Spanish Lessons


Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 3

Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 1

Too Fast? Blame the Sinalefas - Part 2

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

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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

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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

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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 24, Ciudades - Coro Colonial

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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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Good and Cold and Handsome and Hot

We have a gem and we want to share it with you. It's a little slip of the tongue that Rosie, one of the girls in the NPS series, makes while being introduced to a handsome new sports instructor:

Ay, a mí me encanta el deporte y más si el "teacher" está así de bueno.

Oh, I love sports and even more if the teacher is so good-looking.



Rosie's subconscious betrayed her for a moment there, because that's apparently not what she wanted to say, as she immediately corrects her blunder:


Ah, ay, digo, digo si es tan bueno.

Uh, oh, I mean, I mean if he's so good.

The difference between estar bueno (to be good-looking*) vs ser bueno (to be good) is the classic example used to explain the proper way to combine the verbs estar and ser (both meaning "to be") with adjectives, and to understand the sometimes not-so-subtle difference in meaning that results from it: if you use ser, the adjective is a fundamental characteristic of the person or thing you are describing, whereas if you use estar, it's a description of a mood or appearance, something less intrinsic or something not permanent. Having the chance to learn this rule with a pun is priceless, don't you think?
There are many interesting examples of adjectives that change meaning when they are combined with the Spanish verbs ser and estar to describe people. For example, the adjective frío, which means "cold."
You can use this adjective with the verb ser to describe a fundamental characteristic of a person or group of persons:

Lo siento. Pero acá la gente es fría y distante, es una... -¡Mentira!

Sorry. But here the people are cold and distant, it's a... -Lie!

Caption 73, Yago - 10 Enfrentamientos - Part 3

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But if you say that someone está frío, that can only mean that the person('s body) is actually cold. Here is a grim example:

Está en la cama, muerto. Está frío y azul.
He's on the bed, dead. He’s cold and blue.

 That's why, in fact, the combination of the verb estar with the adjective frío is much more commonly used to describe objects, concepts, and beings regarded as inanimate: la noche está fría (the night is cold), la champaña está fría (the champagne is cold), etc. But careful: that doesn't mean that you can't use ser + an adjective to describe such things. You can, especially with concepts and abstract ideas. For example: la temperatura exterior es más fría que la interior

...or if the temperature outside is colder than the inside [temperature]

Captions 58-59, Tecnópolis - El Coronil

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En Buenos Aires las noches están frías.
In Buenos Aires nights are cold.

Yet that doesn't mean that you can't say en Buenos Aires las noches están frías. It's just definitely less common and actually incorrect if what you mean is that all nights in Buenos Aires are generally cold. So, if you ever find or hear such an assertion using the verb estar instead of ser, it would probably be accompanied by certain implicit or explicit clues that would tell you that the adjective frías (cold) is being used to describe a temporary situation. For example:

En Buenos Aires las noches están frías, por ahora.
In Buenos Aires nights are cold, for now.
No salgas, está frío afuera.
Don't go out, it's cold outside.


 So, you may be wondering: how do I say in Spanish that someone is cold, meaning that the person feels cold? Well, you have to use a different verb instead: tener (to have). Have you ever heard a Spanish native speaker say "I have cold" by mistake? That's why.


...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

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So, unless you are a zombie or another kind of undead creature, don't ever say estoy frío.


*Just so you know, the adjective bueno in estar bueno is actually closer to "yummy" or "hot" than to "good-looking."

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