The Letter U
We have made it to our fifth vowel in the alphabet and like the other vowels, the U has a single clear sound, this time made with the lips rounded and protruding. If you remember how Frankie Howard used to say “ooooh”, but then cut the sound short, you may get the right idea! That isn’t the whole story about the pronunciation of the U though, as there are three instances in which it is actually silent, which are as follows:
The U is always silent after the letter Q. The combination “QU” makes the equivalent of a K sound, so for example, “queso” is pronounced “keso”. Most people get the hang of this fairly quickly, but the one that people take longer to appreciate is that the letter U is silent between the letters G – E and G – I. The reason for this is that the sound made by the above letter combinations without the U, give the G that throaty sound we’ve mentioned before, the one that sounds like the “ch” of the Scottish “loch” so words like “gente” meaning “people” or “gitano” meaning “gypsy” have this sound. In order to make the G hard before the E or the I vowel, we place a U in between. Maybe a good way to remember this is to think of the sentence “el gitano toca la guitarra” which uses the two G sounds, the second one needing the silent U to make it hard. Another memorable example is the name “Miguel”, memorable because of the saint, the beer, or the village near Torrevieja if you happen to live in that area. This is not pronounced like “Migwel”, but without the U sound, since the U is only there to make the G hard. Therefore in English it would be something like “Migell”, although, as usual I am stuck with the difficultly of writing sounds!
A common everyday word which further illustrates this is the word for “next” or “following” which is “siguiente”. Some people panic and are uncertain when they see a U in the middle of a fairly complex word like this, but as in the other examples, the U here is silent.
That is not quite the whole story about the pronunciation of the letter U, as there is one more aspect related to when we want to spell the “gwe” or “gwi” sound. In other words, when we want to pronounce each of the letters “GUE” and “GUI” and don’t wish to make the U silent. In order to indicate this we have to produce another symbol, the two dots over the letter U, to indicate that the letter should be pronounced in this instance.
Here are two examples which I admit we might not use every day; one is “penguin” which is “pingüino” and the other is “cigüena” which means “stork”. A much more common example in everyday speech is the word “vergüenza” which means “shame”. If something is embarrassing we can say “me da vergüenza”, “I’m embarrassed”, or exclaim “¡Qué vergüenza!” – “How embarrassing!” We can also call a person who is “without shame” or “a scoundrel”, “un sinvergüenza” – “a shameless person”. We would say of such a person “no tiene vergüenza” – “he or she has no sense of shame”. In each of these cases the letter U is pronounced.
We have spent longer than usual looking at the pronunciation of the letter U, but I would like to point out one more thing which should be obvious, but it’s amazing how many people I hear getting it wrong, and that’s simply that we should make sure our U really is pronounced like a U even when it sounds awkward to our English ears. For example, the word “urgente”, should not sound anything like the English equivalent, but should have that clear “oo” sound at the beginning. This could obviously be important in certain situations. The same sound exists in “Murcia”, “sur” (south) and “urbano”.
We have the combined vowel sounds which contain the U, for example “au” as in “autovía” (motorway) and “restaurante”, when the sound is a clearly defined combination which rhymes with the English word “how”. Similarly the “eu” combination is a bit of a challenge as this sound does not actually exist in English, nevertheless in Spanish is retains both the E and U vowels, merged together.
Here are some words beginning with U which are clearly related between our two languages: “úlcera” (ulcer), “unidad” (unit), “uniforme” (uniform) “unido” (united), “universe” (universe), “universidad” (university), “urbano” (urban), “uso” (use), “utopia” (utopia).
A commonly heard “false friend” is the word “último” which can mean “ultimate” in the English sense of “best” or “definitive”, but usually means “last”. You will often here the question “¿el último?” or “¿Quién es el último?” in a shop or bank queue. This is because Spanish queuing, which is alive and well, is not always instantly visible, so as someone enters an establishment, he or she is obliged to ask in a fairly loud voice about who the last person was to arrive before them and who therefore they should follow in the queue. If you were the previous person to arrive you should shout up “yo” (“me!”) nice and clearly so that things can proceed in the correct manner. If you don’t observe this ritual and accidentally jump your place in a queue, you will usually be informed one way or the other!
Our Spanish saying this month containing a U word, is one I have heard several times referring to different nationalities working together. It is: “La unión hace la fuerza.” (Union makes strength) or (Unity makes us strong). This is a good phrase for politicians of course, but also very applicable to any group of people who get together to get something done.
Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel 968 183 258