Those of you who read this article regularly will have noticed that over the last few weeks I have veered away from making general reflections about learning, to having a detailed look at pronunciation. Fortunately Spanish is a phonetically written language and as such is completely logical, so at some point these explanations come to an end, and in fact this is the final article on the subject.
We are going to look at one specific aspect of pronunciation and spelling hitherto unmentioned, and that is the rules surrounding the letter “g”. When you first learnt to pronounce the individual letters in Spanish, hopefully you were taught that the letter “g” has two possible pronunciations – the dry “g” sound similar to English in the word “go” (for example in “gracias”) and the throaty “hhh” sound when the “g” comes in front of the letters “e” or “i”, as in the place names Cartagena and Girona. This throaty sounds doesn´t exist in English but is like the “ch” sound in the Scottish word “loch” These two sounds are quite distinct from each other, even though they can vary in strength slightly with different accents and in different positions in the word. For example, when the “g” is followed by a “u” it practically disappears altogether, so that “guapo” (handsome) in reality sounds more like “wapo”.
As Spanish spelling faithfully reflects sound, this means that a spelling solution has to be found when we want to write the sound “ge” (as in “get”) or “gi” (as in “give”). In these cases, the spelling has to represent the hard “g” sound in a position where it would normally be pronounced as the throaty “hhhh”. To do this, we add a silent letter “u” after the “g”. An example of this is the name Miguel (which is not pronounced Migwel) guerra (war), guitarra (guitar), guisantes (peas). In all of these words the “u” is silent and is only there to make the “g” hard when it would otherwise be soft.
Finally, we need to look at those two little dots which some people refer to by the German word “umlaut” but in fact are called a “dieresis”. (You will never need to know that, but there it is). These are placed over the “u” when it appears between a “g – e” or a “g – i” but, however, should be pronounced and not silent. (In other words, güe and güi sound as in the Welsh names Gwen and Gwyn). My favourite example of this is the word “vergüenza” meaning “shame”. “¡Qué vergüenza!” can mean “How embarrassing!” or “How shameful!” depending on the context. Therefore “un sinvergüenza” is a “shameless person” and unfortunately there are plenty of those around.