Unlike English, Spanish orthography already contains all the necessary information about stress position; if you see a Spanish word in its written form and know the rules, you’ll be able to tell exactly which syllable of the word is to be stressed, (almost) without exceptions.
So, what are the rules? They are rather simple:
In other words, when you see one of the letters á, é, í, ó, ú in a Spanish word, you can forget about all other rules and simply put emphasis on the respective vowel. For example:
- (el) éxito /ˈeksito/ (EK-sit-o) – success
- inglés /iŋgˈles/ (ing-LESS) – English (language, person, or adjective)
- (el) árbol /ˈaɾβol/ (ARE-boll) – tree
However, the accent is used only if the stress is not in the “default position”. The default position of the stress is determined by the following rule:
For example, in the first case:
- (la) manera /maˈneɾa/ (mah-NEH-ra) – manner
- (la) gente /ˈxẽnte/ (GHEN-te) – people
- (la) taxi /ˈtaksi/ (TAHK-see) – taxi
- (yo) conozco /koˈnosko/ (ko-NOSS-ko) (Lat. Am.), /koˈnoθko/ (ko-NOTH-ko) (Spain) – (I) know
- (el) tofu /ˈtofu/ (TOFF-oo) – tofu
- (los) padres /ˈpaðɾes/ (PAHD-res) – parents
- (ellos) pueden /ˈpweðen/ (PWEH-then) – (they) can
And a few examples for the second group (ending with a consonant other than “n” or “s”; also note that “y” is considered to be a consonant):
- estudiar /estuˈðjaɾ/ (es-tu-DYAR) – to study
- español /espaˈɲol/ (es-pah-NYOLL) – Spanish
- (yo) estoy /esˈtoi/ (es-TOY) – (I) am
Another way to interpret the rule about -s and -n is: When there is an -s or -n, it does not influence stress placement (for example, padre is stressed on “pad”, and so must be padres).
There are a tiny number of words that end in “s” preceded by a consonant, e.g. bíceps or módems, and since the corresponding word without “s” would be stressed on the last syllable, the above interpretation dictates that the last syllable should be stressed, so we have to use an accent to make them stressed on the first syllable. In practice, there are so few such words that it is easier to remember them as isolated exceptions.
Note that in Spanish, new words are often created by attaching pronouns to a verb, which leaves the stress in the verb untouched and often enforces an additional accent mark. For example, dar means “to give” and dármelo means “to give it to me”. The stress stays on “dar”, but the “default” stress would be on “me”, so we have to put an accent on “a”.
Words ending with -mente
At the beginning of this article, I wrote that the rules for stress placement hold without exceptions. While that’s true, there’s still one rule we haven’t learned yet. In Spanish, adverbs are formed from adjectives using the suffix -mente which corresponds to “-ly” in English. The rule for stress placement in such words is:
For example, with the stressed vowels in bold:
- lentamente /ˈlentaˈmente/ (LEN-tah-MEN-teh) – slowly, from lento (slow)
- rápidamente /ˈrapiðaˈmente/ (RAH-pid-dah-MEN-teh) – rapidly, from rápido (rapid, quick)
- felizmente /feˈlisˈmente/ (feh-LEES-MEN-teh) (Lat. Am.), /feˈliθˈmente/ (feh-LEETH-MEN-teh) (Spain) – happily, from feliz (happy)