The Spanish phonemes

1. What is a phoneme?
2. Minimal pairs
3. The vowel phonemes of Spanish
4. The consonant phonemes of Spanish

1. What is a phoneme?

The phonemes of a language are its speech sounds viewed as units in a functioning system. In some cases, e.g. that of Spanish /tʃ/, a phoneme is always pronounced or ‘realized’ in the same way, while in others a phoneme’s realization may vary according to the phonetic context. As a rule, two or more sounds that are similar to one another and which never occur in the same phonetic context – hence are said to be in complementary distribution – can be viewed as different realizations
of the same underlying phoneme. English, for example, has two l-sounds, known as clear l (phonetic symbol: [l]) and dark l (phonetic symbol: [ɫ]), which are normally analysed as being different realizations of a single phomeme. This analysis follows from the following facts: (i) the sounds in question are similar to one another, both being lateral consonants with the same primary place of articulation; (ii) they are in complementary distribution, clear l occurring word-initially (e.g. let) and before vowels (e.g. elated) but dark l occurring word-finally (e.g. wheel) and before consonants (e.g. belt).

It follows from the mutually exclusive distributions of [l] and [ɫ] in English that there are no words in that language which are differentiated from each other solely on the basis of whether they have [l] as opposed to [ɫ], or vice versa, in a given position. This in turn means that the contrast between [l] and [ɫ] is not significant in terms of expressing meaning in English. For example, if you pronounce let as [ɫɛt], i.e. with an initial dark l as opposed to the clear l that is more ‘normal’ in that position, you run no risk of being misunderstood. And the same applies if you use a clear l before a consonant or at the end of a word. Indeed, some varieties of northern British English systematically employ dark l word-initially or before vowels and, conversely, speakers of varieties such as Welsh English or Caribbean English may produce clear l in final position or before a consonant.

2. Minimal pairs
The basic method for establishing the phonemic inventory of a language involves identifying minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of words whose component sounds match in all positions except one. For example, Spanish casa ‘house’ and caza ‘hunt’ are exactly identical except in their third segment, where [s] contrasts with [θ] (in the Castilian variety of the language, although not in Andalusian and Latin American varieties). This minimal contrast establishes the functionality of the distinction between the sounds [s] and [θ], on the basis of which we can say that these two sounds belong to two different phonemes. These, in accordance with the standard convention whereby phonemes are represented using slashes, can be shown as /s/ and /θ/.

Using the minimal pairs technique, five vowel phonemes and nineteen consonant phonemes can be identified in (Castilian) Spanish, implying that the standard European form of the language has a phonemic inventory comprising twenty-four separate units.

3. The vowel phonemes of Spanish
The five Spanish vowel phonemes are shown in Table 1 below:

Table 1 The Spanish vowel phonemes

  Front Central Back

The separate phonemic status of the five sounds shown in Table 1 can be established by the following five-way minimal contrast:

paso ‘step’
peso ‘weight’
piso ‘apartment’
poso ‘sediment’
puso ‘he/she put’

4. The consonant phonemes of Spanish
Identifying the Spanish consonant phonemes is not quite as straightforward as is the identification of the vowel phonemes, although it is still a
routine matter. In the first place, the sixteen-way minimal contrast shown in Table 2 below establishes the separate phonemic status of /p, t, k, b, d, g, θ, s, tʃ, x, m, n, ɲ, l, ʎ, ɾ/.

Table 2 Minimal contrasts for sixteen Spanish consonant phonemes

Phoneme identified
Phoneme identified

capa ‘cape’


cacha ‘butt’


cata ‘tasting’


caja ‘box’


caca ‘shit’


cama ‘bed’


cava (= sparkling wine)


cana ‘grey hair’


cada ‘each’


caña ‘cane’


caga ‘shits’


cala ‘cove’


caza ‘hunt’


calla ‘be quiet’


casa ‘house’


cara ‘face’


The remaining consonantal phonemes are /f/, /ʝ/ and the trill /r/. It would be tedious to list all the minimal pairs required to establish functional distinctions between these phonemes and each of the sixteen shown in Table 2. Suffice it to say that /f/ occurs most frequently at the beginning of a word, hence enters into a number of minimal contrasts in that position (e.g. forro ‘lining’ ~ zorro ‘fox’), while /ʝ/ and /r/ contrast with one another and with many of the above phonemes in the frame ca__o:

cayo [ˈkaʝo] ‘cay/key’
carro [ˈkaro] ‘cart’
caro [ˈkaɾo] ‘expensive’
callo [ˈkaʎo] ‘callus’

The full inventory or system of Spanish consonantal phonemes is given in tabular format in Table 3 below. In presenting phonemic systems, there is no need to provide an exhaustive phonetic characterization of each unit in the system. All that needs to be mentioned are the distinctive features, i.e. a set of minimal features that are sufficient to distinguish each phoneme from all the others. In the case of Spanish, there is no need, for example, to distinguish between the bilabial and the labiodental places of articulation or between the palato-alveolar and the palatal places of articulation.

In addition, it can be useful to group types of phonemes into larger categories. Thus laterals and vibrants (i.e. trills and taps) can be grouped together as liquids, and liquids can in turn be grouped with nasals in the category of sonorants. The non-sonorants can then be referred to as obstruents. Among the voiced obstruents, manner of articulation (specifically, fricative versus stop versus affricate) is not phonemically distinctive in Spanish, given that /b, d, g/ can be either fricatives or stops in Spanish while /ʝ/ can be either a fricative or an affricate.

As a class, then, the Spanish obstruents can be regarded as being divided fundamentally into those which are always voiced and those which are always voiceless, with /θ/ and /s/ being unmarked in this regard (i.e. they can be voiced or voiceless depending on the phonetic context). The exclusively voiceless obstruents can then be subdivided into those which are fricatives, viz. /f, x/ and those which are not, viz. the stops /p, t, k/ and the affricate /tʃ/.

Table 3 The Spanish consonant phonemes
  Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar
Obstruents Voiceless Non-fricatives
Sonorants Liquids Laterals


Vibrants Tap