There are three golden rules about where the emphasis should be placed in Spanish words. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about how Spanish reading is taught in syllables and that therefore Spanish words should be read as a combination of these syllables. The definition of a syllable is the beat in a word. For example “un” has one syllable; “mesa” has two syllables; “botella” has three syllables, and so on. Also, last week we talked about the importance of knowing on which part of a word the emphasis should go, in order for it to make sense when spoken.
The rules of emphasis in Spanish are as follows. Firstly, if a word ends in a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or the letters s or n, the emphasis falls on the last but one (penultimate) syllable. Therefore the two examples above are pronounced MEsa and boTElla. If these words are made into plurals by adding the letter ‘s’ (MEsas and boTEllas) the emphasis remains exactly the same. Examples involving the letter ‘n’ are all third person plural verbs such as MIran (they look) and TIEnen (they have) which also place the beat on the syllable before the ending.
Secondly, in words that end in any consonant other than s or n, the beat of the word goes on the final syllable. There are actually fewer letter endings in Spanish than there are in English, which is why Spanish Scrabble is not nearly as much fun as the English version. The final consonants in Spanish words, apart from s and n are: d, j, r, l, y and z. Any other ending letters you see are either imported words or from another language such as Valenciano. Here are some examples of this rule: paRED, reLOJ, reguLAR, fenomeNAL, esTOY, feLIZ.
Finally, any word which diverts from these two rules, has an accent marking where the word should be emphasized. Here are some examples; árbol, difícil, inglés, lápiz, sábado, sofá, lámpara. This also applies to place names such as Almoradí, Los Alcázares, Cádiz, León, Córdoba. I haven´t marked the emphasized parts of these words myself, as the accents have done the job for me.
It is important to practice saying all these words out loud and getting used to their rhythm. Some people hear this immediately, whilst others take longer to tune their ear in. Although we do exactly the same thing in English, but without the help of consistent rules, it is an unconscious process in our native language. However, if you apply these three basic rules when you speak Spanish they will get you a very long way to actually being understood! There are just a couple more bits and pieces to complete the pronunciation jigsaw which I will cover next week.