The allophonic rules of Spanish


According to the tables on the phonemes page, the standard European variety of Spanish has a total of 24 phonemes (5 vowels and 19 consonants). On the other hand, the relevant tables on the vowels and consonants pages attribute a combined total of 36 distinct speech sounds (5 vowels, 29 consonants and 2 semivowels) to the same variety. The reason for this mismatch is that phonemes are essentially classes of sounds and several phonemes in Spanish have more than one member. This point can be illustrated first of all with the voiced stops [b, d, g] and the voiced fricatives [β, ð, ɣ]. A parallel exists between these two groups of sounds, in that the places of articulation of the stops exactly match those of the fricatives, as shown in Table 1 below.


Table 1   Voiced stops and fricatives in Spanish









It turns out that there are no cases of minimal contrast between a voiced stop and the corresponding voiced fricative. This is because in each case the stop and the corresponding fricative are in complementary distribution, i.e. they occur in mutually exclusive contexts. Thus the stops are restricted to the following contexts:

  1. initial position: [ˈbino] vino ‘wine’, [ˈdoj] doy ‘I give’, [ˈgoma] goma ‘rubber’
  2. after a nasal consonant: [ˈambos] ambos ‘both’, [ˈan̪do] ando ‘I walk’, [ˈteŋgo] tengo ‘I have’
  3. in the case of [d], after [l]: [ˈtoldo] toldo ‘awning’
The fricatives, in contrast, have the following distribution:
  1. after a vowel: [aˈβeɾ] haber ‘to have’, [ˈloðo] lodo ‘mud’, [ˈlaɣo] lago ‘lake’
  2. after consonants other than nasals or, in the case of [ð], laterals: [ˈalβa] alba ‘dawn’, [ˈaɾðe] arde ‘burns’, [ˈalɣo] algo ‘something’

Because they are in complementary distribution, a voiced stop and its corresponding fricative can be regarded as contextual variants or allophones of the same phoneme. In other words [b] and [β] are allophones of a single phoneme (conventionally represented as /b/), [d] and [ð] are allophones of a single phoneme (conventionally represented as /d/) and [g] and [ɣ] are allophones of a single phoneme (conventionally represented as /g/).

The dental and alveolar fricative phonemes /θ/ and /s/ are also subject to an allophonic rule, being realized as the voiced fricatives [ð, z] before a voiced consonant and as the voiceless fricatives [θ, s] elsewhere:

[xuðˈɣaɾ] juzgar ‘to judge’
[mizˈmo] mismo ‘same’
[koˈθina] cocina ‘kitchen’
[ˈkasa] casa ‘house’

The voicing rule for /θ/ means that before a voiced consonant this phoneme merges with /d/, given that [ð] is also an allophone of /d/. Indeed, in Old Spanish the word juzgar was spelled with a d rather than a z, as were words like hallazgo ‘finding’ and portazgo ‘toll charge’ (cf. Old Spanish iudgar, falladgo and portadgo).


A further point to note about /s/ is that, before the trill /r/, it is either elided (e.g. [dereɣuˈlaɾ] desregular ‘to deregulate’) or it is realized as [ɹ], i.e. the sound that appears at the beginning of the English word red.

The palatal phoneme /ʝ/ is realized as the voiced affricate [dʒ] in initial position and after a nasal, but as the voiced fricative [ʝ] in all other contexts:

[ˈdʒo] yo ‘I’
uxe] cónyuge ‘spouse’
[aˈʝ] ayer ‘yesterday’

Finally, the semivowels [j] and [w] can be assigned to the phonemes /i/ and /u/, as there are no minimal contrasts in Spanish between the sounds [i] and [j] or between [u] and [w]. Thus the semivowels can be seen as the forms taken by /i/ or /u/ when they occur in a diphthong with another vowel. Each semivowel can occur immediately before or immediately after the vowel with which it forms a diphthong, as is shown in Table 2 below.

Table 2   Distribution of the semivowels [j] and [w]

Before vowel
After vowel


[tjera] tierra ‘land’
[bojna] boina ‘beret’


[fweɣo] fuego ‘fire’
[ewɾopa] Europa ‘Europe

This leaves the dental, labiodental and velar nasals [n̪], [ɱ] and [ŋ], together with the velarized alveolar lateral [ɫ]. The first three sounds are positional variants of an underlying nasal element, in that [n̪] occurs only before dental consonants, [ɱ] only before labiodentals and [ŋ] only before velars, while [ɫ] is the form taken by a lateral when it occurs before a velar consonant. However, it turns out that these four sounds cannot be assigned to a specific phoneme in Spanish. There is a good reason for this, but it cannot be explained independently of the concept of neutralization.