You may have noticed that elsewhere in this site we have generally used the Spanish alphabet to represent Spanish words and sounds. We’ve also given you some pointers about pronouncing (forming) some of the sounds in the Spanish alphabet.
We know that you are interested in speech–speaking Spanish and understanding the spoken language. However, in this lesson the goal is to pinpoint exactly how the letters are connected to the speech sounds–in other words, the basics of Spanish ortografía (orthography). English speakers are used to this sort of study, after some six years of grade-school phonics and spelling rules. You will see that Spanish spelling is far more consistent and transparent–that is, there are few rules and they apply without exceptions. A little practice and you will be able to decode the pronunciation of text. Then you will be empowered to to further your own learning wherever you see signs, ads, labels, notices, picture captions, bilingual instruction manuals–you get the idea.
¡Aquí se habla español! ‘Spanish is spoken here!’
In another lesson we have described the five vowel system, which is invariably represented by the five alphabet letters known as the Spanish vowels a, e, i, o, and u. The on-glides and off-glides involved in diphthongs, or complex syllabics, are also written with the regular vowel letters–either i or u–that keep their sound value. So, for the learner, ortografía consists mainly in the correct use of the consonant letters.
Let’s begin as a linguist might, with a description of the consonantal sound system. When we have established these elemental sound contrasts, called phonemes, we’ll attach alphabetical spellings to them. The linguistic convention imagines the diagram of a person, facing left on the page. The points of articulation involving lips (1), teeth (2), gums (3), palate (4), back of the palate (velar) (5), are shown from left to right. The up and down dimension sorts the sounds by their manner of articulation: complete stoppage of the air coming from the lungs, creating friction by constricting the flow, directing it through the nose (nasals), and so on.
Consonantal Phonemes of Spanish:
|place of articulation||bilabial||interdental||dental||palatal||velar|
|manner of articulation|
These phonemes, or contrastive sound units, hold for varieties of Latin American Spanish. Peninsular Castilian Spanish–spoken in Spain–has the two additional contrasts, an interdental [th] and a palatal [ly], shown in parenthesis ().
We point out these two sounds because the spelling system recognizes the distinctions for European Spanish speakers, but presents a literacy problem for New World Spanish speakers who must learn the ortografía of the letters “c”, “s”,and “z”, as well as “ll” and “y” in the course of formal education.
Here’s the chart again, this time with the sound-spelling connections. The symbols inside brackets  represent the sound units; the unbracketed symbols are regular alphabet letters:
|[p] p||[t] t||[k] c,k,qu|
|[b] b,v||[d] d||[g] g,gu|
|[f] f||([th] c,z)||[s] s,c,z||[ch] ch||[h] j,g|
|[m] m||[n] n||[ny] ñ|
|[l] l||([ly]) ll|
|[y] y,i,ll||[w] u,hu,w|
As you can see, we have some points requiring clarification. There are two spellings for [b], three for [k], three for [s] (in Latin American Spanish), three for [y], three for [w], and two for [h]. Remember, [h] represents a sound; the LETTER h represents NO sound, ever.
Now, let’s focus on the Spanish alphabet and work toward the sound system. The conventional alphabet has:
a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ll, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z
Watch: Learn Spanish Alphabet Video
Click to open and play Spanish alphabet video.
All of these letters and letter combinations head up dictionary entry sections, usually with ch- following all other c-, ll- following all other l-, and ñ- entries following all n- entries (even though very few words begin with ñ). “W” is not considered a Spanish letter, but it is retained without respelling in a few borrowed words, especially those derived from proper names. “X” is also marginal in spelling, but at least it has an interesting story. Historically, in old Spanish words, it represented what we now write with the letter j, namely, a palatal or velar fricative. In Spanish America, where many of the native languages have a [sh] sound, x was put to that use (many place names in Yucatan use x: Uxmal, Chicxulub, etc., and retain that sound). Others formerly had the [sh] pronunciation but today sound the letter like “j” or “s” (Mexico, Xochimilco, respectively).
In the next lesson, we will cover the Spanish consonants indvidually.