What’s That Sound?: Diphthong (Diptongo), Hiatus (Hiato), and Understanding Spanish Syllables

Posted by Lana N. on 12/25/19 11:00 AM

Spanish learningEver wonder why when you try to imitate native Spanish speakers it just doesn’t come out right? It might have something to do with syllables!

Vowels (vocales)

To begin, Spanish syllables are based on the behavior of the vowels, so let’s review those first: the basic vowels are a, e, i, o, u, like in English.

The vowels are divided into two categories, strong and weak.

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 3.31.07 PM

Making syllables

Each vowel by itself counts, of course, as one syllable. Some examples:

(you) = 1 syllable (one vowel sound)

Pensar (to think) = 2 syllables (2 vowel sounds)

Importante (important) = 4 syllables (4 vowel sounds)

Do you notice anything about the order of vowels and consonants in these words?

All of these words contain only 1 vowel surrounded by consonants. But what about words like escritorio, caer, lengua, pueblo, cancn, aerolínea, and huipil with 2 consecutive vowels? How many syllables does each of these words have?

For this, we focus on the combinations of strong and weak vowels.

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 3.32.06 PM

Let’s try the list of words above. escritorio, caer, lengua, pueblo, cancn, aerolínea, and huipil

First, determine how many syllables are in each listed combination, io, ae, ua, ue, io, ea, ui.

Second, count the total syllables in each word. (Hint: ignore the acentos for this—they won’t impact the syllable count.)

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 3.33.51 PM

Accent marks (acentos)

So, if these acentos don’t affect syllable count, why are they there?

1. They affect which syllable is stressed in pronunciation. More on this in a bit.

2. There are some acentos that will affect syllable count. Let’s talk about diphthong (diptongo) and hiatus (hiato). We’ll begin here.

Diphthongs we’ve actually already learned! Two vowels pronounced as one syllable is called a diphthong (diptongo). So, any strong + weak or weak + weak vowel combination (not strong + strong) is called a diphthong. This counts as 1 syllable. Escritorio, lengua, pueblo, cancn, and huipil contain diphthongs.

The opposite of a diphthong is hiatus (hiato), meaning turning a one-syllable vowel combination (i.e., a diphthong) into two syllables. This is done using an accent mark (acento). Examples of hiato include día (day, pronounced di + a, 2 syllables), oír (to hear, pronounced o + ir, 2 syllables), and búho (owl, pronounced bu + o *remember that the h is silent*, 2 syllables).

Why does this matter?

The basic rule of Spanish pronunciation is: the stressed syllable is always the penultimate (second to last) syllable ONLY WHEN the word ends in N, S, or any vowel. Otherwise, the stressed syllable is the last syllable. An acento indicates breaking that rule. For example, nación (nation) has the spoken stress on the last syllable, ción. The stressed syllable should be the first one, na, but breaking that rule (because that’s just how it’s pronounced) means putting an acento on the ción part. (Bonus: if we put the acento on the i instead of the o in cion, we would be left with a hiatus, cíon, breaking the i and o into 2 syllables, rather than the natural diphthong (io) with a stress change to the last syllable.) However, when we pluralize nación to naciones, we lose the acento because the ción, the stressed syllable, is now the penultimate syllable where the stress falls by default.

Practice! ¡A practicar!

To review, then: can you determine how many syllables each of these words has and which is the stressed syllable in each of these words? Can you determine which of these words has diptongo or hiato?

Abeja (bee), baúl (trunk), callejuela (alley), mío (mine), esperanza (hope), estoico (stoic), escalofríos (goosebumps), aéreo (aerial), zaguán (hallway), veía (saw, 3rd person singular), reaccionar (to react)

Clave (Answer key)

The stressed syllable is in bold.

Abeja: 3 syllables, neither diptongo nor hiato

Baúl: 2 syllables, hiato

Callejuela: 4 syllables, diptongo

Mío: 2 syllables, hiato

Esperanza: 4 syllables, neither diptongo nor hiato

Estoico: 3 syllables, diptongo

Escalofríos: 5 syllables, hiato

Aéreo: 4 syllables, neither diptongo nor hiato (remember that this is not diptongo because these are all strong vowels)

Zaguán: 2 syllables, diptongo

Veía: 3 syllables, hiato

Reaccionar: 4 syllables, diptongo (io, not ea)

There’s a good reason Spanish is by far the most-taught second language in America: it’s by far the most useful. Whether it’s for school, business, travel, or simply for everyday life, Spanish rewards anyone willing to put in the effort to learn it.  And with the right teacher, learning it can be a breeze!  That’s where Cambridge Coaching comes in. We offer customized private Spanish tutoring at all levels:

  • Beginners: introduction to grammar, speaking, and verb conjugation 
  • Intermediate: taking reading, writing, and speaking to the next level 
  • Advanced: exploring seminal texts and literary Spanish (Borges, García Márquez, Cervantes, and more!)

We have also worked with even more advanced students looking to prepare for standardized test, or to fine-tune oral skills through tutorials that emphasize usage, vocabulary, and the mastery of common idiom and even slang. 

Our Spanish tutors are exceptional teachers - they are PhD candidates and teaching fellows at NYU, Columbia University, and Harvard University, published authors, and language professionals. They can teach anyone Spanish: whether you’re planning a grand tour of the pintxo parlors of Bilbao or the mofongo joints of Spanish Harlem, tell us about your goals, and we’ll help you get there in no time.

Select the focus that is right for you to learn more about how we can help you improve your Spanish.

Contact Us!

Want to learn more about learning Spanish? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!

21st Century Spanish-Language Films You Can Stream Right Now

The Language Tutor: Doubt Not the Dictionary

The Language Tutor: Everyday Immersion

Tags: Spanish, spanish SAT subject test