How To Pronounce Paraguayan Guarani Words
“… an unexpected thing,
the spoken word.” (Translated by Susan Smith Nash)
The Modern Guaraní is an Amerindian language spoken nowadays in Paraguay and it is the only Indian language in South America which is recognized as a national language. Surely it is important to remember that Guaraní is totally unrelated to Spanish; the other national language of Paraguay. Guaraní and Spanish are then separate languages used in a diglossic society. Spanish, which is believed to be the sole language of less than seven percent of the population, serves as a high variety that is used officially as the government language and the medium of education.
The origins of the Guaraní (or Avañeé) orthography in use today proceed from the transcription adopted by the Jesuit priest Montoya in the 17th century. The Guaraní alphabet (achegety) is composed of 20 letters (tai). The letter (tai)-to-sound (taipu) correspondence is almost always constant. In Guaraní all consonants and vowels are pronounced, which means that Guaraní has no silent letters. For this reason we can say then that the alphabet is phonetic to a great extent, that is, spelling and pronunciation are phonetic. But it should be noted that some grammarians and authors of dictionaries differ in the use of a few letters.
In what follows, comparisons with Spanish and English are given, as guidelines only, where there is close enough approximation to the Guaraní sound. Especially the consonants are pronounced as in English.
The vowel system
There are 6 vowel letters used in Guarani. The vowels (pu’ae) are as follows:
a, e, i, o, u, y
a, e, i, o, u as in Spanish. These vowels are represented exactly by the same characters in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).
The letter y in Guarani alphabet serves as a symbol for a close central unrounded vowel sound. Note that the IPA system uses the lower-case i, modified with superimposed hyphen.
In fact, Guaraní displays a vowel system with three high vowels (i, y, u) and three low vowels (e, a, o). The schema bellow serves as a representation of this 3 x 2 system:
i – y – u
e – a – o
These vowels can be either pure or nasalized. So all Guaraní vowels have nasalized counterparts. The nasalized vowels (pu’ae tĩgua) are represented with a tilde. That is, the tilde marks nasalization.
To conclude, Guarani vowels are all short. So do not make the vowels too long.
The consonant system
There are 14 consonants in Guarani. As noted above, many of them are similar to the English ones. The consonants (pundie) are as follows:
k, m, n, ñ, p, s, t, g, h, j, r, v, x, ‘
Notice that the apostrophe symbol [ ‘ ] represents a letter which indicates a glottal consonant stop. This letter is called pu’y or puso. A “stop” is a sound in which the air in the vocal tract is completely blocked (Ladefoged:2001).
The consonants ñ, p, s, t, and r sound like Spanish. With loanwords from Spanish, Guaraní uses l and rr.
The pure nasal consonants (pundie tĩguaiteare) are: m, n, and ñ. In a sense, g may be considered also as a nasal.
Besides that, Guaraní displays the prenasalized stops: mb, nd, nt, and ng. These four sounds are named as “semi-nasals” consonants (pundie tĩjurugua) in Guaraní grammar. In general, double or geminate consonants like the prenasalized segments and sounds like rr are termed as pundiekõi. Observe that in some ortographies, the pundiekõi ch substitutes the letter x.
Words in which occur prenasalized stops are pronounced as follows: pytumby (twilight/anochecer) = py/tu/mby.
Consonants that sound like English
The following consonants are generally pronounced as in English:
k, m, n, p, g, j, r, s, t, v
Let us see some observations in relation to the set of sounds above:
s is always pronounced as in fussy;
g is always as in ago;
r is always as in ray (like the rolling sound used in Italian);
The three voiceless stops k, p and t are pronounced WITHOUT aspiration (a strong explosion of air at the end of the sound).
Finally, let us examine other sounds:
ñ : this is a velar nasal stop sound as in Spanish soñar (to dream);
x : this letter is pronounced as in English sure; some authors use the “ch” (surely this digraph represents a sound totally different of the same Spanish digraph);
‘ (this symbol is called spiritus lenis in Latin): indicates a glottalized consonant sound, which is released with the glottis closed. This sound is made with mouth air, rather than lung air. The glottal stop occurs only between vowels;
h: is a glottal fricative sound.
Gregores, Emma; Suárez, Jorge A. 1967. A Description of Colloquial Guaraní. The Hague: Mouton.
Guasch, Antonio. 1956. El Idioma Guaraní. Gramática y antología de prosa y verso. Asunción: Casa América.
Ladefoged, Peter. 2001. Vowels and Consonants. An Introduction to the Sounds of Languages. Oxford: Blackwell.
O’Connor, J. D. 1973. Phonetics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Pullum, Geoffrey K.; Ladusaw, William A. 1996. Phonetic Symbol Guide. 2nd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.