Hard and Soft Vowels

Spanish hard and soft vowels
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Vocales

Spanish vowels are divided into two categories: hard and soft.

1) Hard vowels (A, O, U) cause the consonant that precedes them to be pronounced with a hard sound [HS]. (Note that consonants – R, L, etc. – are always preceded by the hard sound.)

2) Soft vowels (E, I) are preceded by a soft sound [SS].

The consonants affected by this hard/soft distinction are C, G, and, to a lesser extent, Z.*

C G Z
 

HS

A

O

U

Cons.

[k]

cama

cómo

cuchara

clase

[g]

gafas

abogado

mucho gusto

gris

[s]

zapatos

perezoso

zumo

agradezco

  

SS

E

I

[th]

cebolla

cinturón

[j]

gente

gigante

n/a*

* The letter Z is a hard consonant, meaning that it Z has no "soft" pronunciation and, with very few exceptions, cannot precede an E or an I; it must be replaced by the letter C (as explained below).

Consonant hardening and softening

Some Spanish words need a hard sound in front of a soft vowel, or a soft sound in front of a hard vowel. This is the reason behind many Spanish spelling changes in plurals and irregular verb conjugations (mostly in the preterite and subjunctive). For certain plurals and verb conjugations, it is necessary to change the spelling in order to maintain a hard sound in front of a soft vowel or a soft sound in front of a hard vowel.

To make a hard sound in front of a soft vowel:

  C –> QU   sacar –> yo saqué
  buscar –> yo busqué
  G –> GU   pagar –> yo pagué
  jugar –> yo jugué
  Z –> C   comenzar –> yo comencé
  lápiz –> lápices

To make a soft sound in front of a hard vowel:

  C –> Z   hacer –> él hizo
  G –> J   coger –> yo cojo

Please note that this lesson is only a guideline for the Spanish that I know, which is Castilian Spanish. There are many regional variations in Spanish pronunciation, especially when it comes to the letters C, S, and Z: Distinción, Seseo and Ceceo

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Spanish soft and hard vowels