ll in spanish

LL in Spanish: Pronunciation Guide + Some History

Pronouncing the LL in Spanish is tricky for language learners (just like rolling your rs)- even more so because it’s pronounced differently in different countries.

Today we will learn how to pronounce LL in Spanish. Is there a single pronunciation throughout all Spanish-speaking countries? No! How many ways to pronounce LL in Spanish are there? Mainly four.

While that might complicate things for you, with some practice, it’ll become easier and easier to pronounce the ll the way you choose -and you’ll sound more like a native speaker.

Let’s take a look!

Some history about the LL digraph

A digraph is a group of two characters that represent one single sound or phoneme in a language, like LL in Spanish. Since 1754 until 2010, the digraph LL was considered a single consonant in Spanish. It was called elle [eʎe], and it appeared in dictionaries between the characters L and M. Nowadays, words starting with LL (double ll) are located within the L section in dictionaries and only the first character of the cluster is capitalized. E.g. “Lluvias torrenciales caen en Madrid”; “Llega sin avisar”.

LL versus Y in Spanish

Phonologically, whenever Y is used as a consonant, both LL and Y are pronounced equally (or almost equally) by most Spanish speakers around the globe, the sound being palatal lateral /y/ as in rallar [ra.ʝar] and rayar [ra.ʝaɾ].This phenomenon is called yeísmo, and there exist examples of it in written documents since the XVI C., according to the Spanish philologist Rosario González Galicia (Mi querida elle, 2001, Babab N°9). Yet, there are some differences depending on the Spanish variety spoken in a certain country or area within a country. In order to fully grasp the sound in each case, we will first explore the LL and Y spelling rules according to the Real Academia Española (RAE).

Now, enough theory. Let's listen to some actual sound bites with ll in Spanish (and y), brought to you by teacher Juan from Spring Spanish (a language learning platform I cofounded):

Spanish words with LL:

1-    Words ending with the suffixes -illo, -illa, like rodillo (rolling pin), and tortilla.

2-    Most verbs ending in -ullir, -ullar, -illar, -ollar, -ellar, like bullir (to boil), arrullar (to lull to sleep), pillar (to catch), abollar (to dent), sellar (to seal).

3-    Most words ending in –ello, -ella, like bello (beautiful), camello (camel), botella (bottle) and aquella (feminine form of “that”).

4-    Verb forms derived from an infinitive written with LL: callar (to silence) – calló, callarán, he callado.

Spanish words with Y:

The character Y can sound both as a vowel and a consonant. Look!

It sounds like the vowel -i (like -ee in English) in:

  1. Words ending in Y, when it is preceded by a vowel, like in Paraguay, ley (law), and voy (I go).
  2. The coordinating conjunction “y”, like in “Voy y vengo” (I come and go)

It sounds like the consonant LL (like -y in English) in:

  1. The plural form of words in rule number 1. E.g., rey (king; vowel sound) – reyes (kings; consonant sound); ley (law; vowel sound) – leyes (laws; consonant sound)
  2. After the prefixes -ad, -dis, -sub, like adyacente (adjacent), disyuntor (circuit breaker), subyugado (captivated).
  3. Words containing the syllable -yec, like in proyecto (project), trayecto (route), abyecto (abject).
  4. The gerund of the verb IR: yendo (going)
  5. The gerund and some other conjugations of verbs ending in -oír, -uir, like oír (to hear)oyendo, huir (to escape)huyendo, huyó.
  6. Some forms of verbs with -ae, -ee like sobreseer (to dismiss), caer (to fall), leer (to read), poseer (to possess) – sobreseyeron, cayó, leyendo, poseyeron.

Four ways to pronounce LL in Spanish

In old Spanish, lleísmo was the norm- words with LL were pronounced differently from those with Y. Over time, for matters of simplification, the pronunciation was standardized, giving way to yeísmo– pronouncing both LL and Y equally- in most Spanish-speaking countries.

1)    Lleísmo

In lleísmo, the characters LL and Y are pronounced differently. Ll is phonologically represented by the symbol /ʎ/ and grammatically by /y/. In English, the sound is similar to /li/ in “million” [ˈmɪʎən]. Lleísmo is still applied in Ecuador, East of Colombia, Peru, most of Bolivia, Paraguay, Philippines, South of Chile and Northeast of Argentina in America; rural areas in Northern Spain, Castile and Leon, Catalonia, Aragon, and Navarre. (Wikipedia.org)

E.g., Lleísmo: rallar [ra. ʎar] (to grate) – rayar [ra.ʝar]  (to cross out)

    Yeísmo: rallar [ra.ʝar] – rayar [ra.ʝar], or one of its variations.

Now, within yeísmo, depending on the Spanish variety, the diagraph LL may have three other pronunciations.

2) LL and Y are both pronounced /i/

In this case, the sound of LL and Y is similar to English /y/ sound in “yes” or “year”. This variety is mostly used in Mexico, and some areas of Central and South America.

E.g., halla [aia] (finds) – haya [aia] (has as an auxiliary verb)

    Arrollo [arroio] (I roll up) – arroyo [arroio] (stream)

3) LL and Y are both pronounced [ʝ.]

Here the sound of both LL and Y is similar to /g/ in “wage”, or /j/ in “jungle”, although it is a bit softer than the English sounds. This is probably the most extended variety throughout America and Spain as well.

E.g., valla [vaʝ. a] (fence) – vaya [vaʝ.a] (subjunctive form of ir)

     callo [kaʝ.o] (callus) – cayo [kaʝ.o] (cay)

4) Argentinian Spanish: [ʃ] or [ʒ]

In Argentinian or Rioplatense Spanish, the variety spoken in Uruguay and most of Argentina, LL and Y are pronounced [ʃ] or [ʒ], depending mostly on the age of the speaker and the area they live in. The sound is similar to English /sh/ in “shampoo”.

E.g., holla [oʃa] (leaves tracks) – olla [oʃa] (pot)

    hulla [uʃa] (coal) – huya [uʃa] (subjunctive form of huir)

For a better notice of the pronunciation, all the examples provided in this article correspond to homophones, i.e., pairs of words that are written differently but pronounced equally.

Conclusion

It's a good idea to learn to pronounce the ll in Spanish early on in your Spanish journey. Learning it while you're still a beginner in Spanish, before you develop any bad habits, is easiest.

There was quite some theory in this article, but I suggest you watch the Spring Spanish video from teacher Juan a couple of times, and if you want some more info on sounds and the alphabet in Spanish, you can also watch this one:

Finally, make sure to speak a lot of Spanish, but also listen to Spanish (e.g. in Spanish podcasts). It might sound counterintuitive, but listening a lot to Spanish helps your brain to get used to Spanish sounds and distinguish better between ll and y. And that'll help you with pronunciation too.

For more help to improve your Spanish pronunciation and speaking and listening skills, make sure to request your free Spanish chunking starter pack, which comes with resources, walkthrough videos, and an intro to Conversation Based Chunking (a method to learn any language without cramming word lists and grammar rules).

Good luck!

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