Spanish Intonation

Definition:  Spanish Intonation is the variation of pitch in the pronunciation of words to convey an affirmation, question or exclamation. For example: "mi Madre está en casa" is an affirmation, and has a sound different from a question that is obtained by adding the symbols "¿?" in the same sentence: "¿mi madre está en casa?" has a different intonation even though the words are the same.

In Spanish the tone for a given word does not alter its meaning; however it varies its pragmatic interpretation:
¡Adelante!

¿Adelante?

Example: The following sentences have different sounds and different meanings.
  • Is my father cooking? ---> ¿Está mi papá cocinando?
  • My father is cooking ---> Mi papá está cocinando

Intonation in Spanish is used for several purposes:
  • Marking of interrogative and exclamatory sentences.
  • Marking of the topic (theme) - rheme and topicalization, etc.
  • Paralinguistic and extralinguistic information: used to give expression to the feelings that accompany the emission of a certain statement. Such as anger, irony, doubt.
It is an important grammar topic in all languages, because it helps us with the correct pronunciation of a foreign language. There are other languages which involves stress and rhythm.

The intonation is a supra-segmental phenomenon because it transmits information to a level above lexicon. This information allows us to distinguish two complete sentences that are otherwise identical phonetically, for example:
  • ¿Tú trabajas en el banco? (Do youwork in the bank?)
  • Tú trabajas en el banco (You work in the bank)

Enunciative scheme:

The normal tone is reached, from the first syllable accented; with this tone is pronounced the whole message, until the last stressed syllable, where the pitch falls seriously.

Interrogative scheme:

The first accented syllable is raised something about the normal pitch. From here the following syllables form a slightly descending scale to the last syllable where the pitch rises again.

Exclamatory scheme:

The body starts above the normal pitch and quickly descends into its final branch below the normal pitch.

Intonation in Spanish

Alphabet: Alphabet Pronunciation

Letter Spanish Name Spanish Example English Example
a a Papá Father
b be Barco Boat
c ce Carro Car
ch che Muchacho Change
d de Dado Detective
e e Escoba Egg
f efe Fabrica Factory
g ge Gorra Goverment
h hache Honra "h" is always silent
i i Policía Police
j jota Jarra Justice
k ka Kilo Kilometer
l ele Laguna Laundry
ll elle Llama  
m eme Marino Mother
n ene Nariz Nouse
ñ eñe Caña Canyon
o o Votar Vote
p pe Pe Peru
q cu Química Chemistry
r ere Paro  
s ese Sopa Soup
t te Texto Text
u u Unicornio boot
v uve Vendaje bandage
w Ve boble Washington Washington
x equis Excelente Excellent
y I griega Yuca Yucatan
z zeta Zorro an 's' sound, as in 'socks'

Stress rules in Spanish words

  • The word will have a written accent ( ´ ) if finishes in “n”, “s” or a vowel.
    E.g. camión (truck), ratón (mouse), perdón (sorry).

  • If the stress is in the third last one or before, the word always has the written accent.
    E.g. ídolo (idol), cómpralo (buy it), teléfono (phone).

  • If the stress is in the syllable just before the last one the word will have a written accent ( ´ ) if does not finish in “n”, “s” or a vowel.
    E.g. cárcel (prison), cráter (crater), mártir (martyr).

Examples of Intonation and rhythm

Spanish Pronunciation English
Carlos entiende Car-los en-tien-de Carlos understands
tu escuela tu es-cue-la your school
lluvia y nieve llu-via y nie-ve rain and snow
¿tienes sueño? ¿tie-nes sue-ño? Do you dream?


Read more: Spanish Phrases for Meeting and Greeting


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