What You Need to Know About Diacritical Marks in Spanish

When to Use an Accent and How to Pronounce a Tilde

Keyboard shows the ñ.
The ñ is the 15th letter of the Spanish alphabet. Eli Duke/Flickr

A diacritical mark, or a diacritic, is used with a letter to indicate that it has a different pronunciation or a secondary meaning. In Spanish, there are three diacritical marks, also called diacríticos in Spanish, a tilde, an umlaut and an accent.

Diacritical Marks in English

English uses diacritical marks almost solely in words of foreign origin, and they are often omitted when written in English.

Examples of English words using diacritical marks are "façade," which uses a cedilla; "résumé," which uses two accent marks; "naïve," which uses an umlaut, and "piñata," which uses a tilde.

Tilde in Spanish

A tilde is a curved line above an "n," it is used to distinguish n from ñ. In a technical sense, this might not be considered a diacritic, since n and ñ are separate letters of the alphabet.  The mark above the letter indicates a change in pronunciation, also called a palatal "n," which means, that the sound is made by putting the tongue to the top of the mouth's palate or roof of the mouth to make the sound. 

There are many examples where the tilde is used in Spanish, for examples, año, meaning "year;" mañana, meaning "tomorrow," and Español, meaning "the language from Spain or a Spaniard."

Umlaut in Spanish

An umlaut, often called a dieresis, is placed over the u when it is pronounced after a g in the combinations güe and güi.

The umlaut changes the sound gu combination into a "w" sound that one would hear in English. Umlauts are rarer in Spanish than the other types of diacritical marks. 

Some examples of umlauts in Spanish include the word for "penguin," pingüino, or averigüé, which means "found out about" or "verified."

Accent Marks in Spanish

Accents are used as an aid in pronunciation. Many Spanish words such as árbol, meaning "tree," use accents to put the stress on the correct syllable. Accents are frequently used with some words such as qué, meaning "what," and cuál, meaning "which," when they are used in questions.

Spanish accents can only be written over the five vowels, a, e, i, o, u, and the accent is written from lower left to upper right: á, é, í, ó, ú.

Accents are also used to distinguish some sets of words that are otherwise spelled alike and pronounced alike but have different meanings or different grammatical usages, also known as Spanish homonyms.

Common Spanish homonyms

Accents help differentiate one homonym from another. Following is a list of common homonyms in Spanish and their meanings.

Spanish HomonymMeaning
de preposition: of, from
 third-person singular subjunctive form of dar, "to give"
el masculine article: the
él he
masbut
más more
se reflexive and indirect object pronoun
 I know
si if
yes
te object: you
tea
tu your
 you
Format
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Erichsen, Gerald. "What You Need to Know About Diacritical Marks in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Aug. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/diacritical-mark-in-spanish-3078371. Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, August 21). What You Need to Know About Diacritical Marks in Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/diacritical-mark-in-spanish-3078371 Erichsen, Gerald. "What You Need to Know About Diacritical Marks in Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/diacritical-mark-in-spanish-3078371 (accessed January 24, 2018).