Well, we’ve got to our second vowel sound, represented by the letter E. Like the other four vowels, E has one sound and one sound only, irrespective of where it appears in a word:
at the beginning, especial (special) in the middle, beso (kiss) or at the end, coche (car). In all cases the sound is very similar to the English E as in “egg” or “elephant”. Although this is very simple in principle, it is actually difficult for us to do, because it is so alien in English speech to keep repeating the same sound regardless of where it appears in a word. Think for a while about how we pronounce the letter E in these four words: children, we, delay, face. If you listen carefully you will realise that there are three different sounds here and one E that is completely silent!
Of course sometimes in Spanish the letter E combines with another vowel to create what we call a “diphthong” which means a double vowel sound. The most common, and at the same time trickiest of these is the “e-i” combination, which appears in many words including seis (six), reina (queen), aceite (oil). To get to this sound we should pronounce the E and I separately first, and then merge them together. The result should end up exactly the same as the English “ay” sound as in the word “say”, “race”, or indeed in my name “Jane”. By the way, something I always recommend is for people to practise these sounds using the correct spelling as a guide, and to steer away from the phrasebook method which would write the pronunciation of a word like aceite as “ah-thay-tay”. This very English way of writing foreign sounds is alright if you’re going on holiday for a week and need to read out a few phrases to be understood, but it will never teach you to pronounce Spanish properly in the long run.
Time now to find some word relations within our two languages again and as usual there are plenty of them beginning with the letter E: exterior (exterior) economía (economy), elefante (elephant), enemigo (enemy), énfasis (emphasis), entusiasmo (enthusiasm), época (epoch, era), espía (spy) estación (station). These last two words illustrate another interesting phenomenon in Spanish, which is that you will never find the combinations “sp”, “st” or “sc” at the beginning of words. That is why Spain is España and Scotland Escocia. It also explains why the Spanish have great difficulty pronouncing the international sign STOP, invariably saying “estop” instead.
Here are a couple of interesting “estranged cousins” beginning with the letter E. The Spanish word educado means “well-mannered” or “polite” and not “educated”, therefore mal educado means “rude” or “discourteous”. A friend of mine was recently told that her new neighbours were “Gente muy educada”. She wondered what their academic qualifications had to do with anything, until she realised she was being told they would be polite people to live next door to. Even more amusing is the Spanish word embarazada which means “pregnant” and not “embarrassed”, which is avergonzado. Please file this information for further use. It could save you from a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding next time you want to tell someone how embarrassed you are!
After much searching for a common word beginning with E in Spanish, I have settled for that very ordinary word en. The most obvious thing to say about this word is that it covers two distinct meanings in English depending on the context – namely “in” or “on”. Both of these English words have more specific translations in Spanish. “In” meaning “inside” is dentro and “on” meaning “on top of” is encima, but when the meaning is obvious we just settle for the simple word en. “En la mesa” is only ever going to mean “on the table”, and “en la calle” is only ever going to mean “in the street”. However, when there is a risk of ambiguity we have to be more specific. For example “on the cupboard” would have to be “encima del armario” (on top of the cupboard) to make the exact location clear. Another thing worth noting is that we often translate en as “at”. “Estoy en el ayuntamiento” would be translated as “I am at the town hall” which in actual fact means exactly the same thing as “in the town hall”. I hope that makes sense, it all seemed clear enough when I started writing it!
One more common E word, which also illustrates nicely the use of the Spanish “diphthong”, is the word euro. This word starts with the E sound as explained at the beginning, and then glides into the Spanish U sound, giving us a double vowel sound which does not exist in English. In English we place a “y” consonant at the beginning of the word to make it sound like “yiurow”, but this is incomprehensible in Spanish. Listen out for this difference when you hear people talking about money. It is often these little details that make or break communication, although in this case, the flash of a few bank notes would probably get the message over.
Finally, a good wholesome saying with an important E word: “Mientras haya vida, hay esperanza”, “Where there’s life there’s hope”, even for our attempts at speaking Spanish!
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel: 968 18 32 58