12 Languages

12.18 Spanish

12.18.1 Introduction

The Spanish used in Spain and the Spanish spoken in Latin America are mutually intelligible in much the same way that American and British English are. However, there are important differences in vocabulary and usage both between Spain and Latin America and among the Latin American countries—it is a mistake to think that Latin American Spanish is a uniform variant of the language.

12.18.2 Alphabet and spelling

In older works ch and ll were treated as separate letters for alphabetical purposes, but this is now very dated. The letter Ñ, ñ is treated as a separate letter. The letters k and w are used only in loanwords from other languages and their derivatives.

The only doubled consonants in Spanish are cc before e or i, rr, ll, and nn in compounds. They can be remembered as the consonants appearing in CaRoLiNe. Where an English speaker might expect a double consonant, Spanish normally simply has one, as in posible ‘possible’.

12.18.3 Accents

Normal stress in Spanish falls on either the penultimate or the last syllable, according to complex rules. Normal stress is not indicated by an accent; an acute accent is used when the rules for normal stress are broken. The only other diacritical marks used are the tilde on the ñ, and the diaeresis on ü, following g before e or i, where u forms a diphthong with e or i. Accents are normally used on capitals.

The accent is used to show interrogative and exclamatory use in the following words:

cuál ‘what’, ‘which’

cómo ‘how’

cuándo ‘when’

cuánto ‘how many/much’

dónde ‘when’

qué ‘what’

quién ‘who’

The accented forms are used in indirect questions. In 1959 the Real Academia decreed that, except in ambiguous cases, the accent is not needed on demonstrative pronouns este (‘this one’), ese (‘that one’), aquel (‘that one, further away’) with their feminine equivalents, esta, esa, aquella, and plurals estos/estas, esos/esas, aquellos, laquellas. This ruling is not universally accepted, however, and both conventions will be found. The neuter forms esto, eso, aquello are never accented.

12.18.4 Capitalization

Capitals are used in much the same way as in English in proper names. Practice differs in titles of books, poems, plays, and articles, where normally the first word and proper nouns are capitalized:

Cien años de soledad
La deshumanización del arte
Doña Rosita la soltera, o El lenguaje de las flores
El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.

Capitalize names of high political or religious authorities—when not followed by their first name—and references to God:

el Rey

la Reina

los Reyes

el Papa

creer en Dios


el rey Carlos III

el papa Juan XXIII

Roman numerals indicating centuries are generally given in full capitals: el sigh XI.

Lower case is usually used for names of posts and titles:








This may include non-Spanish titles such as sir or lord: el embajador británico sir Derek Plumbly.

Also written in lower case are:

  • • nouns and adjectives denoting nationalities, religions, and peoples and ethnic groups: francés/francesa, católico/-a, dominicano/-a, asiático/-a, amerindio/-a

  • • names of artistic and literary movements: romanticismo, gótico, surrealismo

  • • names of streets and roads: calle de Hortaleza, avenida de Navarra, puente de Santiago; but la Gran Via

  • • names of administrative divisions and geographical features, and cardinal points when they are not part of a name: provincia de Toledo, estado de Nueva York, condado de Lancashire, cordillera de los Andes, lago Titicaca, el sur de Francia.

Traditionally names of the days of the week, months, and seasons take a lower-case initial letter, but the use of capitals for these words is now very common and cannot be assumed to be a mistake.

12.18.5 Punctuation

The most obvious differences from other European languages are the inverted exclamation mark and question mark inserted at the place where the exclamation or question begins:

¡Mire! ‘Look!’

¿Dónde vas?

‘Where are you going?’

This need not be the start of the sentence:

Si ganases el Gordo, ¿qué harías? ‘If you won the jackpot what would you do?’

Quotation marks take the form of guillemets (called comillas), set closed up (e.g. «¡Hola!»). However, it is more common—especially in fiction—to dispense with comillas altogether and indicate speakers by a dash.

Colons are used before quotations (Dijo el alcalde: «Que comience la fiesta.»), in letters (Querido Pablo:), and before an enumeration (Trajeron de todo: cuchillos, cucharas, sartenes, etc.). Points of suspension are set closed up with space following but not preceding them.

12.18.6 Word division

The general rule is that a consonant between two vowels and the second of two consonants must be taken over to the next line. The combinations ch, ll, and rr are indivisible and must be taken over: mu-chacho, arti-llería, pe-rro.

The consonants b, c, f, g, p followed by l or r must be taken over as a pair: ha-blar ‘to speak’, ju-glar ‘minstrel’; so must dr and tr, as in ma-drugada ‘dawn’, pa-tria ‘fatherland’.

The letter s must be divided from any following consonant: Is-lam, hués-ped ‘guest, host’, Is-rael, cris-tiano; similarly Es-teban ‘Stephen’, es-trella ‘star’, even in a compound (ins-tar ‘to urge’, ins-piractión).

Divide compounds into their component parts, except where they contain s + consonant or rr (des-hacer ‘to undo’, sub-lunar, but circuns-tancia, co-rregir ‘to correct’, inte-rrumpir ‘to interrupt’). Never divide diphthongs and triphthongs; if possible, avoid dividing between vowels at all.

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