Knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet is one of the first skills taught in a language course, but out of disuse it is often one of the first lost as well. Even intermediate learners can have trouble in this area. Unfortunately, nothing makes a listener doubt your competence in Spanish faster than observing that you have difficulty spelling aloud. At a minimum, you should be able to spell your first and last names aloud almost as an automated response, without conscious thought.
Be de burro
The letters b and v can cause particular difficulty. Despite what native speakers may tell you, there is, in fact, no difference between how the letter b is pronounced in Spanish and how the letter v is pronounced in Spanish. As a result, knowing how a word is pronounced does not mean you always know how to spell it. To make matters worse, one of the names of the letter v is ve, which is pronounced identically to the name of the letter b, which is be. Although possible confusion could be eliminated by using uve for v, many speakers prefer to clarify the intended letter via one of the following contrasts:
|be grande||be chica|
|be de burro||be de vaca|
Mnemonic trick: If you forget which is be chica and which is be grande, remember that when written in lower case, the b is taller (larger) than its shorter (smaller) counterpart, v.
Specifying letters in this way is common not only when spelling aloud an unfamiliar word but also when reading aloud a password or some other alphanumeric code.
- No, IVA con be de vaca. No, IVA (Mexican sales tax), not iba (from ir).
- [On the phone:] Tú código de inscipción es: once, hache, be de burro, ele, equis, be de vaca, dos. Your registration code is: 11HBLXV2.
Asking about spelling
In school I was taught that deletrear is the way to say spell in Spanish. Fair enough, but in a neutral or informal style you’ll usually here escribir (with se).
- ¿Cómo se escribe? How do you spell that?
- ¿Se escribe con ka o con cu? Is that spelled with a k or with a q?
This conflation of writing with spelling means that saying someone is bueno para escribir may simply mean that they are a good speller, que tiene buena ortografía. If you want to emphasize writing per se, you may have to resort to redactar/redacción, compose/composition (text). Note that ortografía includes not only spelling but also punctuation.
When asking or specifying which letter to use, ser and ir are also commonly used, again with the preposition con. Or con can stand alone.
- ¿Es con be de burro o (con) be de vaca? Is that spelled with a b or with a v?
- ‘Haber’ va con be de burro, menso. Haber is spelled with a b, stupid.
- Evelio con Ve Chica, the stage name of a deceased Mexican actor. (Note: We can write either be chica or ve chica. The difference is immaterial because for obvious reasons these forms are almost always encountered in speech rather than writing.)
- ¿Tuvo con be de vaca? ¿O tubo con be de burro? Do you mean tuvo (from tener) o tubo (tube)?
i vs. y
Another pair of letters that can cause confusion are i and y. Although I was taught in school that y is called i griega, most speakers call it by its other name, ye, pronounced /dʒe/, like the name of the letter j in English but without the closing diphthong. The letter i is sometimes called i latina.
A reminder: the names of letters in Spanish are feminine: la a, la be, etc.