Welcome to the second part of this blog post, where we are delving into those special little marks that distinguish altogether Spanish from other languages.
So, which other character grants la lengua de Cervantes its unique flavor? It is, of course, el acento agudo (the acute accent) and the accentuation principle. Let’s begin!
Acento agudo (´)
This little oblique line going up and to the right is only used on the five Spanish vowels (a, e, i, o, u) to indicate one of two things: that the syllable the vowel forms part of is stressed, or that the word is to be understood differently from an unaccented counterpart—the diacritic function of the accent. This time, I will focus solely on the stress.
When learning Spanish phonology, the student must be always aware of an important fact: almost eight out of ten words of that language are to be pronounced with a stress on the penultimate syllable (called palabras graves or llanas). Because of that, most Spanish words show no accent, as it is unnecessary to remind how the word must sound:
- Casa ‘home’, stress on ca
- Gatos ‘cats’, stress on ga
- Amigo ‘friend’, stress on mi
On the other hand, Spanish words whose stress is on the final syllable (palabras agudas) or on the antepenultimate syllable (palabras esdrújulas) make up less than 20% of the language inventory, which has allowed academics and grammar experts to summarize the accentuation principles as follows:
Las palabras graves llevan tilde cuando no terminan en -n, en -s o en vocal, y también se acentúan cuando terminan en -s precedida de otra consonante. (Words with the stress on the penultimate syllable must carry the accent when not ending in -n, -s, or a vowel, and also when ending in -s preceded by another consonant.)
Las palabras agudas llevan tilde cuando terminan en -n, en -s o en vocal, pero si terminan en -s precedida de otra consonante, se escriben sin tilde. (Words with the stress on the final syllable must carry the accent when ending in -n, -s, or a vowel, but when ending in -s preceded by another consonant, they don’t need the accent at all.)
Las palabras esdrújulas y sobresdrújulas siempre llevan tilde. (Words with the stress on the penultimate syllable or on the syllable before the penultimate must always carry the accent.)
Atención: La letra ye (y) se considera consonante a efectos de acentuación. (Warning: The letter y is to be considered a consonant for accentuation purposes.)
Now, some examples to clarify:
- Papa ‘potato’ doesn’t get the accent because it is a palabra grave ending in a vowel. It is to be pronounced as PA-pa. The same happens when it is plural: papas, as it is a palabra grave ending in -s.
- Papá ‘dad’ carries the accent because it is a palabra aguda ending in a vowel. It is to be pronounced as pa-PA. And the same happens when it is plural: papas, as it is a palabra aguda ending in -s.
And another one:
- Publico ‘I publish’ (from the verb publicar ‘to publish’) doesn’t carry the accent because it is a palabra grave ending in a vowel. It is to be pronounced as pu-BLI-co.
- Publicó ‘he/she/it published’ needs the accent because it is a palabra aguda ending in a vowel. It is to be pronounced as pu–bli–CO.
- Público ‘public’ needs the accent always as it is a palabra esdrújula. It is to be pronounced as PU–bli–co.
- Finally, the verb publicar doesn’t carry the accent because it is a palabra aguda not ending in -n, -s, or a vowel. It is to be pronounced as pu–bli–CAR.
You could practice your accentuation skills by reading words from many sources and comparing similar ones with different meanings according to the way their syllables are stressed. Analyze the following word clusters and justify the presence or not of the acute accent:
- Integro, intregó and íntegro
- Miro and miró
- Gane and gané
Don’t forget that a third part of this blog will be coming soon, where I will be checking the other use of the acute accent and the final special character of the Spanish language. Stay sharp!
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