The pronunciation of the letter V is identical to that of the letter B in modern standard Spanish. Once you have accepted this fact, it makes life a whole lot easier. People seem to worry excessively about the pronunciation of their B’s and V’s and I often find students staring at my mouth and pouncing on any slight variation they might detect!! Sometimes during speech the movement of one’s mouth can vary slightly, but the fact of the matter remains that B’s and V’s are the same! They are both pronounced like a soft, lazy English B. Variations within that sound from lips being fully closed to being slightly parted are equally well understood, and you will find this variation amongst native Spanish speakers as well.
Because of this similarity in pronunciation, this is one of the few areas where the Spanish themselves tend to make spelling mistakes. It is not at all uncommon to find signs with “nobiembre” instead of “noviembre” or children’s homework in which “libro” is spelt “livro”. There is an advertising campaign called “La Verdad” and “La Voz”. In the adverts they are spelt “La Berdad” and “La Boz”. There are also one or two familiar cases where these letters can cause confusion. One is the word “baca” or “vaca”, both pronounced exactly the same. “Baca” means a “roof rack” on a car, or “luggage rack” on a train, whilst “vaca” means “cow”, the mistake giving rise to much hilarity about people driving round with a cow on their roof.
As usual we have a good range of V words that mean something very similar in both languages. “Vagabundo” (vagabond, tramp), “vacaciones” (vacation, holiday), “valiente” (valiant, brave), “ventilación” (ventilación), “verificar” (verify, confirm), “versátil” (versatile), “vértebra” (vertebra), “vertical” (vertical), “vibración” (vibration), “vicepresidente” (vice president), “victima” (victim), “victoria” (victory), “virtual” (virtual), “virus” (virus).
Another V word is “vegetariano” (vegetarian). To say “I am a vegetarian” a man would need to say: “soy vegetariano” and a woman “soy vegetariana”. However, as vegetarianism is not at all common in Spain, this can sometimes be misunderstood. It could be interpreted as meaning a strict vegan, which of course is not necessarily the case, or it could not be understood at all. On many occasions after saying I am vegetarian I have been served with dishes containing ham or small amounts of mince meat, presumably because there isn’t much of it, or because it doesn’t look much like meat! Therefore it is probably better for a vegetarian to explain his or her requirements more explicitly: “No como carne ni pescado” (I don’t eat meat or fish) or “No como carne pero sí como pescado” (I don’t eat meat but I do eat fish) or “No puedo comer ningún producto lácteo” (I cannot eat any dairy product). Obviously there are many permutations, but explicitness is generally always the best policy.
As we have seen before, there are quite a few words and expressions that look as though they mean the same in both languages but in fact don’t. The reason that this happens is because the words come from the same root (in this case usually Latin), but then take on their own separate but related meaning in the new language. This development of language is a process which goes on all the time. Within our own lifetimes we know of many words that have altered in meaning, sometimes even switching from positive to negative or from respectable to rude. If you imagine the same process going on with related words in different languages, it is obviously that meanings will vary when you come to translating from one language to another. A good example of this process is the word “vulgar”. The original meaning of “vulgar” is “of the common people”, and it basically retains this meaning in Spanish, including the ideas of “trivial” “banal” “everyday” whereas in English it developed to refer to things that were not appropriate for the higher classes, and from there it came to take on the pejorative idea of “rude” or “uncouth”.
There is a handful of odd words beginning with V which are most notable for the fact that they impossible to translate. These are: “venga”, “vaya” and “vamos”. “Venga” means “come” or “come on” but also means nothing at all when it’s thrown into conversations, particularly at the end. “Vaya” expresses a bit of surprise or perhaps irritation and can only really be translated with “Well then!” or just occasionally “Fancy that!” and “vamos” means “we go” and “let’s go” and also nothing at all at the ends of conversations. If that explanation was less than enlightening I can only apologise on behalf of the Spanish language!
I would like to put in a V word here which I just happen to like very much. It is “vaíven” which means “to-ing and fro-ing” or “coming and going”. It is made up of “va” (part of the verb to go) and “ven” (part of the verb “to come”). It has even been turned into a verb in its own right “vaivenear” (to oscillate, to rock, move backwards and forwards). For some reason I find this particularly pleasing.
Probably the most common and well known V word of all is “vale” which we all know means “okay” and we hear it said constantly by everybody. However, what you may not realise is that “vale” comes from the verb “valer” meaning “to be worth”, “to be valid”, “to be of use”. Therefore, when we say “vale” we are actually saying “it’s valid”, “it’s of use
Finally here are two sayings containing V words. The first is: “Las verdades duelen” (truths hurt), and the second one has a nice little rhyme: “Una vez al año no hace daño.” (Once a year doesn’t do any harm) which more or less relates to our expression “Once in a blue moon” but to me sounds more like a good excuse for doing something naughty!