to the pronunciation of each word in a sentence, your speech is considered sloppy.

In Spanish, we are supposed to pronounce every word clearly.

Example:  Hablaremos mañana; encontraremos una solución.
                 (As opposed to English: We’ll talk tomorrow; we’ll find a solution.)

Linkage. We do link words in conversational Spanish.

     (a) When same vowels at the end and beginning of following words:
          Example:  la-almohada  (the pillow)
          But those who want to be careful pronounce both a’s, or as a longer ‘a’.
     (b) Also when vowels are different:
          Example:  hombre-alto (tall man)
          Again both vowels are articulated although linked.

    (c) Words ending with a consonant and followed by a vowel.
         Example:  el-abuelo  (the grandfather)
Remember: In English we have a similar stress system in the pronunciation of vowels  (the unstressed vowels usually become indefinite). And in sentences, again, we also have a stress system based on important (content words) and unimportant words (function words).

In Spanish, we do not have “unimportant” or unstressed words in a sentence.

Languages reflect the native culture. As opposed to English, Spanish is originally from once aristocratic Spain (la Real Academia Española – the Royal Spanish Academy). Remember Don Quijote, the medieval gentleman who refused to accept modern times.

Controversial (I love thoughtful controversy)
That’s why many Cubans in the island –although educated-- tend to be “sloppy” in their pronunciation. The Marxist-Leninist revolution rejected the middle-class manners (considered “bourgeois”) and replaced those manners with those of the proletariat, the worker. 

Again, on the average, island Cubans tend to be more educated, but South Americans, for example, even in the least developed countries, are more careful in their pronunciation. Those are societies in which language shows our social level. 

Colombians go to the extreme of using formal ‘usted’ even with their girlfriends/boyfriends. 

Nobel-prize novelist Garcَía Márquez’s novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Loneliness) deals with those medieval strains still found in some South American countries –although globalization is doing away with those windmills.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

English-Spanish Differences - Word Stress

Pronunciation – Vowels
English-Spanish Basic Differences

We all know that in Spanish the five vowels have each only one invariable sound, and each of those sounds has no 100% match in English.

In English the five vowels have at least 14 possible articulations and there are no rules when, for instance, the ‘a’ is pronounced short (the mouth less open) as in ‘at’ or long (the mouth more open) as in ‘artist’.

English: stressed vowels are lengthened
Spanish: stressed vowels are somewhat louder but not lengthened (except for emphasis)

atom - átomo
atomic -  atómico

English: The [ǝ] symbol is called the schwa and it is used to indicate the indefinite sound of an unstressed vowel.

If you look up the word ‘atom’ in the dictionary, you’ll find it is pronounced as átǝm (the ‘o’ is indistinct)

Take the word ‘átomo’ in Spanish. A movie actor trying to imitate the English accent when speaking Spanish would pronounce it as ‘aatǝmǝ’.

The schwa [ǝ] is also found in stressed syllables consisting of a vowel plus the letter ‘r’, such as bird [bǝrd], turn [tǝrn], earn [ǝrn]. Again, in these words the vowel has become blurred.

Spanish: No such thing as a schwa. Unstressed vowels are not shortened and blurred. No vowel blurring in Spanish pronunciation.

Exercise. Make sure to pronounce every vowel clearly in the Spanish version of these words. First exaggerate the articulation of every syllable in Spanish, and then pronounce it normally.  

atom  -  átomo  [á-to-mo]                                 
atomic – atómico [a-tó-mi-co]
competitive  - competitivo [com-pe-ti-ti-vo]
original  -  original [o-ri-gi-nal]
invitation  -  invitación [in-vi-ta-ción]
famous – famoso [fa-mo-so]

And those who want to reduce their American accent when speaking Spanish should practice by reading at least a couple of paragraphs exaggerating the articulation of every syllable and then read them again normally. Do that every day.

We can practice further in class.