About Accent Marks
This lesson consists of answers to some common questions that people studying Spanish have about accent marks.
- What is the purpose of accent marks?
- Spanish words of more than one syllable have one specific syllable that is stressed (that is, pronounced more strongly than the other syllables). An accent on the vowel in a specific syllable of a word indicates that that syllable is the stressed one. Accent marks are also used to distinguish certain words that mean different things but are otherwise spelled the same.
- Then why do many words not have accent marks?
- There are specific rules about what syllable is stressed in a Spanish word. (We cover the details in a future lesson.) If a word follows those rules, it doesn't need an accent mark. If a word does not follow those rules, that fact needs to be indicated with an accent mark.
- Is it hard to read Spanish written without accent marks?
- Contrary to what many Spanish teachers tell their students, it really isn't. It is true that certain words, especially conjugated verbs, are distinguished only by accent marks. (Hablo means I speak, while Habló means He spoke.) But in actual written Spanish, the context almost always makes clear what is meant. In the early days of email, many computers lacked Spanish keyboards, so it was common to write messages without accent marks. Purists were unhappy, but communication did take place.
- Then why worry about accent marks at all?
- For one thing, knowing the rules for accent marks can be helpful to students of Spanish. While a native speaker is likely to know intuitively how to pronounce most words and to pick up context clues in cases of ambiguity, this is not true of a student trying to learn a new language. And while, as indicated above, it is possible to read Spanish written without accent marks, it is more difficult. An analogy with English would be something like a Facebook wall post written with no capital letters or punctuation: acceptable in that context. But no sensible person would write a formal letter or a term paper without capital letters and periods. The same is true for accent marks in Spanish.
- Who came up with the rules for accent marks?
- An organization in Spain called the Real Academia Española de la Lengua. Its members are distinguished writers, literary scholars, linguists, and other professionals. The Real Academia has been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to establish norms for the Spanish language since its founding in 1713. Not all of its pronouncements are universally followed, but with a few exceptions, their rules for accent marks are almost universally accepted.
Coat of arms of the Real Academia Española, with its motto, "Limpia, fija y da esplendor"
That should answer some of the most common general questions about accent marks. The next step is to learn about what constitutes a syllable in Spanish.