In my Spanish classes in the U.S., we never dealt much with European Spanish.
I have distinct memories of students asking what vosotros meant, and teachers responding: “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that!”
So when I moved to Spain, I had a lot of questions.
Why do Spanish people laugh when I call a computer a computadora?
Or look at me funny when I refer to them as ustedes?
But the biggest question I had when I moved to Spain was: What’s up with the lisping s sound in words like hacer (to do) and gracias (thank you)?
The Spanish “lisp”—called the ceceo in certain contexts (see below), is one of the most distinctive features of Spain’s dialect of Spanish.
If you’re a U.S.-based Spanish speaker like I am, you might have a lot of questions about why Spaniards pronounce the s sound differently from Latin American Spanish speakers.
Read on for some answers!
The Ceceo, aka Spanish “Lisp”: All Your Questions, Answered
Why Should I Bother Learning the So-called Spanish Lisp?
I didn’t bother lisping in my first few months in Spain. Then, one day, I was having a conversation with a friend and she told me about her family from the small village of Siruela.
“Siruela?” I asked. “You mean, like the fruit?”
She looked at me in confusion for a few seconds, then burst out laughing. “No, that’s ciruela,” she said, pronouncing the word for “plum” with a discernible “lisp” on the letter c.
That’s when I realized: Learning this distinct form of pronunciation from Spain could help me avoid lots of confusion when talking to Spanish-speakers.
There are many word pairs that become more easily distinguishable when you use the Spanish “lisp.” For example, the words casar (to marry) and cazar (to hunt) have practically the same pronunciation unless you’re using the lisp.
Learning this form of pronunciation has other benefits, too.
It’ll help broaden your comprehension when listening to Spanish speakers talk, or when consuming Spanish media.
Plus, learning regional variations of Spanish is fun! If you’re living in Spain, speaking the way those around you speak is part of the immersion process.
What Are Ceceo and Seseo, Anyway?
As you may already know, the Spanish language has many different dialects with various differences in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
The Spanish lisping pronunciation can potentially affect the pronunciation of three different letters: s, z and c (when it’s followed by an e or an i).
Depending on where you are and who you’re talking to, these letters can take one of two sounds: They either sound like an English s or an English soft th, like you can hear at the end of the word “tooth.”
When talking about Spanish pronunciation in Spain, it’s important to understand the words ceceo, seseo and distinción. These three linguistics terms describe how you should pronounce s, z and c.
If you pronounce s, z and c like the th in “tooth,” that’s called ceceo. The verb form is cecear.
If you pronounce all three of these letters like an English s, that’s called seseo, and the verb is sesear.
If you pronounce an s like an English s, but a c or z like a th, that’s called distinción.
So, the only two forms that constitute the use of the lisp are ceceo and distinción, whereas seseo requires no lisping at all.
What Is the Origin of the Spanish Lisping Pronunciation?
There’s an often-repeated myth that King Ferdinand of Spain had a lisp, and that his countrymen imitated him as a form of respect, which led to the development of “the Spanish lisp.”
Historians and linguistics have refuted this claim, arguing that there’s no evidence King Ferdinand had a lisp. Besides, if that were the case, the predominance of distinción (instead of ceceo) in Spain would still not make sense.
It’s more likely that ceceo and distinción had their roots in medieval Spanish speech patterns, which developed naturally over time to lead to some areas of ceceo, seseo and distinción throughout Spain.
So, why don’t Latin Americans have this lisping form of pronunciation?
Well, history tells us that Seville was one of the most important cities in Early Modern Spain, and it was the peninsula’s most important trading hub with the colonies in the Americas.
In fact, a large percentage of early settlers in the New World colonies came from Andalucía and the Canary Islands—both seseo areas. Thus, this linguistic form eventually took predominance in the New World.
Where Do Spanish-Speakers Lisp Their S Sounds?
You won’t find Spanish speakers lisping in any of the countries of Latin America or the Caribbean. This is also why most Spanish learners in North America don’t encounter the lisp in a Spanish classroom.
On the other hand, most parts of Spain embrace the Spanish lisping pronunciation in one form or another.
Most of Spain, except for the far southern province of Andalucía, embrace distinción, which means you’ll hear the lisp on the letter z and on the letter c if it’s before the letters e or i, but not on the letter s.
In Andalucía, things get a little trickier. In many areas, particularly around Cádiz, you’ll hear people using the ceceo.
Then, there are other areas—especially surrounding the cities of Seville and Córdoba—where the seseo predominates. As explained above, this means that c before e and i, z and s all take on an s sound.
In this respect, these areas are similar to Latin American Spanish in their lack of lisp. TranSpanish has a handy map of Andalucía showing where each variation can be heard.
In the Canary Islands and the Philippines, you’ll hear a combination of seseo, ceceo and distinción.
How Do I Master That Spanish Lisping Sound?
I could just tell you to pronounce your c and z (and s, if you want to cecear) like an English th. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. English has two th sounds, and it’s important to use the right one.
Slate has an article that helps explain the difference between the two th sounds. To feel this difference, put your hand on your throat and say the words “then” and “thing.” You’ll notice that your throat vibrates when you say “then,” but not when you say “thing.”
The correct way to lisp is the second way—the one where your throat doesn’t vibrate. Some other English words that contain that th sound are “thought,” “tooth” and “three.”
The Spanish Dude has a helpful video with Spanish lisp pronunciation tips.
Watch authentic videos is a fantastic way to understand how the lisp is used by real Spanish-speakers.
And the best part is, you don’t have to travel to Spain to get an immersive experience and hear the Spanish lisp in action. Just use FluentU!
FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
Plus, if you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and recommends examples and videos for you based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re studying with the same video.
How Can I Practice Proper Spanish Pronunciation?
As with most aspects of language-learning, the best way to learn to lisp is to practice, practice, practice. However, here are a few tips for speeding up the process and feeling like a natural-born Spaniard:
First, if you aren’t already singing in Spanish to improve your pronunciation, now is the time to start. Find a Spanish singer (from Spain, that is) and sing along to one of their songs, paying particular attention to their pronunciation of c and z.
One good place to start is the song “Deshazte de mi” (“Get Rid of Me”) by the Madrid-born singer Malú. In the first verse alone, you can practice the words necesitas (you need), vacía (empty), principio (beginning), hice (I made), cerraba (closed) and hacía (I made), all of which include a lisp.
Some other good Spanish songs with ample lisping include “Cero” (“Zero”) by Dani Martin and “Quisiera” (“I Wanted”) by Frank Diago. Both of these are quite slow, making them good beginner choices. For something slightly faster, check out Enrique Iglesias’s “Duele el corazon” (“The Heart Hurts”).
For expert mode, listen to some Spanish music by Latin American singers and try to lisp on the correct words even when the singers don’t!
Another good way to practice the lisp is to make a list of words that showcase c, z and s sounds, and turn them into flashcards.
For example, you could use word pairs like ciento (one hundred) and siento (I sit) or cazar (to hunt) and casar (to marry), or single words that have both sounds such as cesar (to cease) or superficie (surface).
Once you have a long enough list of such words, put them all on flashcards.
Flip the cards and say the words as fast as you can, trying to differentiate between your s sounds and th sounds. If you accidentally use the wrong sound for one of the words, start the deck over until you can get through it all.
Watch and Listen to Authentic Material
One of the best ways to practice is to watch Spanish television, immerse yourself in authentic clips and listen to authentic Spanish audio. If you hear enough native speakers lisping, it’ll eventually sound natural and will become easier to incorporate into your own speech.
Hopefully, after reading this article you won’t be quite so baffled by the Spanish lisp-like way of pronunciation as I was when I first moved to Spain. With a little practice, you’ll be replacing your c and z sound with a th sound like a natural!
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