Knowing how to break a word into syllables in Spanish is essential for any Spanish learner. It may help with pronunciation, spelling, or even identifying if a Spanish word needs a written accent or not.
Are you ready to do this like a real pro? Let’s get started! This post will show you how to separate words into syllables, the most important rules to follow, and some examples to help you out.
What Are Syllables?
First, let’s just start with the basics of what a syllable is. Syllables are each of the sound fragments into which a word is divided when pronounced. The sounds are articulated in minimal units pronounced together in the same voice emission when you say a word.
There are strong or open vowels in Spanish, and weak or closed vowels. There are three strong vowels: A, E, and O. The other two are the weak vowels: I and U.
Let’s do an exercise, try to pronounce the word: Bandera (Flag): ban – DE – ra. As you may have noticed, the way it is pronounced allows you to group letters together naturally, making an almost imperceptible pause in the outflow of air from your lungs in the utterance between one group and another.
Classification of words: According to their number of syllables
Words in Spanish can be classified according to the number of syllables. Let’s see them in detail.
|Number of syllables||English||Examples||English|
|Monosílabas: Words with one syllable.||Monosyllabic words||– Pez
|Bisílabas: Words with two syllables.||Two-syllable words||– Cama
|Trisílabas: Words with three syllables.||Trisyllabic words||– Efecto
|Tetrasílabas: Words with four syllables||Tetrasyllabic words||– Bolígrafo
|Polisílabas: Words with five or more syllables.||Polysyllabic words||– Comunicación
– Latin America
How to Break a Word into Syllables: Rules for Syllabification
The process of dividing Spanish words into these small units is called syllabification (also called syllabication), better known as silabación or silabeo in Spanish. To complete this process, you must follow a set of rules.
These syllabification rules all obey two basic principles you should always remember: all Spanish syllables must contain at least one vowel, and all vowels can form syllables by themselves.
These conditions are a must since a syllable in Spanish cannot be made up entirely of consonants. There can be multiple consonants in a single Spanish syllable, while there must always be one or more vowels to function as a nucleus. Syllabification therefore involves the place of vowels and consonants within a word.
Now, let’s look in detail at the rules concerning syllabification.
Consonants at the beginning of a word
If there is a consonant or more at the beginning of a word, it will make a syllable with the following vowel.
|Dado||DA – do||Dice|
|Llavero||lla – VE – ro||Keychain|
|Panadería||pa – na – de – RÍ – a||Bakery|
Consonants at the end of a word
If there is a consonant or more at the end of a word, it will form a syllable with the vowel which precedes it.
|Bíceps||BÍ – ceps||Biceps|
|Español||es – pa – ÑOL||Spanish|
|Fabricar||fa – bri – CAR||To make, To produce|
A consonant placed between two vowels
When a consonant is found between two vowels, it forms a syllable with the second vowel.
|Demora||de – MO – ra||Delay|
|Época||É – po – ca||Era|
|Colina||co – LI – na||Hill|
Two consonants placed between two vowels
This rule is determined by a specific consonants group. If they are /bl/, /br/, /cl/, /cr/, /dr/, /fl/, /fr/, /gl/, /gr/, /pl/, or /tr/, they will always be kept together and joined to the second vowel.
|Oprimir||o – pri – MIR||To crush, To press down|
|Abrazo||a – BRA – zo||Hug|
|Ladrón||la – DRÓN||Thief|
|Escritor||es – cri – TOR||Writer|
|Ofrenda||o – FREN – da||Offering, Sacrifice|
|Alegría||a – le – GRÍ – a||Joy|
|Retrato||re – TRA – to||Portrait|
|Aflorar||a – flo – RAR||To appear, To surface|
|Suplicar||su – plic – CAR||To beg|
|Políglota||po – LÍ – glo – ta||Poliglot|
|Bicicleta||bi – ci – CLE – ta||Bicycle|
|Ablandar||a – blan – DAR||To tenderize, To soften|
When a word has the consonant combination /tl/ you will have two options for breaking it into syllables in Spanish, and both are considered correct. It is necessary to emphasize this rule because it occasionally leads to confusion.
|Atletismo||at – le – TIS – mo||Athletics||This syllabification is more common in Spain. Spaniards tend to pronounce /t/ and /l/ consonants separately.|
|Atletismo||a – tle – TIS – mo||Athletics||This syllabification is more common in most Latin American countries.
You may notice there is no separation. The /t/ and the /l/ consonants are together and combined with the vowel that follows it.
If the consonant combinations aren’t among the pairs listed above, we must separate the consonants and assign each to a different vowel. For example:
|Reactor||re – ac – TOR||Reactor|
|Hipnotizado||hip – no – ti – ZA – do||Hypnotized|
Three consonants placed between two vowels
If a Spanish word contains these consonant sequences /ns/ or /bs/, they cannot be separated. What you need to do is leave the corresponding sequence with the first vowel, and the third consonant will go with the second vowel.
|Constancia||cons – TAN – cia||Certainty, Determination|
|Instaurar||ins – tau – RAR||To establish|
|Obstáculo||obs – TÁ – cu – lo||Obstacle|
Syllabification Rules with Diphthongs
A diphthong is a sequence made up of two consecutive vowels that generate one syllable. Diphthongs can be presented in three different ways that we’ll explain here.
You must keep in mind that in the case of diphthongs all the vowels stay together in a single syllable, and that the diphthongs connect to the adjacent consonants according to the rules we learned above.
Strong vowel (A, E, O) + Weak vowel (I, U)
|Aceite||a – CEI – te||Oil|
|Cuota||CUO – ta||Fee, Share|
|Baile||BAI – le||Dance|
Atonic or unaccented weak vowel (I, U) + Strong vowel (A, E, O)
|Huevo||HUE – vo||Egg|
|Guardar||guar – DAR||To keep, To put way|
|Violeta||vio – LE – ta||Violet|
Two weak vowels together (I, U)
|Ciudad||ciu – DAD||City|
|Ruido||RUI – do||Noise|
|Triunfo||TRIUN – fo||Victory|
Accent rules with diphthongs
Words with diphthongs formed by a strongly stressed vowel and an unstressed weak vowel must have their written accent on the strong vowel. For example:
|Náutico||NÁU – ti – co||Nautical|
|Murciélago||mur – CIÉ – la – go||Bat|
On the other hand, words with diphthongs formed by two weak vowels must have their written accent on the second vowel. For example:
|Acuífero||a – CUÍ – fe – ro||Aquifer|
|Lingüística||lin – GÜÍS – ti – ca||Linguistics|
Well there you have it! As we’ve seen, there are a handful of syllabification rules to know how we break down Spanish words into syllables. You’ll get the hang of it with some practice, while knowing the rules and how they work will help you to grasp Spanish accentuation rules a little better. Even with the remarkable regional variations in Spanish pronunciation, knowing these basics on how to define each syllable in Spanish will help you understand the language in any accent. Practice makes perfect!