Spanish Lessons


Lessons for topic Pronunciation

Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 3

In our two previous lessons we have studied the interesting topic of the use of sinalefas and the role they play in the way Spanish is spoken. In this third and last part of this series we will analyze cases where it's not possible to form sinalefas. Please click away if you want to take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

In part 2 of this lesson we talked about certain conditions that must occur so speakers can form sinalefas and thus be able to pronounce two contiguous words as a single one. It follows that when those conditions aren't met, the sinalefas aren't possible and the two words in question must be pronounced clearly apart from each other. So, for example, sinalefas aren't supposed to be formed by combining one less open vowel surrounded by two open ones, that is, combinations such as aoaaiaaieeieeiooio, etc. Since the Spanish conjunctions y(and), o (or), and u (or) are less open vowels, it follows that these combinations where sinalefas are not formed usually occur with phrases such as espero y obedezco (I wait and I obey), blanca y amarilla (white and yellow), sedienta y hambrienta (thirsty and hungry), esta o aquella (this one or that one), cinco u ocho (five or eight), etc. These combinations may also happen with words that start with a silent h, for example: ya he hablado (I've already spoken), hecho de hielo (made out of ice), no usa hiato (doesn't use a hiatus), está hueco (it's hollowed), etc. All of these cases are supposed to be pronounced as separate words.

At this point, it's important to note that when we say that a sinalefa can or can't occur we are talking from a normative point of view, because we know that in real life speakers may and do break the rules. Let's see some examples. We said that a sinalefa should not be formed with the vocalic sounds oia because the i is less open than a and o, thus Yago is not pronouncing frío y hambre as a single word here:

y yo nada más tengo frío y hambre y no sé qué hacer.
and I'm just cold and I'm hungry and I don't know what to do.
Caption 23, Yago - 6 Mentiras - Part 1

Or is he? Actually, he is not. Even though he's speaking quite fast, he's pronouncing each word separately. It's still difficult to tell, isn't it? But you can train your ear and immersion is perfect for that purpose.

Here's another example:

Ahí tienen un pequeño huerto ecológico.
There you have a small ecological orchard.
Caption 33, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos - Part 3

Is the person speaking pronouncing pequeñohuerto as a single word? In theory, he shouldn't be because sinalefas aren't supposed to be formed by combining one less open vowel (u) surrounded by two open ones (o,e). If he does, as it seems, he is engaging in what some experts call a sinalefa violenta (violent synalepha), which is phonetically possible but not "proper."

In fact, the proper use also prohibits the use of sinalefas that are phonetically possible since they involve the gradual combination of vowels that goes from open to less open vowels such as aeioei, and eei (we learned about this in Part 2 of this lesson) when the middle ecorresponds to the conjunction e (used when the following word starts with the sound i). For example, it's not correct to pronounce phrases such as España e Inglaterra (Spain and England), ansioso e inquieto (anxious and unquiet), anda e investiga (go and investigate), etc. altogether as single words. You can make the sinalefa and pronounce the words altogether only if the middle e is not a conjunction, for example, aei in ella trae higos (she brings figs), oei in héroe insigne (illustrious hero), eei in cree Ifigenia (Ifigenia believes), etc.

The rule is followed by the speaker in the following example, he pronounces febrero e incluso separately:

Sobre todo en los meses de diciembre, enero, febrero e incluso en mayo.
Especially in the months of December, January, February and even in May.
Caption 27, Mercado de San Miguel - Misael - Part 1

But the reporter in this example not so much. He pronounces tangibleeintangible as a single word:

y con elementos de un patrimonio tangible e intangible
and with elements of a tangible and intangible legacy
Caption 20, Ciudades - Coro Colonial

If speakers break the rules all the time, is there a point in learning about when a sinalefa can and can't be formed? The answer is yes, because these rules were actually modeled to reflect phonetic facts that occur in speech itself, so most of the time the way people speak do conform to rules (it's just easier to notice when they don't). For example, the reason why there's a rule against sinalefas that join two open vowels surrounding a less open one (like oia) is because articulating such sounds together is actually not easy for a Spanish speaker given the articulatory settings of the Spanish language. In other words, the phonetic rules reflect how the speech is actually performed by speakers most of the time and not vice versa. If you see the big picture, historically it's been speech modeling grammar and not the other way around.

We leave you with an interesting example of a speaker making what it seems a weird ayhie(basically aiie or even aiesinalefa by pronounce naranjayhielo as a single word.

Naranja y hielo solamente.
Orange and ice alone.
Caption 23, Fruteria "Los Mangos" - Vendiendo Frutas - Part 2

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Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 2

Let's continue studying examples of sinalefas. If you missed part 1 of this lesson you can read it here

Sinalefas are an important aspect to consider when learning Spanish because they play a fundamental role in the fast-paced speech we hear so frequently in many native speakers and which makes listening comprehension so challenging. We've seen that sinalefas can merge up to five vowels from different contiguous words, like in the infamous example Envidio a Eusebio (I envy Eusebio), but sinalefas that merge two and three vowels are much more common and thus the more frequent culprits of word merges. Since we already covered sinalefas that merge two vowels, let's now focus on the ones that merge three or more. 

For a sinalefa of more than three vowels to occur at least one of the following conditions must be met:
Condition 1. The vowels are combined in a gradual scale from more open to less open, for example aeu, as in La europea (the European), or from less open to more open, for example uea, as in abue Antonia (Granny Antonia).

Here's an example with an oi and an aae sinalefa that allows the speaker to pronounce no iba a entrar as a single word:

decidimos que en nuestras tiendas no iba a entrar un chocolate
we decided that in our stores no chocolate was going to enter
Caption 46, Horno San Onofre - El Chocolate

Here's an iea sinalefa that allows the speaker to pronounce nadie apoyaba as a single word:

nadie apoyaba el movimiento
No one was supporting the movement
Caption 57, Arturo Vega - Entrevista - Part 1

Condition 2. The combination consists in one open vowel surrounded by two less open ones. For example iae, as in limpia estancia (clean place), eau as in muerte auspicia (auspicious death), uoi as in mutuo interés (mutual interest), etc.
Here's an oae sinalefa that allows the speaker to pronounce salto a Europa as a single word:

Ahora preparan su salto a Europa, a Francia y a Alemania.
Now they're preparing their jump into Europe, France and Germany.
Caption 49, Europa abierta - Carne ecológica y segura

Here's an iae sinalefa that allows the speaker to pronounce nadie iba as a single word (also an ahu sinalefa that merges nunca hubo):

Nunca hubo nadie igual a ti
There was never anyone like you
Caption 40, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 14

Here's an example with an iao and an ee sinalefa that allows the speaker to pronounce de aire en as a single word:

y además, controlan el flujo de aire en el interior.
and additionally, it controls the flow of air inside.
Caption 53, Tecnópolis - El Coronil - Part 1

When none of these two conditions are met, merging contiguous vowels from different words to form a sinalefa is theoretically impossible. We will study some interesting cases in the third and last part of our lesson on this topic. In the meantime, we invite you to find more examples of sinalefas that merge two or more vowels by browsing our catalog of videos. We recommend you use the search tool located in the upper right corner of the site to find them.  

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Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - I

We commonly receive feedback from our readers about the challenges of learning Spanish. Spanish can indeed be challenging for English speakers; after all, we are talking about a Romance language with a very different grammatical structure. However, grammar doesn’t seem to be the area that people find most challenging about Spanish. Instead, most learners at Yabla Spanish complain about how fast Spanish is spoken! And they seem to be justified: according to recent research, Spanish is the second fastest spoken language at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82, just slightly trailing behind Japanese, at 7.84, but way ahead of English, which, according to the same study, is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. There you have it. You should be proud that you are learning one of the fastest spoken languages in the world.

Learners seem to find Spanish particularly fast paced due the fact that in Spanish contiguous vowels are pronounced as if they were part of a single syllable. We are not talking about diphthongs or mere contractions such as de+el = del or a+el = al. We are talking about sinalefas: the merging of vowels that are part of different contiguous words.

Sinalefas makes Spanish challenging because they result in the merging of several words that are pronounced as one, without interruptions. Since sinalefas can merge up to five vowels, even a simple sentence such as Envidio a Eusebio (I envy Eusebio), becomes hard to understand when it is actually pronounced as envidioaeusebio. If you can’t tell where a word ends and another begins, how can you know for sure what a speaker is saying? The answer is listening practice.

There are many different types of sinalefas or “monosyllabic groups of vowels” in Spanish, as modern grammar specialists also call them. Let’s try to find examples of the most frequent ones in our catalog of authentic Spanish videos. In this lesson we will cover examples of sinalefas that merge two vowels only.

Sinalefas with two identical vocales átonas (unstressed or atonic vowels) are very common: casa alegre (happy home), le escucho (I listen to you), Lucy intenta (Lucy tries), etc. These sinalefas are pronounced with a long sound, just as if the two vowels where inside a single word, like acreedor (creditor), zoológico (zoo), contraataque (counterattack).

no olvides que los envoltorios de cartón, papel y envases de vidrio
don't forget that cardboard and paper covers and glass bottles
Caption 46, 3R – Campaña de reciclaje - Part 2

Sinalefas with two identical vowels, one of which is a vocal tónica (stressed vowel), are pronounced as a single stressed vowel (remember that a stressed vowel may or may not have a written accent). The following example contains two contiguous sinalefas of this kind, and you may hear some speakers merging both of them:

¿Qué está haciendo?
What are you doing?
Caption 40, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 14

Sinalefas with different vocales átonas (unstressed vowels) are very common and perhaps some of the most used. They are pronounced as a single unstressed syllable. The first sinalefain the following example is of one of this kind. But the second sinalefa (dejóalgo) merges two vocales tónicas (stressed vowels) and in this case, if the sinalefa is actually produced, both vowels get merged but lean on the more open vowel (the a in algo).

porque todo aquel que vino dejó algo.
because everybody who came left something.
Caption 65, Horno San Onofre - La Historia de la Pastelería

Can you identify the sinalefas in the following example?

ya nada sería igual en la vida de ambos.
nothing would be the same in their lives.
Caption 65, Biografía - Natalia Oreiro - Part 6

Be aware that Spanish speakers don't pronounce sinalefas every single time. Weather sinalefas are used or not depends on many factors: personal preference, regional variants (for example some learners find that Mexican Spanish is way faster than, let’s say, Ecuadorian or Venezuelan Spanish), or even context (for example when a speaker is trying to speak clearly or very emphatically he or she may not merge that many words). Here’s an example in which the speaker is clearly not pronouncing two possible sinalefas (súnico and equipajera) but he does pronounce a third one: únicoe. Can you guess why?

su único equipaje era la soledad.
and her only baggage was solitude.
Caption 20, Gardi - Leña apagada - Part 1

If you said "because these are the lyrics of a song," you are right! Sinalefas and their opposites, hiatos, are some of the most common poetic tools that are used to ensure proper meter. As a listening exercise for the week, we invite you to find two-vowel sinalefas in our videos and listen carefully to decide whether the speaker is actually merging the vowels or not. We will continue exploring the world of Spanish sinalefas in future lessons.

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Sina... What?

Do you ever feel frustrated when you can't make out what a Spanish speaker is saying because he or she speaks so fast that an entire sentence seems to sound like a single long word? Well, we won't lie to you: there's no easy solution to that problem, only listening practice and more listening practice. However, we can at least give you something to blame next time you find yourself lost in a conversation due to this problem: blame the synalepha.
A fancy word indeed, synalepha (or sinalefa in Spanish) is the merging of two syllables into one, especially when it causes two words to be pronounced as one. La sinalefa is a phonological phenomenon that is typical of Spanish (and Italian) and it's widely used in all Latin America and Spain. Native speakers use sinalefas unconsciously to add fluidity, speed and concision to what they are saying.
There are basically two types of sinalefas. Let's learn about them using examples from our catalog of videos. Maybe that'll help you catch them next time. And if you have a subscription with us, make sure you click on the link to actually hear how the sinalefas are pronounced!
The first type of sinalefa merges two vowels, the last one and the first one of two contiguous words. A single sentence can contain several of them, for example:
¿Cómo es el departamento comercial de una empresa que trabaja en setenta y dos países?
How is the commercial department of a company that operates in seventy-two countries?
Caption 68, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 21

So, thanks to the sinalefas, this is how the speaker actually pronounces the sentence: ¿Cómoes el departamento comercial deunaempresa que trabajaen setentay dos países?  Yes, the letter "y" counts as a vowel whenever it sounds like the vowel "i."
Here's another example, this time from Colombia:
¿Qué pensaría mi hermano si supiera de este video que estamos filmando?
What would my brother think if he knew about this video that we are filming?
Caption 31, Conjugación - El verbo 'pensar'
Again, thanks to the sinalefas, what the girl speaking actually pronounces is: ¿Qué pensaría mihermano si supiera deeste video queestamos filmando? Yes, the consonant "h" doesn't interfere with the sinalefa, because, as you probably already know, this letter is always silent unless it is next to the letter "c."
Now, the second type of sinalefa merges three vowels of two contiguous words. Here's an example:

¿O a usted le gustaría que lo mantuvieran encerrado?
Or would you like for them to keep you locked up?
Caption 21, Kikirikí - Animales - Part 2

Oausted is what the character pronounces. Can you try to pronounce it the same way?
Here's another example, from Mexico this time:
...cosa que no le corresponde a él.
...something that is not his job.
Caption 6, ¡Tierra, Sí! - Atenco - Part 4

Finally, one more example that is somewhat extreme. Hear the host of the Colombian show Sub30 posing a question that contains four sinalefas (loop button recommended):

¿Será que eso sólo pasa en nuestra época o ha pasado desde siempre?
Could it be that that only happens nowadays or has it always been like this?
Caption 3, Sub30 - Familias - Part 7
That girl surely speaks fast! Notice that she even merged two words that end and begin with the same consonant “n” into a single one, which, together with the sinalefas, results in what sounds like a super long word: pasaennuestrpocaoha.

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