Figure 1. Commonly assumed syllable structure with English and Spanish names for the parts of the syllable. In this example, the four phonemes of the word flor are shown in their respective positions: the cluster fl occupies the onset.

The syllable in Spanish

To speak Spanish more naturally and to understand spoken Spanish more easily, it will help to have an idea of how the syllable works in Spanish. Syllables are the "rhythmic units" that we subconciously divide our speech into. (Usually, when you clap a word or phrase, you clap once per syllable.) In general:

Note that strictly speaking, syllabification is not a spelling issue. (Some grammars and style guides appear to confuse syllabification with hyphenation.)

Syllable structure

Syllables are often analysed as having an internal structure, as shown in Figure 1. The beginning of the syllable, called the onset, can hold a consonant or a cluster of consonants. The middle of the syllable, called the nucleus, holds a vowel1. And the end of the syllable or coda holds another consonant.

1. A vowel sound is generally one where the airway is not impeded, whereas a consonant "blocks" or "impedes" the airway. But there are certain consonants, such as l, n, that are actually quite "vowel-like" in that they only block the airway to a limited extent. In English, but not Spanish, these "vowel-like consonants" can potentially fill the syllable nucleus, as in the final l sound in the English word little, usually syllabified lit.l, or possibly the final s in the word strengths.

There are some similarities and some differences in how this structure can be filled in English and Spanish (phonotactics):

1. This is the voiceless interdental fricative, similar to US English th in think, where the tip of the tongue sits between the backs of the two rows of teeth, at the right position to cause friction.

How utterances are grouped into syllables

The start of a word or prefix doesn't necessarily coincide with the start of a syllable. In general, words and phrases are grouped into syllables in Spanish as follows:

1. Some slightly more complex situations actually arise. In the case of a word such as hablar, speakers appear to have a strong intuition that the division is ha-blar. But in the case of a word such as subliminal, speakers appear less sure intuitively as to whether the division is su.bli.mi.nal (as expected by the maximum onset principle) or (not expected, but possibly influenced by the fact that sub- is a morpheme).