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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

To B or not to V: How to know which one to use in Spanish

If you speak Spanish or you’re learning the language, you’ll know that the B and the V are pronounced exactly the same, making it really hard to know which one to use when writing. Here are some tips.

To B or not to V: How to know which one to use in Spanish
Photo: montage with photos by Nathan Dumlao and Nathaniel Shuman/Unsplash

At some point during your Spanish language learning, you’ve probably asked yourself “what’s the point of having two letters which sound exactly the same?”.

We get it, it may seem a bit pointless (not forgetting however that English language learners have roughly the same problem with C and K).

But the truth is that having a B and a V in the Spanish alphabet is useful, even if they’re completely indistinguishable in sound (both of them sound more like B, although some Spanish speakers claim there is a very subtle difference).

Here are some homophone words which sound the same but have a different meaning, and can be told apart thanks to having either a B or a V in writing.

Baca: roof rack or luggage rack
Vaca: cow

Barón: baron/magnate
Varón: son, boy

Bello: beautiful
Vello: bodily hair

Basto: rude
Vasto: vast

Tubo: tube or pipe
Tuvo: had (he had/she had)

Hierba: grass
Hierva: boil (subjunctive or formal imperative)

This of course only solves the issue of a few words in Spanish, which by the way according to Spain’s leading language institution RAE has 88,000 words.

Unfortunately, when it comes to knowing if a word is spelt with a B or a V in Spanish, it’s often a case of just having to learn it off by heart.

But there are some rules which can help you with the B vs V conundrum.

Recognising words written with a B:

Words in which the “b” precedes a consonant.
Examples: “bravo”(fierce), “brazo”(arm) or “blanco” (white)

Past perfect verb tenses that end in “aba”, “abas”, “abais”, “aban” and “ábanos”
Examples: “Cocinaba” (cooked), “bailabais” (you danced), “cantaban” (they sang/they used to sing).

Words that include the prefix “bi”, “bis” or “biz”
Examples: “bicampeon” (two-time champion), “bisnieto” (greatgrandson), “bizcocho” (sponge cake).

Verbs that end in “bir”, except for “vivir” (to live), “hervir” (to boil) and “servir” (to serve).
Example: “recibir! (receive), “describir” (to describe), “escribir” (to write).

Words that include the prefix “biblio”, from the Greek work for “book”
Examples: “biblioteca”(library) or “bibliotecario/a” (librarian).

Words that indicate direction
Examples: “arriba” (up), “abajo” (down), “subir” (to go up) and “bajar” (to go down).

The months of the year that include the B/V sound, except for November which like in English has both letters – “noviembre” .
Examples: “diciembre” (December), “febrero” (February)

Words which have the syllable “bra”, “bre”, “bri”, “bro”, “bru”
Examples: “bruja” (witch), “brazalete” (armband), “bronca” (scolding)

Recognising words written with a V:

Words where the B/V sound is preceded by a “b”, “d” or an “n”.
Examples: “obvio” (obvious), “advertir” (to warn) and “envolver” (to wrap)

Words that begin with the prefix “eva”, “eve”, “evi” or “evo”, except for “ébano” (ebony)
Examples: “event” (evento), “evitar” (to avoid), “evolucionar” (evolve).

Numbers that include the B/V sound
Examples: veinte (twenty), noventa (ninety)

Words ending in “viro”, “vira”, “voro” and “vora”, except “víbora” (viper).
Examples: carnívoro (carnivorous), “devorar” (to devour)

Adjectives ending in “ava”, “ave”, “avo”, “eva”, “eve”, “evo” and “iva”, except “árabe” (Arabic/Arab) and its derivatives.
Examples: “octavo” (eighth), “suave” (soft), “adictivo” (addictive)

Words that begin with the prefix “vice” or “villa”
Examples: “vicepresidente” (vice-president), “villancico”(Christmas carol)

Hopefully that makes things a bit clearer and remember you can always blame any typos on the fact that B and V are next to each other on the keyboard.

And as a final consolation, if you are stuck and want to ask a Spanish friend if a word is spelled with a B and V, at least the words to refer to these consonants are clearly different: B is pronounced “b-e” and V is pronounced “u-ve”.

READ MORE: Five fascinating facts you didn’t know about the letter Ñ in Spanish

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SPANISH WORD OF THE DAY

Spanish Word of the Day: ‘Chiringuito’

Here’s one of the most summer-themed Spanish words out there, so you need to add it to your vocab. 

Spanish Word of the Day: 'Chiringuito'

When Spaniards think of summer, they often picture vacaciones (holidays), sol y playa (sun and beach) and tinto de verano (red wine mixed with soda/lemonade and ice – don’t diss it until you’ve tried it). 

And the place where they’re most likely to enjoy all these placeres del verano (summer pleasures) is at a chiringuito

Un chiringuito is essentially a beach bar. 

They’re usually small establishments that serve drinks and food to beachgoers during the sweltering summer months, meaning that many don’t open for the rest of the year. 

You’ll get the more rough and ready ones, wooden huts with dried out palm leaves providing shade as the radio blasts los éxitos del verano (the summer hits), to the more refined chiringuitos that are essentially like upmarket beachside gastrobars serving up plates of sardines as if they were haute cuisine. 

The word chiringuito (pronounced chee-reeng-gee-toh, the u in silent) was brought to Spain by los Indianos, the name given to Spaniards who emigrated to South and Central America in the 19th and 20th centuries and then returned to Spain, often with a lot more money under their belt. 

They would order a chiringuito when they wanted un café, a word used by Cubans who worked on sugar plantations to refer to how the coffee they made would filter through a stocking squirted out like a stream (chorro or chiringo).

The first beach kiosk to be dubbed a chiringuito was in 1949 in the coastal Catalan town of Sitges, where many wealthy Indianos settled. 

Then came the hippie movement in the sixties, the explosion of tourism in Spain and the hoards of beachgoers needing refreshing drinks to get some respite from the sun.

In 1983, chiringuito made it into the Spanish dictionary and in 1988 French pop singer Georgie Dann hit the charts with El Chiringuito.

These simple wooden beach huts were now officially part of Spanish culture.

But chiringuito has another meaning in Spain which pays heed to the informal nature of these establishments. 

Nowadays, chiringuito is often used to refer to a shady business, a government department born from cronyism, a bunch of cowboys basically.

Headline in Spanish right-wing news website OK Diario reads “Sánchez increased shady public enterprises (chiringuitos) by 10 percent as GDP plummeted due to the coronavirus”.

We certainly know what kind of chiringuito we prefer.

There’s also the expression “cerrar el chiringuito”, which means to finish a duty and leave.

Examples:

Vamos a tomar unas cañas y un pescaito al chiringuito.

Let’s go and have some beers and some fish at the beach bar. 

Si quieres mantener tus inversiones a salvo has de alejarte todo lo lejos que puedas de lo que se conoce como chiringuito financiero.

If you want to keep your investments safe you have to get away as far as you can from shady companies.

Ya es tarde, habrá que pensar en cerrar el chiringuito e irse a casa.

It’s late, time to finish work and go home.

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