I was taught that the vowels in Spanish are always pronounced the same in contrast to the English language. For this reason, I always pronounced /a/ in "pan" as the same as /a/ in "papa"—this is very similar to the pronunciation of "father" in English. However when I listen to the pronunciation on "pan" here (http://www.spanishdict.com/translate/pan), it sounds very close to the English word "pan"; yet "papa" sounds like the way I pronounced it (http://www.spanishdict.com/translate/papa).

Wikipedia has an article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_phonology) that touches on the idea that the vowels in the Spanish language are associated with various allophones. Are my auditory senses deceiving me, or is /a/ in "pan" being pronounced differently than /a/ in "papa"?

Is there a rule that I should learn that aids me in determining the "correct" way to pronounce /a/ in a word? For example, if /n/ follows /a/, then pronounce /a/ similar to the way I'd pronounce the "a" in "pan" in English?

1 Answer 1


Online teaching-type materials for pronunciation unfortunately are often distorted, and don't always reflect natural pronunciations. Listening to just those two recordings won't give you an accurate impression of how words are pronounced. In this case, there are problems with recording quality (peak-clipping), but the formants of the two stressed "pa" syllables are not different. The pitch is radically different (papa has a rise from 233Hz to 381 but pan falls minimally from 217 Hz to 199). There appears to be a difference in glottal source properties where pan is somewhat creaky voiced. If you compare papá and tan, I presume you will see that they are all similar in basic ways. No two utterances are ever exactly the same, so there will be some difference in any two recording.

What language teachers mean when they say that the vowel or consonant is "always pronounced the same" is something totally different: the letter "a" represents a single phoneme, unlike the case in English where vowel letters represent many different phonemes. But Spanish phonemes can have allophones.

  • I have a Peruvian co-worker and Spanish co-worker that both pronounced it similarly to the way I hear it in the links I posted, so I think my auditory perception and overall ineptitude in phonology is to blame more than imperfect audio recordings. I realize that this is somewhat tangential and nothing short of studying phonology in depth will truly answer my question, but online I found Spanish-speaking individuals claiming they pronounce the word "flan" like "lawn" in English and other Spanish speaking individuals claiming they pronounce "flan" like the English word "pan". Oct 4, 2018 at 19:37
  • Can this also be explained as the same formant and phoneme with just different pitches? I have no reason to believe these individuals are phonological experts, so perhaps their pronunciation claims are a result of auditory deficiencies as well. Oct 4, 2018 at 19:41
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    The best comparison in English could be Don, gone, but I pronounce "cot" and "caught" the same, and you need a speaker that keeps them distinct. And then you need a Spanish speaker who is fluent in that dialect.
    – user6726
    Oct 4, 2018 at 20:23
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    Just to supplement a bit, the Spanish vowels do demonstrate in some dialects some noticeable allophonic variation. Post-tonic unstressed vowels in particular can suffer some changes (Andalusian Spanish for instance). But AFAIK in all dialects, a tonic A will have effectively the same realization as any other tonic A, wherever that may be for a given speaker. Oct 5, 2018 at 15:42
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    @basketballfan22 English dialects can substantially vary those pronunciations. It's possible that some speakers use a so-called broad A for pan if they have the TRAP-BATH split —I'm not an expert on which words fall on which side—, in which case pan would have the same sound as flan. The -an for flan in Spanish should sound roughly like the -on of the English word con said in an American accent, and absolutely nothing like -an in the English word can said in an American accent. Oct 8, 2018 at 23:47

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