Spanish spelling, (as opposed to its grammar) is almost always simple and logical. In particular, from hearing the pronunciation of a word, the appropriate place to put an accent is immediate, save in a few sporadic special cases.
In Spanish, there are only two types of accented vowels. The first one is "ü", called a diaeresis. (Not an umlaut as in German. Although it is the same symbol, it serves a very different purpose.) It is only employed in the syllables "güe" and "güi" when it is necessary to pronounce the "u". For example, the following words are not written with a diaeresis, so the "u" is silent (the English meanings included):
- guitarra - guitar (ever wondered why the u is also silent in English?)
- guerra - war
- guirnalda - garland
- guiso - dish
Contrariwise, if we need to pronounce these u's, we write a diaeresis:
- güero - In Mexico, it means blond (male), but its meaning has been distorted into "Angloamerican", someone from either Canada or the USA.
- agüero - literally, "waterer". It is a divination extracted from birds' flight.
- antigüedad - antiquity
- agüita - diminutive form of water.
This is very much like French. Consider the English acquisition "naïve", for example.
These are not, however, the most interesting aspect of Spanish accents, nor the most common. You may have probably noticed the proliferation of the accents á, é, í, ó, ú in Spanish writing. Every word can have exactly one of these accented vowels. It indicates the position of primary stress. The neat thing is that if you hear the pronunciation of the word paying careful attention to the stress, there are rules that tell you exactly where to place the corresponding accent. The real purpose of accents, of course, is to perform the opposite action: once you read a word, an accent or its absence thereof will tell you exactly how to pronounce the word and where to put the stress.
The rules were invented by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (Real Academia de la Lengua Española) in order to include explicitly and unambiguously the stress of a word in writing, while at the same time, if you can believe it, rely on the morphology of Spanish to minimise as much as possible the usage of written accents. This is a good idea. In English, it might not seem as important to indicate in writing the stress of a word, as almost always the stress falls on the penultimate syllable if the word is short. Sometimes, though, it would be nice to know that it is pronounced "AL-geb-ra" and not "al-GEB-ra", as my Hungarian professor used to pronounce it.
Enough preamble. Here are the rules:
- If the word has the primary stress on the last syllable (called an oxytone), and it ends with "n", "s", or a vowel, the accent is written. No other oxytones have a written accent, excluding exceptional cases. Examples with accent : pasión (passion), limón (lime or lemon), inglés (English), Alá (Allah, the Arabian deity), Canadá. Examples without accent: internet (no accent, stress on last syllable), estar (one of the "to be" verbs in Spanish), beisbol (baseball), calor (heat, warmth), alcohol (alcohol. Remember, this has the stress on the last syllable!)
- If the word has the primary stress on the penultimate syllable (called a paroxytone), and it does NOT end with "n", "s", or a vowel, the accent is written. No other paroxytones have a written accent, excluding exceptional cases. Examples with accent: cárcel (jail), árbol (tree), González (a family name, but if written Gonzales, there is no accent.) Examples without an accent: ingles (groins, usually very different from "inglés"), libro (book), gato (cat), perro (dog).
- If the word has the the primary stress on any syllable before the penultimate syllable (called a proparoxytone), then the accent is written. There is no exception to this rule. Examples: América, México, Pacífico (peaceful, capitalised here in reference to the Pacific Ocean).
That's all! Only three rules, one for each kind of word. Ok, maybe some people think that this is even too much and that other languages get by without any accents at all. Perhaps so. A few rules and loss of simplicity is the price to pay for unambiguity in spelling and writing.
Ok, ok, I'm lying a bit. That's not really all. There are some more cases where an accent is needed, the so-called diacritical accent that is used to distinguish certain homophones. There are also a few extra rules concerning diphthongs *snicker*. Those will be covered in your advanced Spanish class. Or perhaps in another node.