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Words from Spanish

England and Spain had some opportunities for word exchanges through war and trade. The real crossroads for Spanish and English, however, has been North America, starting as early as the 15th century when Spanish explorers first came to the New World. This crossroads is as busy today as ever, for Spanish is the second–most-frequently spoken language in the United States. Because of the long border we share with Mexico and the large number of Americans whose origins go back eventually to Mexico, American English has many words that come directly from Mexican Spanish.

Tip from the Top

The good news about words from Spanish is that they are often spelled the way they sound. There is no need to throw in any silent letters in most cases! Study the list and have a look at the individual tips in the Study Words and Challenge Words lists.

Now You Try

  1. 1. One of the two words beginning with j on our study list also begins with a \j\ sound, but the letter j does not always have this sound in words from Spanish. What is the initial consonant sound in these four non–study-list words, which also come from Spanish?





    That's Correct! The initial consonant sound is \h\.

  2. 2. Why do you think English uses either c or qu but not k to spell the \k\ sound in words of Spanish origin?

    The Spanish alphabet uses k only to spell words borrowed from other languages.

  3. 3. You can see from the words in the list that ch is common in words from Spanish and that it usually has the same pronunciation as English normally uses for ch. In which word from the list does ch sometimes have a different pronunciation?

    That's Correct! Machismo is sometimes pronounced with a \k\ sound rather than a \ch\ sound.

  4. 4. We have seen already that c often represents a \k\ sound in words from Spanish. In which three words on the list does c have a different pronunciation, and what sound does it have?

    The letter c has the \s\ sound in cilantro, hacienda, and cedilla.

  5. 5. The two l's in alligator are not the usual ll that you often see in the middle of words from Spanish. When this word was borrowed, the Spanish masculine definite article el ("the") was borrowed along with it. El lagarto in Spanish became alligator in English. Do you remember in what other language the definite article is often borrowed along with the word when it enters English?

    That's Correct! Words in English from Arabic often borrow the definite article al.

Spelling Tip

A long o sound (\ō\) at the end of a word is often a mark of Spanish origin, and it is nearly always spelled simply with o as in embargo and many other words on this list.

Spelling Tip

A long e sound (\ē\) at the end of a word of Spanish origin is usually spelled with i as in mariachi.

Spelling Tip

The \k\ sound is sometimes spelled with qu in words of Spanish origin. This is especially true when the vowel sound that follows is long a (\ā\), long e (\ē\), or short i (\i\). Quesadilla and conquistador (in its pronunciations with and without the \s\ sound) are examples from our list.

Spelling Tip

It is much more common for the \k\ sound to be spelled with c in words of Spanish origin. This is almost invariable when the vowel sound that follows is a schwa \ə\ as in canasta and embarcadero; short a (\a\) as in castanets and caballero; or long o (\ō\) as in flamenco and flamenco and junco.

Spelling Tip

A schwa at the end of a word from Spanish is very common and is usually spelled with a as in mesa, bonanza, and several other words on the list.

Spelling Tip

The combination ll in Spanish words is traditionally treated as a single letter and is pronounced as consonant \y\ in American Spanish. When such words enter English, sometimes that sound persists. At other times it is pronounced just like ll would be in an English word: that is, as \l\. Some words—such as mantilla, tomatillo, amarillo, and caballero—even have two pronunciations in English. Quesadilla, tortilla, and novillero always have the \y\ pronunciation in English; chinchilla, flotilla, vanilla, peccadillo, cedilla, and sarsaparilla always have the \l\ pronunciation. Be on the lookout!

Spelling Tip

Note that, except for ll, double consonants in words from Spanish are not very common. Buffalo and peccadillo represent exceptions. In Spanish, buffalo has only one f and peccadillo has only one c. English spelling rules prefer two consonants as a signal that the previous vowel is short, as is the case in these words.