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Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 3

In our two previous lessons we have studied the interesting role sinalefas play in the way Spanish is spoken. In this third and last part of the series we will analyze cases where it's not possible to form sinalefas. Click if you'd like a refresher on Part 1 or Part 2 of this series.

In Part 2, we talked about certain conditions that must occur for speakers to form sinalefas and thus 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—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. In each of these cases they words are supposed to be pronounced separately.

At this point, it's important to note that when we say 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 speaker pronouncing pequeño huerto 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 go from open to less open vowels such as aeioei, and eei (we learned about this in Part 2 of this lesson) when the middle e corresponds 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), or anda e investiga (go and investigate) altogether as single words. You can make the sinalefa and pronounce the words together 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 observed by the speaker in the following example, who 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 any point to learning about when a sinalefa can and can't be formed? The answer is yes, because these rules were actually modeled to reflect the phonetic composition of speech. Most of the time, the way people speak does conform to rules (it's just easier to notice when it doesn't). For example, the reason 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, phonetic realities reflect how speech is actually performed by speakers most of the time and not vice versa. If you see the big picture, historically speech has modeled textbook rules and not the other way around.

We leave you with an interesting example of a speaker making what seems a weird ayhie (basically aiie or even aiesinalefa by pronouncing 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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