Spanish Letters: Call Them by Their (New) Names

¿Cómo se escribe?

How do you spell…? Nine years ago, the Real Academia de la Lengua Española published its latest and updated manual of Ortografía, the official conventional spelling system of Spanish.

Among the topics that Spanish users demanded a review of was the most basic one: the names of the letters. What should we call them? You may think that this is a silly question, but the problem is that of the 27 letters in Spanish, five have more than one name: v, b, i, y, and w.

Cows and Donkeys?

You know that in English v and b sound different. A veil is not a bale, in both meaning and pronunciation. But in Spanish be and ve, or bee and vee, sound exactly the same, like be in English. Try to say bet without that t at the end, and you got the sound of both Spanish be and ve.

If be and ve are pronounced the same, what do people call them when they’re spelling something? Ready for some funny answers? Let’s divide Spanish speakers into three groups based on what they call be and ve.

Group 1: The Big and Small

These people call be:

la be grande
big bee

And ve:

la ve pequeña
little vee

Group 2: The Tall and Short

These people want to be a little bit fancier and prefer to call be:

la be alta
tall bee

So ve is of course:

la be corta
short vee

Group 3: The Farmers

I saved the best for last, because these are my favorite people. They call be: 

la be de burro
donkey bee

The same people would call ve:

la ve de vaca,
cow vee

One name

All of these names are pretty funny, and people get along perfectly fine using them, but it’s the job of academies to step in and spoil everyone’s fun. That’s why the Academia suggests to use one boring but clear and distinct name for each letter:

be for b


uve for v

Greek and Romans

Spanish speakers have also struggled with the names of i and y. Most of the time both letters are pronounced as the same vowel: leí (I read) and ley (law). But while English speakers have no trouble calling them i and wye, respectively, some Spanish folks feel the need to bring up ancient history and call them i latina (for i) and i griega (for y). Yes, they calle them latin i and greek i.  

They’re certainly not wrong, but let’s be honest: we don’t need to remember where every letter of our alphabet comes from if we just want to know how to spell someone’s name. So, there’s also the much simpler:

i for i


ye for y

Double what?!?

The German-English-born letter w has quite an intuitive name in English: double-u, because it’s  formed from two u’s. But things aren’t that simple in Spanish. While everyone agrees that there’s a double something, what that thing is and where to put the doble is not something speakers agree on:

uve doble (because remember that’s what we agreed to call v: uve)

ve doble (because there are people that call v: ve) 

doble uve (because in Spanish some adjectives go before the noun)

doble ve (same reason, but with ve)

doble u (because some Spanish speakers love to adopt words and expressions from English)

What’s the Academia recommendation? It’s a v that’s doubled, not a u, and put the doble first:  doble uve.

Of course, if you want to keep using the popular names, which let’s face it are much more fun, you’ll probably be understood perfectly well. And we won’t tell the Academia about it.


Images: Flickr 

Categories: Beginner, Culture, Spanish
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