Consonants and semivowels in Spanish

1. Consonants 

1.1. Inventory of the Spanish consonants
Table 1 below gives a fairly complete inventory of the consonant sounds of standard European Spanish (for Latin American Spanish one would need to add, as a minimum, the [ʒ] and [ʃ] associated with Rioplatense Spanish, as well as the [h] of Caribbean and Pacific coast varieties, plus the [ʂ] and [ʐ] of the highland dialects). For each of the illustrative words shown in the table, the adjacent phonetic symbol in square brackets stands for the sound associated with the letter or digraph in bold typeface. The phonetic symbols used are those of the International Phonetic Association, although it should be noted that [t] and [d] are used here to refer to dental rather than alveolar consonants.

Table 1      The consonant sounds of Spanish (shaded cell indicates voiced sound)


[p] capa   [t] pata       [k] pico
[b] ambos   [d] lindo       [g] vengo
  [f] café [θ] caza [s] casa     [x] caja
[β] lobo  

[ð] cada

[z] mismo   [ʝ] ayer [ɣ] lago
      [ɹ] Israel      
        [tʃ] chico    
        [dʒ] ya    

[m] cama

[ɱ] enfermo [n̪] andar [n] cana  

[ɲ] caña

[ŋ] tengo

[l] cala

  [ʎ] calla  
[ɫ] algo*
      [ɾ] caro      
      [r] carro      

*[ɫ] is like [l] but has a secondary, velar articulation, giving it a ‘darker’ quality.

1.2 Explaining the table: how consonants are classified

The production or articulation of a consonant requires either a partial or a complete obstruction of the airstream as it passes through the oral tract. The place at which this obstruction occurs and the manner in which it is created are two of the main factors in determining the nature of the consonant (its acoustic properties), the third factor being whether the vocal cords are vibrating or at rest. When the vocal cords vibrate the consonant is classified as being voiced, and if the vocal cords are at rest it is classed as voiceless (compare, for example, the English words live and life, where the letter v corresponds to a voiced sound and f to a voiceless one). Thus a consonant can be classified in terms of its place of articulation, its manner of articulation and whether it is voiced or voiceless. In Table 1 above, the headings in the first row indicate the place of articulation while the terms in the first column denote the various manners of articulation and the shaded cells are reserved for the voiced sounds.

A consonant’s place of articulation is usually expressed in terms of the position of the relevant articulators (i.e. the parts of the oral tract that are involved in obstructing the airstream). The places of articulation that are relevant to a description of Spanish are listed in Table 2 below.

Table 2 Place of articulation in Spanish

Place of articulation Articulators
Bilabial Upper and lower lips
Labiodental Lower lip and upper front teeth
Dental Tongue tip/blade and upper front teeth
Alveolar Tongue tip/blade and alveolar ridge
Palato-alveolar Tongue blade and back of alveolar ridge
Palatal Front of tongue and (hard) palate
Velar Back of tongue and velum

Occasionally, a sound has a secondary articulation in addition to its main or primary one. This is the case with the sound [ɫ], which receives the same classification as [l] in terms of the axes of classification provided by Table 1 but differs from [l] on account of its secondary articulation. Thus while [l] is an alveolar lateral, [ɫ] is a velarized alveolar lateral. Note that this is not the same thing as a velar lateral, which is denoted by the symbol [L] and has the velar position as its primary articulation.

As regards the second of the three classificatory dimensions, manner of articulation, the types that are relevant to a description of Spanish consonants are shown in Table 3 below.

Table 3 Manner of articulation in Spanish

Place of articulation Articulators
Stop Complete blockage of airstream, with small burst of sound upon separation of articulators
Fricative Close approximation of articulators, so that airstream is obstructed and friction is audible
Approximant Loose approximation of articulators, with no audible friction
Nasal Complete blockage of oral tract, but velum lowered to allow air to escape through nose
Lateral Complete blockage at a point along the centre of mouth, with space on one or both sides of tongue for passage of airstream
Tap Tongue tip gives single light tap to roof of mouth
Trill Tongue tip vibrates against roof of mouth in a current of air

An additional type of sound that occurs in Spanish represents a combination of two of the above manners of articulation. Thus the ch sound in chico ‘boy’ is an affricate, meaning that it consists of a stop immediately followed by a homorganic fricative, i.e. one produced at the same place of articulation as the stop.

2. Semivowels
A semivowel is a kind of approximant, i.e. a consonant-like sound that is articulated with loose approximation of the articulators and no audible friction. The semivowels in Spanish are [j], as in tierra ‘land’, and [w], as in fuego ‘fire’. Like consonants, semivowels can be thought of as having a place of articulation. Thus [j] is a palatal sound and [w] is a velar sound. The latter sound is, in addition, articulated with lip rounding and so is properly described as a labial-velar semivowel.

From the phonetic point of view, a semivowel has both vowel-like and consonant-like properties. As regards Spanish [j] and [w], because these two sounds are in complementary distribution with the front and backs vowels [i] and [u] respectively, they are most conveniently viewed as allophones of the vowel phonemes /i/ and /u/.