More About the Spanish Accent

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Knowing which syllable to stress and where to place the acute accent in Spanish lessons is one of the major challenges for any Spanish language learner.

We understand the interest in learning Spanish when we see the number of speakers on the planet: nearly 500 million people, mainly in the United States and Mexico.

Here are our Spanish grammar reminders to help you master the accentuation of Castilian.

What forms and roles does the Spanish accent take?

Even a native Spanish speaker – Spanish, Mexican, Colombian, Argentinean, Cuban – could be mistaken: mastering the spelling of a language, even one’s own, is not something everyone can do.

The Spanish pronunciation and meaning of a word is affected by whether an acute or a grave accent is placed at the end of certain words.

In short, you should know that to learn to speak Spanish, the accentuation rule is simpler because there is only one written accent: it takes the form of an acute accent (as for the letter “é”).

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There are two types of accents in Spanish:

  • The tonic accent
  • The grammatical accent

The first stresses a syllable whose vowel is pronounced in a higher tone of voice – it is the metronome of the sentence -, while the last does not change the tone of pronunciation of a word, it is affixed to the normal tonic syllable.

This grammatical accent is silent, and is only noticed when reading.

In addition, it is used to distinguish two homonyms: for example, “como” can both be the verb “comer” conjugated in the first person singular in the present tense to mean “I eat”, while “cómo” is a pronoun that marks the comparison between two elements (“like” in English).

Or the verbs “sonar” (to sound) and “sonar” (to dream) could not be correctly understood without the “ñ” of “sonar”.

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What are the rules of the tonic accent in Spanish?

Who hasn’t seen the little wave above the letter “n” in Spanish, especially in the word “españa” (Spain)?

This is the tilde, taken from the Spanish verb “tildar”, which means the action of writing the accent.

The prevailing rule of stress for the tonic accent is as follows: only the vowels a, e, i, o, and u can be stressed.

The tonic accent is often accompanied by a written accent because it indicates the place of the stressed syllable.

If words in Spanish end in a vowel or in the consonants “n” and “s”, then the penultimate syllable should be stressed. In phonetics, these are called paroxysms.

For example, for the words “mesa”, “padre”, “cama”, “lunes”, “casa”, etc., these words end either with a penultimate syllable or with a penultimate syllable. For example, for the words “mesa”, “padre”, “cama”, “lunes”, “casa”, etc., these words end either with a vowel, an “n” or an “s”, so the penultimate phoneme must be stressed in order to pronounce it correctly.

So we say “PA-dre”, “ME-sa”, and so on.

But if the word ends neither with a vowel nor with consonants other than “n” and “s”, and if it does not have a written accent, then the tonic accent must be placed on the last syllable (this is called an oxytone):

  • Comer,
  • Papel,
  • Ayudar,
  • Libertad,
  • Ordenador.

If, finally, the tonic accent is marked on another syllable, then a written accent is used to indicate the tonic syllable:

  • Dicil,
  • ár

There are certain irregularities, especially in words ending in “ión” or “ón”: población, localización, privatización, nacionalización, acción, corazón, etc.

Words ending in “n” should have a tonic accent on the penultimate syllable, but it is the last syllable that is accented.

Words are also sometimes stressed on the antepenultimate (penultimate) syllable, and must therefore have a written accent: sílaba (syllable), bolígrafo (pen), párajo (bird), paréntesis (parenthesis), etc.

Note that in the case of a Spanish diphthong – the association of a strong vowel with a weak vowel – the tonic accent is marked on the strong vowel: pi-EN-so, PUE-do, PIA-no

Is that all?

No, there is still one last rule: when we change from a singular to a plural or from a masculine to a feminine, the spelling of the word – the number of syllables with it – changes, and it may lose its written accent or take it (the tonic accent remaining fixed on the same syllable).

This is the case for canción and canciones, inglés and inglesa, joven and jóvenes, francés and francesa…

Finally, there is another type of accentuation: the grammatical accent. A Spanish course will help you learn quickly!