How to stop saying these South American place names wrong: A Spanish Pronunciation Guide
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If 18 months in South America taught us anything, it’s that travellers are in desperate need of a Spanish pronunciation guide to get them saying South American place names right 😉 Pronouncing words in a foreign language is a difficult part of travel, especially when you’ve never learnt any of that language before.
While many common Spanish mistakes made by tourists are something to have a wee giggle at and then move on, being able to say a place name correctly in South America could be the difference between you making it safely to your destination and instead being ushered onto a bus that takes you 500km over the wrong side of the Andes.
In non-touristy parts of this region, don’t expect locals to piece together a poor attempt at saying their word – without knowing how the English alphabet differs from the Spanish one, the average local will have as much of a clue as you do. Your best bet is to listen really carefully to how locals say the place name, but this might not be possible if you need to pronounce the name just to be able to get there.
And thus, we bring to you… our Spanish pronunciation guide!
This Spanish pronunciation guide is going to first walk you through how to pronounce Spanish letters, then explain accents before showing you how to say the most commonly mispronounced South America place names. Though this guide is focused primarily on Spanish, we will finish with a few bonus tips on pronouncing place names in Brazilian Portuguese, too!
While South American place names obviously have huge influence from their indigenous roots, for the most part these were renamed to have spellings that Spanish-speakers could understand how to say, so it’s still important to take advantage of a Spanish pronunciation guide even if in a highly indigenous country, such as Bolivia.
Luckily for us, Spanish is a totally phonetic language, the hard part is just knowing how to pronounce Spanish letters in the first place. There are some pretty major differences with English; nailing these will have you going from sounding like a lost tourist to someone who is serious about learning Spanish in a heartbeat:
The letter ‘v’ is always pronounced as ‘b’.
The letter ‘g’ is generally pronounced as the English g (as in goat) if in front of an a, o or u but as ’h’ when in front of i or e.
The letter ‘j’ is always pronounced as ‘h’.
The letter ‘h’ is not pronounced at all!
‘Qu’ is always a k sound (as in keen), never kw (as in queen).
Double-L is often counted as a letter in itself in the Spanish alphabet. ‘ll’ makes a ‘y’ sound (as in yes), but some dialects of Spanish will pronounce it as a j (as in jam, or sometimes a little softer) and people in Uruguay and Argentina pronounce this as a ‘sh’ sound. Very confusing. So llama might be said ‘yama’, ‘jama’ or ‘shama’ depending on where in South America you are.
ñ makes a ‘ny’ sound (as in lasagne). Another extra letter in the Spanish alphabet.
Double ‘rr’ means you roll the sound, a single r does not. This means words like pero (but) and perro (dog) sound very different.
How to say those little Spanish accent marks (tildes)
This is probably the part of pronouncing South American place names that English speakers find the most tricky. We don’t have any written accents in English to tell us where to put emphasis in the word, and when you start learning Spanish you’ll realise what a ridiculous lack of helpful information that is.
Thankfully, Spaniards were smart enough to put a very simple ´ on the vowel of the syllable that should be the main force of the word. This syllable should be the one that is given the most time and punch; all other syllables should be quicker and less of a big deal. We’ll use some English examples a little later to demonstrate what we mean by this.
Along with knowing how to pronounce Spanish letters, this tilde accent tells you exactly how to say words that you’ve never even heard of before. It’s a real game-changer in learning Spanish!
If there are no accents used in the Spanish word, the normal rule is that the penultimate syllable takes the emphasis, with the exception of a few types of word endings which steal the show, such as the ‘ir’, ‘er’ and ‘ar’ of infinitive verbs. Also, if a word ends in ‘ia’, it’s the syllable before this ending that gets the emphasis, unless a ´ accent tells you otherwise. Providencia is an example of this: provi-DEN-cia.
Do keep in mind though, lots of Spanish-speakers are of the opinion that once a word is written in capital letters, the tilde accent above a letter disappears. Make sure you’ve therefore checked how the South American place name looks without capitalisation before solidifying how to say it in your mind. Here’s an example from Córdoba, Argentina:
Let’s put Spanish accent marks into some English words to show what we mean.
In the word butterfly, we put emphasis on the first syllable, butt (lols). So if we were to add an accent, it would look like this: bútterfly.
Other words with front-loaded emphasis (in British English, at least) include ártistry, fúture, kéttle and sátellite. Have a say of these out loud and see how the first syllable is given more time, and the others are said quicker and softer. Lots of English words are emphasised with the first syllable being the most important.
Examples of mid-emphasis are found in artístic, pedéstrian, obítuary or biólogy.
Back-ended emphasis is less common in English, but you can hear it in Hallowéen.
Putting accents and emphasis on the right syllable tends to be the thing that English-speaking travellers ignore as the ´ doesn’t mean much to them. I was definitely guilty of this too! I used to think it meant my voice should go higher pitched at that syllable, but when I realised I just had to spend a bit more time on saying it, my ability to pronounce place names in South America changed dramatically.
Using accents can change the whole meaning of the word, and not just in Spanish. Thinking about Brazilian Portuguese, saying pao vs pão can change your meaning from bread to a slang word for penis. Careful!
Commonly mispronounced places in South America
All this can be MEGA confusing for English-only speakers, and we don’t expect you to absorb it all right away. However, with enough time immersing yourself in South America, and perhaps with the help of a Spanish language school (see our guide on the best places to learn Spanish in Latin America), you might surprise yourself.
To help you get started with knowing how to pronounce place names in South America, here’s a list of the most commonly mispronounced.
Having spent seven eighths of our time in Latin America in Spanish-speaking countries, our Portuguese isn’t nearly as good as our Spanish. However, Andy has been learning Portuguese using the Tandem app and social media. Spanish and Portuguese are very similar, but Portuguese has some trickier sounds for certain letters, and some different accents to learn.
So, for those of you travelling within South America’s largest country, here are a few basic pointers on how to pronounce place names in Brazil.
‘r’ is pronounced as a ‘h’ sound, meaning the Brazilian currency reais is actually pronounced ‘hey-ice’.
‘rr’ is kind of hard to explain. It’s as if the sound is dropped and let fly completely with a guttural whisper. So churrasco (the most important word in Brazil) is pronounced more like choo-hhhh-ah-sco.
‘o’ is said ‘oo’. So when you see the common word ‘do’, it’s actually pronounced ‘doo’.
ç is always a soft c sound (as in racer).
~ means the vowel is flatten and elongated, it can get a little nasal.
´ over a letter has the same effect as the tilde in Spanish.
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