There is almost nothing difficult about Spanish pronunciation. Almost.
Spanish uses only two diacritics routinely: the acute accent (é), which indicates stress, and the tilde (ñ), which changes the n sound into ny. One occasionally also sees ü, which shouldn't be interpreted the German way, but is actually more like a consonant (see below).
|e||ay, as in "say"|
|u||oo, as in "root"|
|ai, ay||iy, like the word "eye"|
|ei, ey||ay, as in "say"|
|ia, ie, io, iu||yah, yay, yo, yoo|
|ua, ue, ui||wah, way, wee|
Any other combination of vowels signifies two syllables to be pronounced separately (e.g. teatro = tay-ah-tro). This applies also to combinations beginning with i or u if the i or u has an accent mark (e.g. María = mah-ree-yah, not mahr-yah).
Note that when u appears after the letter g and before another vowel, it does not always act as a vowel, it may simply serve to harden the preceding consonant (see gu [+e,i] below).
|c [+e,i]||s (in Latin America), or th, as in "thing" (in Spain); e.g. Plácido Domingo = plah-thee-doh doh-meen-goh ; see also z|
|ch||ch, as in "church", NEVER k|
|g [+a,o,u]||g, hard as in "go"|
|g [+e,i]||h, light gutteral sound (see also j); e.g. Ginastera = hee-nah-stehr-ah|
|gu [+a,o]||gw, e.g. Nicaragua = nee-kar-ah-gwah|
|gu [+e,i]||g, hard, e.g. Guevara = gay-vah-rah|
|gü||gw, always, e.g. Mayagüez = miy-yah-gways|
|h||silent, not pronounced, e.g. hermano = ehr-mah-no|
|j||h, light gutteral sound, e.g. Jesus López-Cobos = hay-soos loh-pays-koh-bohs|
|ju [+vowel]||hw, e.g. Juan = hwahn|
|l||l, perfectly normal unless doubled|
|ll||y, with a hint of l, somewhat like the lli in "million", e.g. Manuel de Falla = mahn-well day fiy-yah|
|ñ||ny, as in "canyon"|
|qu||k, NEVER kw|
|r||r: lightly rolled|
|rr||rr: heavily rolled (don't worry about the difference between this and r unless you've actually studied Spanish)|
|x||h, light gutteral sound (see also j)|
|y||y, as in "yellow", just like English|
|z||s (in Latin America) or th, as in "thing" (in Spain)|
All other consonants are basically the same as in English, with minor variations.
Most Spanish words are stressed on the second to last syllable, and there are very consistent rules to determine when the stress falls elsewhere. The following rules are always applicable, without exception:
Spanish is spoken in a variety of countries in a variety of dialects, the most significant difference being the lisped z and c (soft) of Castilian Spanish (spoken in much of Spain), as opposed to the unlisped versions, pronounced as s in Latin America. Which of these you choose in a given situation should depend on the origin of the person you're talking about. When in doubt, it's generally safe for Americans and Canadians to use Latin American pronunciation (no lisp), since that is more familiar in this hemisphere.
Within Spain itself, Spanish (the Castilian variety) is only one of several languages spoken in various parts of the country. While most of the others rarely arise in classical music, it's important at least to be aware of Catalán, the primary language of the Northwestern region known as Cataluña, which includes Barcelona. Catalán is often erroneously described as a dialect of Spanish, but is really a distinct member of the Romance language family, having much in common with both Spanish and French; its pronunciation is therefore similar to both, and identical to neither. We will not attempt to systematize Catalán pronunciation here since it arises so infrequently, but here are some musical names that are important to know:
|Montserrat Caballe||mon-seh-raht kah-bahl-yay|
|Montserrat Figueras||mon-seh-raht fee-gehr-rahs|
|Frederic Mompou||freh-der-eek mom-poo|
|Jordi Savall||jor-dee suh-vahl|
A potentially useful though imprecise rule of thumb can be derived from these examples: if someone you believe to be Spanish has a name with vaguely French looking elements, then it might be Catalán. In this case, knowledge of both Spanish AND French should inform your pronunciation.
In medieval Spanish names and titles you will occasionally encounter a few consonant sounds that have since disappeared from the language. Here is a summary of the differences (note that most of them remain in modern Portuguese):
|i, j, ge [+vowel]||zh, like the s in "measure" (e.g. ojos = oh-zhohs)|
|s||z (sometimes, when surrounded by vowels, e.g. mesurado = may-zoo-rah-doh)|
Jordi Savall (see Catalán above) directs an early music ensemble whose name is always written in the unrevealing form, Hespèrion XX; in English this should be pronounced hes-pehr-ee-yuhn twenty . You might instead be tempted to try and say "twenty" in Spanish or Catalán, but please don't. It is the general practice of classical radio announcers all over the world to say "20" in their own language when announcing this group. (I once heard a recording by the group Hespèrion dvadeset on Croatian Radio 3.) Incidentally, they seem to have renamed themselves Hespèrion XXI since the turn of the millenium -- figure it out for yourself.