How to Dismantle the Fabled Spanish “Lisp” to Truly Speak Like a Spaniard

by Graham Cruise, ISA Spain Site Specialist

Seemingly every time I’ve mention to people that I spent a year living and studying in Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia, those that have any notion of the Spanish language hastily jump to repeat back at me the city’s name “Bar-thhhh-elona,” elongating the erroneous “lisp” for which Spain is well-known. I have heard all the arguments, including the rumor that an old king of Spain had a lisp, so everyone in society emulated this pronunciation as to alleviate him feeling like a fool.

Any academic who has properly studied language knows that this is completely false. It is true; however, that in Spain, the common pronunciation utilizes the inter-dental fricative, or “th-” sound (like in the English word thing), which many English-speakers naively mistake for a lisp. As I dismantle these myths and properly explain the correct uses of this form of speech, I will refer to ceceo as a “lisp” to avoid confusion and to indicate where the interdental fricative is required (or not).

In Standard Peninsular Spanish (i.e. Spain-Spanish), the inter-dental fricative, or fabled Spanish lisp, falls upon the letters c, z, and final d’s. A common error that non-native Spanish-speakers make is that they perceive this version of Spanish as being a bunch of lisped s’s, but that’s a rookie mistake. In fact, the “s” is (almost) NEVER lisped.* It’s not “E-th-paña,” but rather “E-s-paña.”

*In areas of Andalusia, it is not uncommon to find people adding the ceceo to some s’s like in the frequently observed case of the word “Sevilla,” where speakers place the ceceo to the initial s: [θe’βiʎa].

The ceceo, or lisped sound, is written as /θ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet and there is, in fact, a distinction between using the /θ/ phoneme, or ceceo, common in peninsular Spain, and the /s/ phoneme, or seseo, common in Latin American and Canarian dialects.

A way to absolve the differences between seseo and ceceo is to look at the words casa (house) and caza (hunt). These two words are indistinguishable in all other Spanish-speaking communities outside of Spain and can be determined based on context. But in Spain, each word is easily recognizable. In Latin American Spanish, the two words are pronounced the same (seseo) without distinction: [kasa]. However, in Spain, the word caza is pronounced [kaθa], having a lisped ‘z,’ making use of the ceceo and being easily distinguishable from its seseo counterpart.

For the letter ‘c’, the ceceo is utilized, as exemplified by the word gracias: [gɾaθias]. In this instance, the ‘c’ is lisped, whereas the final ‘s’ is pronounced as you would normally, with no tongue-in-teeth. This rule does not apply to words like caro (expensive) where the first ‘c’ is pronounced like a ‘k.’

In places like Madrid, the final consonant of words ending in the letter ‘d’ become lisped, like the word for friendship, amistad [amistaθ]. Around the capital city, you will commonly see “Madrid” spelled as Madriz since the pronunciation of the final ‘d’ is equivalent to the Spanish ‘z’ (expressed as [Mað̞ɾiθ], please note the final /θ/).

A great example of comparing the ‘c’ and the ‘d’ is witnessed in the Spanish word for city, ciudad. The first ‘c’ and the final ‘d’ are pronounced exactly the same: [θiuð̞aθ] (note: the same symbol repeated for the first and last letters of the word).

In Catalan-speaking communities, above all in Barcelona, the lisped final ‘d’ does not apply. It is interesting to see people debauch the pronunciation of the word “Barcelona” with a raucous lisped ‘c’ when, in fact, these rules are void in Catalan, the primary language spoken in Catalonia. The correct pronunciation of “Barcelona” in Catalan is – lo and behold – Bar-se-lona. Compare the phonetic spelling of the word in Catalan versus Spanish: Catalan: [bəɾsəˈlonə], Spanish: [baɾθeˈlona] (In the Spanish version, you’ll notice the /θ/, symbolizing the ceceo).

Finally, Spanish words that end with the letter ‘d’, end with the letter ‘t’ in Catalan. A quick example is the word university. In Spanish, it’s ‘universidad,’ whereas in Catalan, it’s ‘universitat.’ Those from Madrid will say “Madrith” and those in Catalonia will say “Madrit”.

Regardless of your choice of pronunciation, whether a “lisp” or not, there’s no one right way to speak like a Spaniard.

For more information about Spain, check out the ISA Spain webpage.

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