The Spanish Alphabet

Shrinking alphabet left Spanish with 27 letters

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The Spanish alphabet is easy to learn — it differs by only one letter from the English alphabet.

According to the Real Academia Española or Royal Spanish Academy, the Spanish alphabet has 27 letters. The Spanish language coincides with the English alphabet in its entirety with one additional letter, ñ:

A: a
B: be
C: ce
D: de
E: e
F: efe
G: ge
H: hache
I: i
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

Although the Spanish alphabet has 27 letters, that wasn't always the case. In 2010, a number of changes occurred to the Spanish alphabet under the leadership of the Royal Spanish Academy, a semiofficial arbiter of the language.

Prior to 2010, the Spanish alphabet had 29 letters. The Real Academia Española had included ch and ll as officially recognized letters. They 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 distinction 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."

Long before 2010, there was debate over a few others letters, such as w and k, which aren't found in native Spanish words. Due to an infusion of borrowed words from other languages — words as varied as haiku and kilowatt — use of these letters became common and accepted.

Use of Accents and Special Marks

Some letters are written with diacritical marks. Spanish uses three diacritical marks: an accent mark, a dieresis, and tilde.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. A tilde is used to distinguish n from ñ. An example of a word using a tilde is español, the word for Spanish.

Although the ñ is a letter separate from the n, vowels with accents or diereses aren't considered different letters.

Clues to Spelling Spanish-English Cognates

Spanish has an abundance of English cognates, that is words that have the same origin as English words and are frequently spelled similarly. The differences and similarities in spelling sometimes follow predictable patterns:

  • In words of Greek origin where "ch" has the "k" sound in English and Spanish, Spanish usually uses qu. Examples: arquitectura (architecture), químico (chemical).
  • When English uses "gn" pronounced as "ny," in Spanish the ñ is used. Examples: campaña (campaign), filete miñon (filet mignon).
  • Foreign words with a "k" in English that have been imported to Spanish tend to retain the "k," but a qu or c is sometimes used. Examples: kayak (kayak), koala (koala). But the word for kiosk can be spelled as either quiosco or kiosco.

Key Takeaways

  • The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters and is the same as the English alphabet with the addition of ñ.
  • Spanish often uses diacritical marks over vowels, but a marked vowel is not considered a separate letter as the ñ is.
  • Until the alphabet reform of 2010, ch and ll used to be classified as separate letters.