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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 LANGUAGE

¡Me cago en! Seven things Spaniards verbally defecate on 

Barça’s Gerard Piqué stained his farewell match by getting sent off after telling the ref “I crap on your b*tch mother”. As harsh as it may sound, this kind of swearing is far from uncommon in Spain. Here’s what else Spaniards verbally defecate on.

¡Me cago en! Seven things Spaniards verbally defecate on 

Profanities are both routine and widely accepted in most social situations in Spain.  

Whether it’s mierda (shit), coño (c**t) or puta (bitch), pretty much anything goes.

Swear words tend not to carry as much clout as they do in English, so much so that calling someone a clown (payaso) or an imbecile (imbécil) can often cause more offence.

Not everyone in Spain has a potty mouth though, so don’t feel obliged to start hurling palabrotas (swear words) to sound like a local. It also depends on how the obscenity is delivered. 

READ ALSO: How to ‘swear’ politely in Spanish

One of the most colourful habits Spaniards have when it comes to swearing is the expression me cago en… (I shit/crap on…). They use it to express frustration or anger about something, or if it is followed by the possessive adjective tu (your), it’s more likely to be an insult directed at someone.

Although what you choose to verbally defecate on is completely up to you, there are some particularly evocative expressions that Spaniards use very often. 

I crap in the milk – Me cago en la leche

As weird and off-putting as this may sound, Spaniards ‘crap in milk’ a lot. It’s a bit like saying ‘shit’ or ‘damn’ to express disappointment about something.

I crap on the Virgin – Me cago en la Virgen

As you will see in this list, blasphemy and defecation go hand in hand, and as the Virgin Mary is important to Catholic Spain, she often gets brought up. Spaniards also ‘crap’ on the Almighty when saying me cago en Dios.

I crap on the sacramental bread – Me cago en la hostia 

Shouting ¡hostia! (communion wafer!), as in the host that Catholics eat during mass, is part and parcel of the daily lingo in Spain when something surprises or angers you. With that in mind, it’s logical that Spaniards also express their intent to crap on sacramental bread when they get frustrated.  

I crap on your dead relatives – Me cago en tus muertos

Here’s where things start to get personal. Verbally defecating on someone’s ancestors is a way to let them know that you’re very disappointed with them. Again, it all depends on the context, but more often than not it won’t cause too much offence, especially if they deserve it. 

I crap on your molars – Me cago en tus muelas

If you don’t want to mention the person’s deceased family members, you can avoid this by instead crapping on their molar teeth. It’s a euphemism given that muelas (molars) and muertos (dead people) start with the same syllable.

I crap in the salty sea – Me cago en la mar salada

We know what you’re thinking, as if the sea needed any more toxic waste dropping into it. This poetic expression is another euphemism, this time to avoid expressing what Gerard Piqué said about someone’s madre (mother), which could well be considered the worst insult in Spain. 

READ MORE: What’s the worst possible insult in the Spanish language?

I crap on your bitch mother – Me cago en tu puta madre

It’s not a mental image anyone of us wants but bizarrely this is a widely used insult in Spain. People also replace the madre (mother) with padre (father), although they usually drop the puta for that. Remember that this is an offensive expression in most people’s eyes and it could involve an unpleasant reaction. Saying me cago en la puta (I crap on the bitch) is different as it’s not aimed at someone’s mother. 

READ ALSO: ¡Joder! An expert guide to correctly using the F-word in Spanish

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