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Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 1

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, trailing just slightly 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 to 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 were 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 sinalefa in 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 73, 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 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?
 

Y 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 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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