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Episode 74: Why Does Spanish Have B and V?

Have you ever wondered why Spanish has both the letters "B" and V", when they both make the same sound? Well, in today's episode, we'll answer that very question! And then, for our Cultural Tip, we'll talk about the national holidays of Ecuador!


Once again, I want to apologize for how late this episode is. I have not been feeling well this month, and it has definitely affected my ability to produce more podcasts/blogs, as well as a host of other things in my life. Thank you for your patience as I work through this! I will have an update in the coming weeks about what is going on. Don't worry; I'm not dying or anything. :) But my health is definitely affecting what I can and can't do right now. I will try to keep up with my production schedule, but I would like you guys to know that, if in the following month, the episodes are not out every other Monday like they normally are, it's just because I am not feeling well, not because I've stopped or given up on podcasting, etc. As soon as I am feeling better, I hope to get back on a normal schedule. So please just continue to bear with me.

Please note, for this episode, I'll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) when referring to different phonetic sounds. This alphabet is basically the agreed upon way to write out the different sounds that humans can make, as established by the International Phonetic Association (you can click here for their complete alphabet as of 2015). As I'm sure you've noticed, many languages have their own writing systems, and these writing systems can use similar symbols but have them represent completely different sounds. Like English's "J", which makes a [dʒ] sound, whereas the "J", or jota, in Spanish makes a [x] sound, with the back of your tongue almost resting against the top, very back part of your mouth. Or how in English, different phonetic symbols can still make different sounds, like how the letter "C" can make a [tʃ], [kʰ], [k], or [s], depending on the word and surrounding letters (for example: choice, come, back, vice). Hence the IPA allows us to talk about the actual sounds being produced, without getting bogged down by the more subjective letter symbols.

It's really cool! And for language lovers, it's an invaluable tool.

But to turn to today's topic, in modern-day Spanish, both "B" and "V" have the same pronunciation: [b]. So to differentiate which letter you need to use when spelling, they call them different names. You can call "B" be larga, be alta or be grande, and the "V" you can call by it's official name, uve, or ve baja, ve corta, or ve chica.

Some History

In order to understand why these letters still exist in modern Spanish, we have to go waaay back in history. Back before the Romance languages split off into what they are now (i.e., French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian, to name a few), they were actually all one language: Latin. Around the 5th-9th centuries A.D., they evolved as dialects across the regions the Romans conquered into individual languages. But their common origin is why it can be easier to learn a second Romance language after learning your first.

Anyway, Latin had "B" and "V", and they originally had two unique sounds: [b] and [w]. So in Latin, the "B" in amābat [aˈmaːbat] is pronounced as [b], and the "V's" in vivere [ˈwiːweɾe] as [w].

Overtime, as early as the first century AD, the Latin "V" was beginning to change. Based on how people would confuse the letters in ancient texts, linguists know that "V" was beginning to change from [w] to [β], a sound similar to [b] except that your lips don't actually close all the way (and represented by the Greek letter Beta [β]). This same change occurred for "B" if it was in-between two vowels. So amabat became [aˈmaːβat], and vivere became [ˈβiːβeɾe]. This process is called betacism, which is just the linguistic term for how sounds become, or get close to, [b].

Spanish's Unique Evolution

For a lot of romance languages, this evolution (betacism) continued so that "B" and "V", if pronounced as [β] (meaning all "V's" and those select "B's" that were in-between vowels), became [v]. So in Italian, for example, vivere became [ˈviveɾe] and amabat became amava [aˈmava]. But not so in Spanish; they continued to use [β] for words that had "V's" and "B's" in-between vowels, like modern day lobo or lavar, but [b] for other "B" words from Latin, like barba. This was the situation with medieval castellano.

But there's one other change you need to know about. During this time, the Latin "P" also changed in Spanish; if it was in-between two vowels, it also now was pronounced as [b]. Hence the Latin caput became cabo [kabo].

B and V No Longer Distinguishable

Looking at the time's poetry (more specifically, the rhyming that the poets used), it becomes evident that, by the end of Spain's Golden Age, or the Siglo de Oro (16th-17th centuries A.D., also a really fascinating time period of Spain. Highly recommend that you study it!), Spanish no longer distinguished between "B" and "V".

Hence the joke, attributed to Julius Cesar but probably actually from Julio César Escalígero, an Italian who lived during the 25-26th centuries A.D.:

"Beati Hispani, quibus bibere vivere est." "Afortunados los hispanos, para quienes beber es vivir." (From Del Castellano) "Lucky Hispanics, for whom to drink is to live." (My translation)

Do you see the joke? It's basically a mockery of how Spanish-speakers would pronounce bibere and vivere the same way. Get it? Yeah, I know - it's hilarious, isn't it? :D

So why didn't they just get rid of one of the letters, and have only one symbol for the [b] sound? Basically, because the RAE decided that spelling would be based on etymology, or the word's origins, rather than simplifying the language (kind of similar to how Noah Webster really wanted to simplify English, but Americans only accepted some of his suggestions and ignored the rest).

And that's basically why Spanish in modern times has two letters for the same sound. Crystal clear? :D So a word will generally be spelled with a "V" if the original Latin had a "V", and if the original Latin had a "B", or a "P", but now has a [b] sound, then it is spelled with a "B".

One Last Thing

But wait! Sometimes, even nowadays, a "B" or a "V" is pronounced like [β] when it is in-between two vowels (e.g., vocabulario, lobo, lavar, amaba). And in some Spanish-speaking areas, they may even pronounce this special case as [v]. While this episode won't be diving into all of the nitty gritty as to which words use [β] and which use [b], a general rule is that you use the hard [b] sound when "B" or "V" starts a word or comes after an "M" or "N". And if they come in-between vowels, then they are pronounced as [β].

Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.

¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!


Cultural Tip: Ecuador

Global National Holidays

Today's cultural tip highlights the national holidays of Ecuador! To save on time, and to avoid extreme repetitiveness, here is a quick list of holidays that many other countries also celebrate and/or which we have covered in other episodes, so I won't get into too much detail for these ones:

  • New Year's Day (01/01a)*

  • Good Friday (04/15) (It is always the Friday before Easter)

  • Easter Day (04/17, this year)

  • Labour Day (05/01a, although it is May 2nd this year since the first is on a Sunday),

  • Christmas Day (12/25a, although they will have the following Monday, 12/26, off, since Christmas is on a Sunday this year)

*The "a" means that it is always celebrated on this day.

Unique National Holidays

I found several holidays that are unique to Ecuador! But we'll start with Carnival Monday and Tuesday. True, several Latin American and Caribbean countries celebrate Carnival, which happens before Ash Wednesday, but I don't think we've talked about them yet. So now's a good time! :)

1. Carnival Monday and Tuesday (02/28 and 03/01)

Carnival is a festive time where people celebrate and enjoy themselves before Lent begins. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and lasts for the 40 days before Easter. Different denominations celebrate Lent differently, but overall this is a somber time of reflection and some type of fasting in honor of the time Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert.

Carnival is unique, in that it is a fusion of European religious traditions with the African festival customs (brought to the Americas by the African slaves), creating the bright, colorful, and celebratory parades we see today.

2. Battle of Pichincha Day, or Batalla del Pichincha (05/24a)

During the 19th century, when Latin America was fighting for its independence from Spain, Ecuador won a decisive battle on May 24, 1822 on the slopes of Pichincha volcano next to Quito city. The Patriot army's victory over the Royalists and their ensuing surrender in Quito allowed Simón Bolívar to add the Province of Quito to the Republic of Colombia. This day is when the rest of Ecuador gained its independence from Spain.

3. Simón Bolívar Day, or Natalicio de Simón Bolívar (07/24a) Technically, this is not a national holiday in Ecuador, but in Venezuela. Still, it is an important day that Ecuadoreans celebrate, as this day celebrates the famous Venezuelan's birthday, Simón Bolívar. He was key to Venezuela, Boliva, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador gaining their independence. Born in Caracas, Venezuela on July 24, 1783, his full name is ridiculously long: Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios. Thank goodness we just call him Simón Bolívar!

Militarily, he was a great leader and was known as El Libertador, or the Liberator. In fact, Bolivia is named after him, and he became the first president of the original Republic of Colombia on December 17, 1819.

4. Independence Day, or Día del Primer Grito de Independencia de Quito (08/10a)

Quito was, under Spanish colonial rule, an administrative region and was the first place in Latin America to declare their independence on August 10, 1809. Because of its primary role in establishing an independent and local government, Quito is also called the Light of America, or Luz de América. Unfortunately, the Spanish quashed this rebellion in 24 days. Nevertheless, it played a pivotal part in Latin America's struggle for freedom.

In Quito, to celebrate, they have festivals, parades, and concerts, although across Ecuador other places will celebrate with fairs, military parades, and other celebratory events as well.

5. Independence of Guayaquil (10/09a, or the closest weekday if it falls on a weekend)

Ecuador's largest city and a coastal port town, Guayaquil was the first city to gain its independence on October 9, 1820, about 11 years after the rebellion in Quito.

6. All Souls' Day (11/02a)

While certainly not unique to Ecuador, I don't think we've talked all that much about All Soul's Day, just All Saints' Day. All Souls' Day comes after All Saints's Day and is a time to remember the dead. In Catholic tradition, this day became popular by French monks in 998 A.D. as a day to pray for those who are in Purgatory to ease their suffering. (Full disclosure: I do not believe Purgatory exists.)

7. Independence of Cuenca (11/03a)

Yes, that's right, Ecuador has four national holidays related to their fight for independence! Cuenca is located in the southern highlands of Ecuador and declared its independence on November 3, 1820. This important economic city is Ecuador's third-largest city and is the capital city of Azuay Province.

8. Founding of Quito Day, or Fundación de Quito (12/06a)

Technically, this is a regional holiday rather than a national one. But it celebrates Quito's founding on December 6, 1534 by 204 Spanish settlers. As the settlement grew, it became an official city in 1541 and a Spanish administrative region (as well as a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru) in 1563. Quitenos, or Quito's citizens, celebrate during the 10 days prior to December 6th, but with the focus on December 5th and 6th.



Intro and Closing Music by Master_Service from Fiverr

Cultural Tip Transition Music edited from song by JuliusH from Pixabay

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