Broken Diphthongs

We saw in an earlier lesson that of the five vowels in Spanish, three (a, e, and o) are considered strong vowels. The other two (i and u) are considered weak vowels.

We also saw that a combination of a weak vowel and a strong vowel forms one syllable, called a diphthong. So a word like baile has two syllables, and a word like familia has three.

It turns out, however, that this isn't always the case. In some words, the weak vowel of a pair of vowels consisting of one strong one and one weak one is stressed. In those cases, the pair of vowels forms two syllables, and an accent mark is place on the weak vowel. Many words ending in a exhibit this behavior. Some examples should help clarify this phenomenon:

Let's look a little more at words ending in ia or a. When there is no accent mark, the two vowels, one of which is strong and the other weak, form a diphthong, and thus one syllable. And the stressed syllable is the preceding one, which is what the rule would predict. So no accent mark is needed.

But some words aren't pronounced this way, but are stressed on the i. In that case, the diphthong is, so to speak, broken. To indicate this fact, an accent mark is necessary. Notice that there is no way to predict whether a given word falls in the first category or the second unless you know how it's pronounced. Listen to this (rather nonsensical) sentence and see if you can hear the difference between the two types of words.

When you think you have this figured out, try the quiz.