It took me a long time to catch on to the simplicity of accent marks in Spanish words. That may be because my Spanish teachers liked to show off their advanced knowledge of linguistics with long impressive words like esdrújula, sobreesdrújula, and penultimate. So, I did my best to learn words visually, accent mark and all, and when in doubt I sprinkled marks randomly like salt and pepper to give my writing that Spanish-ey flavor.
There are many fascinating things that linguists know about language in general and accent marks in particular, but I will not go into that here because if your goal is to speak and understand Spanish in the real world, you can take courage from knowing that most Spanish-speaking four-year-olds and a few two-and-three-year-olds have already mastered more than you will ever need to know in order to reach your goal, and those pre-schoolers have not yet even heard the word esdrújula. If you forego the big impressive words, the facts are really very simple:
- An accent mark on a syllable indicates that the marked syllable is to be stressed in the word. So canción will be pronounced something like this: kahn–SYON. Well, then, what about all those words that don’t have an accent mark? We can divide those words into two major groups:
- Words that end in a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) or the consonants n or s. These words will be stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Ricardo)
- Words that end in any letter other than the ones in the first group. These words will be stressed on the last syllable. (arroz)
- Accent marks have a few other uses, such as distinguishing between one-syllable words that are spelled alike but have different meanings, like sí (yes) and si (if).
- They also indicate whether two vowels together make a diphthong (no mark) or should be pronounced individually (María).
Now you know.