Stress position in Spanish words

by Jakub Marian

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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:

If a vowel carries the acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú), it is this vowel that is stressed (together with the whole syllable).

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:

If a word ends with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or with an “s” or “n” following a vowel, the stress is on the penultimate syllable (the second-to-last syllable). In all other cases the stress falls on the last syllable. Note that “y” is considered to be a consonant in Spanish orthography.

For example, in the first case (ending with a vowel, “s”, or “n”):

  • (la) manera [maˈneɾa] (mah-NEH-ra) – manner
  • (la) gente [ˈxente] (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” behaves like 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 “pa”, and so is 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:

In the words of the form “somethingmente” in Spanish, the stress in “something” stays exactly the same (whether it is denoted using an accent or not), and “me” in “mente” is also stressed (i.e. these words contain two stressed syllables).

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)

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