Pronouncing the Spanish ‘B’ and ‘V’

Two letters share the same sounds

The letters "B" and "V"

Although the Spanish b and v aren't difficult to pronounce, they are often confusing for beginning Spanish students, who are easily tempted to give them the same sounds as they have in English.

How B and V Are Pronounced Alike

The most important thing to remember about pronouncing the Spanish b and v is that in standard Spanish they are pronounced exactly alike. Although English makes a clear distinction in how the two letters are pronounced, Spanish does not. For all practical purposes, the b and v can be thought of as the same letter in terms of pronunciation. In fact, is isn't unusual for native Spanish speakers, especially children, to confuse them when spelling, and a few words (such as ceviche or cebiche, a type of seafood dish) can be spelled with either letter.

What can make matters somewhat complicated for beginning Spanish students is that each of the letters has two distinct sounds that vary depending on the letters or sounds around them, and both are different from (although similar to) the English sounds.

The two sounds are:

  1. The "hard" b or v: This sound is known in phonetics as a voiced stop. It is much like the English "b" but less explosive.
  2. The "soft" b or v: This sound is the more common of the two and is classified as a voiced bilabial fricative, meaning that a voiced sound that is "squeezed" between the two lips, forming a kind of buzzing sound. In other words it is much like the English "v" but with the two lips touching instead of the lower lip and upper teeth. The sound of the English "v" such as in the word "victory" does not exist in standard Spanish.

The hard b or v is used after pauses, such as at the beginning of a sentence or when a word is standing alone and begins with b or v. It is also used after the m or n sounds, the latter of which can sound much like an m when it comes before a b or v. Some speakers also use the hard b or v after the d in words such as advertencia (warning). See the boldfaced examples in these sentences:

  • Vamos a la playa. (Let's go to the beach. The v comes at the beginning of the sentence.)
  • Queremos terminar el embargo contra el país. (We want to end embargo against the country. The b comes after an m.)
  • Envolvieron los galletas con film transparente. (They wrapped the cookies in plastic wrap. The n in envolvieron sounds much like an m. Note how the only the first v in envolvieron gets the hard sound.)

In other situations, the soft b or v is used. Between vowels it can become extremely soft.

  • La evolución se estudia en clases de biologia. (Evolution is studied in biology classes. Note how the b in biología gets the soft sound even though it comes at the beginning of the word. In normal speech, there is no pause between biología and the preceding word.)
  • Cantabamos en la playa. (We were singing on the beach. The b is pronounced because it comes between two vowels.)
  • ¡Brava! (Excellent!) (The first letter gets the hard sound because it's at the beginning of an utterance, but the v is between vowels.)

In the word obvio (obvious), the b gets the hard sound, while the v gets the soft sound.

When spelling out loud in Spanish, the b is sometimes referred to as be alta, be grande, or be larga in order to distinguish it from the v, usually called uve (which became its official name a few years ago), ve baja, ve chica, or ve corta.

The Problem of Homophones

Although the Latin b and v were pronounced differently, they gradually merged in Spanish. As a result, some words are spelled differently but have the same pronunciation. Usually the context will make clear which word was meant. Here are the most common such homophones:

  • basta (enough), vasta (vast)
  • bello (beautiful), vello (down of a bird)
  • bienes (property), vienes (conjugated form of venir, to come)
  • rebelarse (to rebel), revelarse (to reveal oneself)
  • baca (luggage rack), vaca (cow)
  • acerbo (bitter), acervo (heritage)

Key Takeaways

  • In standard Spanish, the b and v are identical in terms of pronunciation.
  • The b and v are pronounced somewhat like a soft version the English "b" after a pause and after the m sound.
  • In other situations, the b and v are pronounced somewhat like the English v but with the lips touching each other.