The sound of the Spanish letter D is sufficiently similar to the English D sound to mean that if we pronounced them both the same we would be perfectly well understood.
However, if you listen to Spanish people speaking, you will notice they don’t actually make a different sound when saying this letter. Their sound is softer and more superficial. It is because of details like this that it is so difficult for anyone to lose their accent when speaking in a foreign language. There are too many minor variations in the movement of the mouth, the placing of the tongue and teeth, the speed and rhythm of speech and the shape of the throat, making distinctive sounds and tones, for this to be possible.
How can we make our “D” sound more Spanish?
Well, start by imagining that your tongue is longer and thicker than it really is, to the extent that it starts getting in the way of your front teeth when you pronounce the D sound. Instead of spitting out the sound just using your teeth as we do in English, allow your tongue to touch the back of your front teeth, or even slightly protrude between them, creating a far softer effect.
Now listen to yourself saying a word beginning with D, for example donde (where). Next, say a word with D in the middle, for example lado (side) and try to make the D even softer, and finally make it softer still at the end of a word such as Madrid. Like a number of other letters, the D sound tends to soften more towards the middle and ends of words, and in the case of Madrid you can even hear it sounding like “Madrith” in some accents. Notably the president of Spain, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, pronounces all of his D endings as soft “th” sounds. I was very pleased with myself to have noticed this all on my own quite some time ago, but then a whole feature was made out of this pronunciation trait during his last electoral campaign!
As ever, many D words have relatives in the English language: déficit, (deficit), delicado (delicate), decisión (decision), diseño (design), duración (duration) to name but a few. An interesting “estranged relative” occurs with the words diversión in Spanish and “diversion” in English. They certainly look alike, but in fact have come to mean very different things. Whilst the English word means a change in direction, usually referring to traffic, the Spanish word actually means “entertainment”. On the surface, these two things have absolutely nothing in common, but the root idea is actually similar – to divert or distract yourself from everyday life by being entertained – diversion!! The Spanish word for diversion is desvío, a familiar fact of life for those of us who live in areas of urban development.
Another D word I rather like is the word detalle which means “detail”, but also means “a small gift”. If, for example, you were to buy your Spanish neighbour a bottle of whisky for looking after your house, he or she might well say “Gracias por el detalle.” “Thank you for the gift”. The use of detalle here would not imply any judgment on the size of the present!
A common word beginning with D which we hear quite often is dígame, which people use to invite us to speak. If we translate this into English it sounds far too abrupt: “tell me”, but in fact this particular form is polite and formal in Spanish. The more familiar informal version of the same command is dime. When you wish to say something to a friend, they may say dime to you to encourage you to speak. Dígame used to be the standard greeting used when picking up the phone, in the old days when we never knew who was phoning. Nowadays we have little screens to tell us the name of the caller, so it’s very common to see someone look at their mobile and then say dime, from which we can deduce that their mobile screen says Mum, or someone similar.
Before we say goodbye to the letter D, there is another thing I would like to point out and that is the prefix “des-” which is the equivalent of the English prefix “un-” or “dis-“. A prefix is a part tacked on to the front of a word, so if hacer means “to do”, deshacer means “to undo”; conectar “to connect”, desconectar “to disconnect”; pegar to stick, despegar to unstick. Despegar also means “to take off” when referring to aeroplanes, as though they were “unsticking” themselves from the runway.
Finally, our Spanish saying this week contains two D words. It is “Cuánto más deprisa, más despacio” meaning “more haste, less speed” – something we all know, but it doesn’t stop us getting into a pickle from time to time, or perhaps I should just speak for myself!
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks.
Tel: 968 183 258