Silent Letters in Spanish: The Letter H, and sometimes U
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In Spanish, some letters are silent. One of them, and by far the most common one, is the letter H. The letter H in Spanish is essentially always silent, no matter where this letter is placed. It may be at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a word, and in all those cases the H in Spanish has no vocalized sound.
Another silent letter in Spanish is the letter U, specifically when following the consonants G or Q. So when you see the combinations gue or gui, and que or qui, you will not pronounce the U at all.
In today’s post, we’ll examine these mute letters by providing you with word lists containing each of them. We’ll start with the letter H in Spanish, including a section on exceptions where the H is indeed pronounced. Then we’ll look at lists of gue, gui, que, and qui words, again with an exception to the silent rule when we see them as güe and güi.
The letter H in Spanish: The mute letter
The letter H in the Spanish language is silent, and it’s been maintained in the Spanish orthography for etymological reasons. This means that because many Spanish words are of Latin or Greek origin, they are written with an H. In the spoken language of today, however, the Spanish H normally has no vocalized sound associated with its pronunciation.
We say that the Spanish H is silent, but this is only partially true. The letter still needs to be acknowledged when speaking! In practice, this means that the H generally indicates a division between syllables, usually with a glottal stop that’s “pronounced” at the back of the throat.
Silent H in different positions
In Spanish, the letter H can be found in any position of a word. Whether at the beginning, middle, or end, this letter plays a crucial role in the pronunciation and spelling of Spanish words.
In the following sections we present lists of Spanish words that contain the letter H at the beginning, middle, and end. Try pronouncing each Spanish word, being sure to acknowledge the H with a glottal stop in most instances, even if you don’t vocalize it like you would in English.
Silent H at the beginning
Here you’ll see some Spanish words that start with H. In all of these, the pronunciation begins with a glottal stop to start the syllable, but without an aspirated H like in English.
|El helado||Ice cream|
Silent H in the middle
Now you’ll see some words with the letter H between vowels. If you are an English speaker, avoid the temptation to pronounce the letter H as you do in English: remember it’s a mute letter in Spanish, so it just indicates a slight pause in the word!
Silent H at the end
The letter H in Spanish is not normally found at the end of a word. Nonetheless, the silent H is present at the end of some interjections. In these cases, just like in English, there’s absolutely no vocalization of the Spanish H.
Exceptions to the silent H in Spanish
So far we’ve seen Spanish words with H where the letter is totally silent. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, however, that we’ll look at here. In these cases you already know how to pronounce H in Spanish because these vocalizations are the same as in English!
CH in Spanish
When combined with the letter C, as in CH, the Spanish pronunciation is the same as in some English words. Take, for instance, the word chancho (pig), which is pronounced with the same /ch/ sound that you would pronounce when saying “challenge” in English. Let’s see some more examples:
|Chico / Chica||Boy / Girl|
|La cancha de tenis||Tennis court|
|El chicle||Chewing gum|
Loanwords in Spanish
Loanwords are foreign words that have been adopted into a language as-is. While some loanwords undergo a bit of a modification to their pronunciation in order to sound more like their new language, they’re often still pronounced very similarly to their foreign origin.
This means that for certain Spanish words that start with H, we’ll actually pronounce the letter after all. Examples of such loanwords adopted from English include hobby, hockey, hámster, and hacker, all of which have the same pronunciation and meaning that you’re familiar with.
Silent U in Spanish
The Spanish language has five vowels, namely A, E, I, O, and U, each with its own distinct sound and typically pronounced when they appear in words. However, there is an exception to this rule, with the letter U being the only vowel in Spanish that can sometimes be effectively silent.
For a full lesson on all the letters in Spanish, including pronunciation practice, take a look at our post on the alphabet in Spanish.
Silent U in “gue” and “gui” words
The letter U in Spanish is effectively silent when it comes after the letter G and is followed by E or I. In other words, the letter combinations gue and gui are pronounced as /ge/ and /gi/.
Although this letter U is not explicitly pronounced, it still has a crucial role. Its presence affects the sound of the letter G in a word, giving it a hard sound rather than a soft sound. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Silent U in “que” and “qui” words
The letter U is also silent when preceded by the letter Q and followed by the letters E and I. This means that the letter combinations que and qui are pronounced as /ke/ and /ki/. Let’s see some examples:
We’ve just seen the Spanish pronunciation rule that renders the letter U effectively silent when it falls between Q or G and E or I. In some words, however, the pronunciation requires a clear acknowledgment of the U in gue or gui. To indicate these exceptions, the U is written with an umlaut, known as a diéresis in Spanish, to form a clear diphthong where the Ü is pronounced distinctly.
The Spanish language has two letters that are generally considered to be silent: the letter H, and sometimes the letter U.
The letter H is nearly always silent, regardless of its position within a word. The only exceptions are loanwords that are pronounced as in their original language, and when the H is combined with C to create a distinct CH pronunciation. Otherwise, when it’s on its own in a word, the letter H Spanish is only acknowledged with a slight pause in pronunciation, often enunciated with a glottal stop.
The letter U is effectively silent when found in the specific letter combinations gue, gui, que, and qui. In instances of gue and gui, although the letter U is not distinctly pronounced, it still plays a crucial role in pronunciation, indicating a hard sound to the letter G. The diéresis is used when the letter needs to be pronounced distinctly, as in güe and güi.
Understanding the silent letters in Spanish can help with both pronunciation and spelling. When you’re able to recognize and pronounce these silent letters correctly, it’ll give you a much better understanding of the Spanish language as a whole. So, keep an eye out for those sneaky silent letters and you’ll ace your Spanish pronunciation in no time!