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In Spanish dialectology, the terms distinci n, seseo and ceceo are used to describe the opposition between dialects that distinguish the phonemes and , and those that exhibit merger of the two sounds (neutralizaci n) into either (seseo) or (ceceo).

Dialects that distinguish the two sounds, and thus pronounce the words casa "house" and caza "hunt" differently, are described as having distinci n, whereas the dialects that lack this distinction and pronounce the two words as homophones are described as having seseo if both words are pronounced with or ceceo if both words are pronounced with .

Seseo is typical of the Latin American and Canarian dialects and some dialects of central Andalusia, whereas distinci n is typical of most dialects in Spain, except in much of Andalusia and the Canary Islands. Ceceo is found in some dialects of Spain, in the southernmost part of Andalusia.



Distinction () refers to the differentiated pronunciation of the two Spanish phonemes written s and z or c (only before e or i , the so-called "soft" c ):

  1. s represents a voiceless alveolar fricative (either laminal like in English, or apical);
  2. z and soft c represent a voiceless interdental fricative (the th in think).

This pronunciation is the standard on which Spanish orthography was based, and it is universal in Central and Northern parts of Spain, except for some bilingual speakers of Catalan and Basque, according to . Thus, in Spanish the choice between the spellings sa , se , si , so , su and za , ce , ci , zo , zu is determined by the pronunciation in most of Spain, unlike English, where it is often done according to etymology or orthographic conventions (although in English, soft c is always /s/ and never /z/ like s is, as with "rise" vs. "rice").


In many other Spanish-speaking regions and countries, however, the phonemic distinction between and has been neutralized or merged. These varieties of Spanish are sometimes said to exhibit neutralizaci n ('neutralization') as opposed to distinci n. In this case, their pronunciation may or may not coincide with the English pronunciation.


Map of Andalusia.<!-- legend --><!-- legend --><!-- legend -->
Map of Andalusia.
Ceceo is a phenomenon found in a few dialects of southern Spain in which the historical phonemes and are both realized as . In other words, only the latter sound is used for s , z , and soft c . Ceceo is found primarily in some varieties of Andalusian Spanish, although Hualde reports that there is some evidence of it in parts of Central America. It is a largely rural pronunciation and is often stigmatized.[1] Note that although these dialects make no distinction between the letters s and c / z , they are never pronounced as in English in this case.


Seseo is the merger in the opposite direction: the original phonemes and are both pronounced as . Seseo is the most widespread pronunciation among Spanish speakers worldwide. Although a minority pronunciation in Spain, virtually all speakers in Hispanic America are seseantes, and seseo is considered standard in all varieties of Latin American Spanish. It coexists with distinci n and ceceo in parts of Spain (e.g. in Canary Islands and in some areas of Andalusia). Traditional dialect atlases (e.g., ) show one variant or another used in adjacent regions. In Spain, seseo is considered "more socially acceptable or perhaps 'less substandard' than ceceo."[2]

The following table gives an example of the three pronunciation patterns discussed so far:

la casa "the house" la caza "the hunt"
distinci n

Ceseo or seceo

Many speakers of ceceo and seseo dialects in Spain show sociolinguistic variation in usage. In some cases, this variation may arise when a ceceo or seseo speaker more or less consciously attempts to use distinci n in response to sociolinguistic pressure (hypercorrection). However, as, for instance, in the case of the variation between the standard velar nasal and alveolar pronunciation of the nasal in -ing in English (walking versus walkin), the switching may be entirely unconscious. It is perhaps evidence of the saliency of three-way ceceo-seseo-distinci n variation that inconsistent use has elicited evaluative comments by some traditional Spanish dialectologists. For instance, discussed it as "sporadic or chaotic switching [between and ] and the use of intermediate sounds impossible to determine with precision".[3] proposes the synonymous terms ceseo and seceo to refer to these "mixed" patterns, and notes surprise at a speaker who produced all four possible pronunciations of Zaragoza within the space of a few minutes.[4] In fact, sociolinguistic variation is typically highly structured in terms of how often each variant will appear given various social and linguistic independent variables.


Map showing the presence or absence of <!-- IPA --> in the Iberian Peninsula. Areas in light green are either seseo zones for Spanish and Galician or areas where other languages, not having the <!-- IPA --> contrast, are spoken
Map showing the presence or absence of in the Iberian Peninsula. Areas in light green are either seseo zones for Spanish and Galician or areas where other languages, not having the contrast, are spoken

Castilian lisp

A persistent urban legend claims that the prevalence of the sound in Spanish can be traced back to a Spanish king who spoke with a lisp, and whose pronunciation spread by prestige borrowing to the rest of the population. This myth has been discredited by scholars for lack of evidence.[5] traces the origins of the legend back to a chronicle of L pez de Ayala stating that Pedro of Castile "lisped a little" ("ceceaba un poco"). The timeline is totally incorrect, however: Pedro reigned in the 14th century, but the sound only began to develop in the 16th century (see below). Moreover, it is clear that a true lisp would not give rise to the systematic distinction between and that characterizes Standard Peninsular pronunciation. For example, a lisp would lead one to pronounce both siento "I feel" and ciento "hundred" the same (as ), whereas in Standard Peninsular Spanish they are pronounced and , respectively.

Nevertheless, for speakers of seseo varieties of Spanish, where is absent, and for people who are more familiar with seseo pronunciation (e.g., learners of Spanish in North America), the use of by Peninsular speakers is striking, and does indeed give an impression of "lispiness". The misnomer "Castilian lisp" is used occasionally to refer to this aspect of Peninsular pronunciation (in both distinci n and ceceo varieties).

Historical evolution

In the 15th century Spanish had developed eight sibilant phonemes,[6] more than any current variety of Spanish. Those eight phonemes merged differently as they evolved during the 16th and early 17th centuries into the pronunciation of the modern dialects.[7] There were four pairs of voiceless versus voiced sibilants: dental/alveolar affricates vs. (spelled c / vs. z ); dental/alveolar fricatives (spelled ss when intervocalic, s otherwise) vs. (intervocalic only, spelled s ); postalveolar affricates vs. ; and postalveolar fricatives vs. ( x vs. j and g before i / e ). Most likely, deaffricated and merged with before the year 1500.[8] The main difference between the prestige dialect of North Central Spain and dialects to the south (such as Andalusian Spanish) was that, in the north, dental/alveolar continuants were more retracted than the affricates (the former pair can be represented as and and the latter as and ) but homorganic in those to the south such as in Andalusia.[9]

The first step away from that system was the deaffrication of a couple of decades after 1500. Because of a differing place of articulation, this still contrasted with in the prestige dialect of North Central Spain, though it was a complete merger for southern dialects.[10]

pronunciation orthography
voiced affricates fricatives voiced j or soft g
voiced z
voiceless affricates voiceless ch
voiceless c (before e , i ) or (before a , o , u )
apicoalveolar fricatives voiced intervocalic s
voiceless s (syllable-initial or -final) or ss (intervocalic)
postalveolar fricatives voiced j or g (before e , i )
voiceless x

The second step was the devoicing of voiced sibilants.[10] In the north, and were lost, though remained contrastive as there had been no voiceless . This sound contrasted with two acoustically similar sounds: dentoalveolar and apicoalveolar . By 1600, had deaffricated and merged with .[10] Subsequent changes to the sound system of Spanish retained the contrasts while enhancing the segments by increasing articulatory distance amongst their rather subtle acoustic contrasts, an appropriate step due to the high productivity of these phonemes in differentiating frequently used minimal pairs. The dentoalveolar one was moved "forward" to interdental , losing its former sibilance in the process (which increased its acoustic distance to the remaining sibilant s ), and the prepalatal one was moved "backward" to velar also losing its former sibilance. All in all resulting in the three-way distinction found in modern Standard Peninsular pronunciation:

original 6-way contrast deaffrication 1 devoicing deaffrication 2 modern distinci n orthography
z or c (before e , i )
j or g (before e , i )

In the south, the devoicing process and deaffrication of gave rise to new fricatives that were indistinguishable from the existing ones. The process of increasing articulatory distance still applied, however, and retracted to in the south just as it did in the north.[7] In a number of ceceo areas (particularly the southernmost provinces like C diz) developed into a non-sibilant apico-dental , perceptually similar to the interdental used by Standard Peninsular speakers for orthographic c / z . In seseo areas (particularly in the westernmost provinces like Seville and Huelva), the resulting phoneme developed a predorsal alveolar realization (like English s ), perceptually similar to the apicoalveolar used by Standard Peninsular speakers for orthographic s . This seseo variety was the pronunciation that most impacted Latin America, as many emigrants to the Americas were from Andalusian and Canarian ports. In addition, several generations of Spanish speakers had lived and grown in the Americas before appeared in Castilian.[11]

original 6-way contrast deaffrication 1 devoicing deaffrication 2 modern ceceo modern seseo orthography
z , c , s
j or g (before e , i )

The development of the sibilants in Ladino (which split off from Castilian and other Peninsular varieties in the 15th century) was more conservative, resulting in a system closer to that of Portuguese.[12]

See also

  • History of the Spanish language
  • Spanish dialects and varieties
  • Spanish phonology



External links

es:Ceceo fr:Ceceo it:Ceceo ja: pt:ceceio fi:Ceceo

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