As you’re learning and reading Spanish, you’ll come across letters that have strange symbols above them, like á or ü or even ñ. These are Spanish accents. Of course, other languages use them, but they have three special purposes for Spanish, and it’s vital to know why they’re necessary. So, let’s take a look at written Spanish accents and why they’re necessary.
Read The Question With Spanish Accents
You’ll get words that look and sound the same in Spanish, but they’ll have completely different meanings. Think about it this way; we have the word “what” in English. Usually, “what” is used as a question pronoun, which is simple enough. It creates questions like “What is your name?” or “What time is it?”.
The same can be said for Spanish. You will get words with accents on them, meaning that that word is a question word. These are set words, so they cannot be changed out by other words. They are:
Qué – What
Dónde – Where
Cuándo – When
Cuánto – How Much
Por qué – Why
Quién – Who
Cuál – Which
Cómo – How
You may have come across these words already, but remember, those that have the accent means that whatever follows them must make a question, for example:
¿Cómo te llamas?
Easy right? Hang on; there’s more. An accent in a word doesn’t always mean it’s a question. There are other reasons too.
Say What You See With A Spanish Accent
Another reason why Spanish accents are so important is that they help you with diction. That means they help you understand where the word should be stressed. Think about it this way; in English, we have sentences that can be said in many different ways. So, for example, let’s take a look at the sentence:
She didn’t say she was coming
We can put the stress anywhere in the sentence, which changes its attitude and meaning. So, does it mean that she did say she was coming? Or does it mean “she” is someone else? Or does it mean she said something else altogether? Do you see? If you put the stressor on a specific word, it can mean a completely different thing.
The same can be said for Spanish, except it happens on a word itself instead of a sentence. So, you can have the same word, with different accent positions, but they’ll mean completely different things. For example, you have the word “como” in Spanish, and it has another version, “cómo”. Do you see the difference? The position of the accent defines how you say the word.
So, with the natural “como”, you can say it how you see it, which doesn’t have a particular stressor, so it sounds fast. However, with the word “cómo”, you need to stress the word on the first “o”, so it sounds a little longer, especially at that first “o”.
Give it a try. Say the word “como” as naturally as possible, and then try stressing that “ó” so you can get the right sound for “cómo”.
Remember, there are two other accents in the Spanish language; the tilde used above an “n”, and the umlaut used above a “u”. These Spanish accents show you how to pronounce these letters. So, in the case of the tilde over the “n”, you would say something along the lines of “ny”. For example:
If you didn’t know what the tilde does, then you would probably phonetically say “eh-span-nol”, but now that you know what the tilde does, you would say “eh-span-nyol”. It’s a similar concept with the umlaut or the “ü”. With the umlaut, you would pronounce the “u” as an “oo”. What this does is keep the integrity of the previous letter, which usually would be a “g”, like in…
This means that instead of saying “pin-gin-oh”, you’d say “pin-goo-in-oh”. Do you see the difference? Give it a try and see how the rules change when you don’t use Spanish accents.
Define The Word With Spanish Accents
Finally, we come to how Spanish accents define what word you’re using, and there is no better example than using “como” and “cómo”. Each of these words means different things. “Como”, in its natural form, means “like”, “as”, or, if used with the pronoun “yo”, can mean “I eat”. “Cómo” can only mean “what” or “how”. Do you see the difference?
Ok, so that’s easy since we already know “cómo” is a question word; what about “hablo” and “habló”? Do you know what the difference there is?
It’s true, they’re both different forms of the word “hablar”, which means “to speak”, but which form? This is why it’s essential to have accents in Spanish. They help you to create comprehensive sentences without using the same words over and over again. So, when you use “hablo”, you’re really saying “I speak”, but when you use “habló” you’re saying “he/she/it/you (formal) spoke”. This is because it’s the preterit tense. So, it’s is used to talk about something that happened in the past. See the difference?
Start Using Spanish Accents Now
Now that you know what Spanish accents are used for, have a go yourself. Try reading a short story in Spanish, you’ll find loads of good examples of Spanish accents there, and we’ve even recommended some for you in a previous post about books you can use to learn Spanish. Or try writing a paragraph in Spanish, using those accents. Why not even try saying accented words out loud. See the difference in your intonation and get someone to help you pronounce them properly.
If you are a beginner, the Spanish accents might have seemed strange to you, but hopefully, we’ve shown you that there’s nothing you need to be afraid of. And by studying with us at Language Atlas, knowing what these accents are for will become second nature to you. So, you can sound like a native, when you visit Spain or any Spanish speaking country. So, keep practising.