The Spanish Alphabet

Spanish for Beginners

Keyboard shows the ñ.
The ñ is the 15th letter of the Spanish alphabet. Photo by Eli Duke used under terms of Creative Commons license.

If you know the alphabet in English, French or many other languages that use the Latin alphabet as its base, then the Spanish alphabet can be easy to grasp.

The writing system used by most European-based languages, including Spanish, is the Latin alphabet, also referred to as the Roman alphabet.

According to the Real Academia Española, considered one of the leading dictionaries in official Spanish, the Spanish alphabet has 27 letters.

The Spanish language adopted the English alphabet entirely and added one additional letter, ñ, which are all listed below with their pronunciations.

A: a
B: be
C: ce 
D: de
F: efe
G: ge
H: hache
J: jota 
K: ka 
L: ele
M: eme 
N ene
Ñ: eñe 
O: o
P: pe
Q: cu
R: ere (or erre)
S: ese
T: te
U: u
V: uve
W: uve doble, doble ve
X: equis
Y: ye
Z: zeta

2010 Alphabet Update

In 2010, a number of changes occurred to the Spanish alphabet, according to the Real Academia Española.

Prior to 2010, the Spanish alphabet had 29 letters. The Real Academia Española had included ch and ll, as officially recognized letters. They do have distinct pronunciations, much like "ch" does in English.

When the Spanish alphabet was updated, ch and ll were dropped from the alphabet. For years, when ch was considered a separate letter, it would affect the alphabetical order in dictionaries. For example, the word achatar, meaning "to flatten," would be listed after acordar, meaning "to agree." This caused considerable confusion.

Spanish dictionaries changed alphabetical ordering rules to resemble English dictionaries even before ch was officially dropped as a letter.  The only exception was that ñ came after n in dictionaries.

Another substantial update included the actual name change of three letters. Prior to 2010, the y was formally called y griega ("Greek y") to distinguish it from the i or i latina ("Latin i").

During the 2010 update, it was officially changed to "ye." Also, the names for b and v, pronounced be and ve, which had been pronounced identically, received an update. To differentiate, the b continued to be pronounced be and the v was changed in pronunciation to uve.  

Over the years, since disambiguation between b and v had been difficult in speech, native language speakers developed colloquialisms as cues. For example, a b might be referred to as be grande, "big B," and the V as ve chica, "little V."

Despite the official changes, Spanish language experts expect that griega, b grande and ve chica will be used colloquially for years to come.

Alphabet Debate

There are differing opinions among language experts as to which letters should exist in the Spanish alphabet. Letters like w and k are not found in native Spanish words. Due to an infusion of borrowed words from other languages, certain letters are now needed. For example, Spanish words kilowatt, haiku, and windsurf, reflect the need for the foreign letters in the Spanish alphabet.

Some Spanish language experts once considered the rr (erre doble), which isn't pronounced the same as r, as a separate letter. The rr sound is a rolled "r" or a trilled sound formed by flapping the tongue against the front roof of the mouth, much like a cat's purr.

Examples of Spanish words with the rr sound are arriba, meaning "above," or correr, meaning "to run."

Use of Accents and Special Marks

Some letters are written with diacritical marks. Spanish uses three diacritical marks, an accent, a dieresis or tilde. Many vowels use accents, such as tablón, meaning "plank," or rápido, meaning "fast." Usually, the accent is used to add stress on a syllable's pronunciation.  

In special cases, the letter u is sometimes topped with a dieresis or what appears to be a German umlaut, as in the word vergüenza, meaning "shame." The dieresis changes the u sound to the English "w" sound.

A tilde is used to distinguish n from ñ. An example of a word using a tilde is español, the word for Spanish.