Pronouncing the 'C' and 'Z'

The sound of "c" depends on which letter follows

cebra
Una cebra. (A zebra.). Benh Lieu Song/Creative Commons.

The letter "c" in Spanish has three sounds that are very different from each other—and one of those sounds, which is also the "z" sound, varies by region. Fortunately, the distinction as to which sound is used follows a rule similar to the one for determining the pronunciation of "c" in English.

The Three Pronunciations of "C"

The sound of the "c" depends on the letter that follows, according to these guidelines.

When the "c" is followed by "h," the two letters together form the "ch" sound, which is similar to the "ch" sound in English in words such as "church" and "cheap." It is never pronounced like the "ch" in "architecture" (the Spanish equivalent is "arquitectura").

When the "c" is followed by any other consonant or by the vowel "o," or "u," it has sound of the English "k" but is slightly less explosive. Note that the English "c" has approximately the same sound when followed by the same letters. Thus the Spanish word "casa" (house) is pronounced as "CAH-sah," and "clase" (class) is pronounced as "CLAH-seh."

The third sound is the one that varies by region. For most Spanish speakers, including nearly all in Latin America, the "c" is pronounced as the English "s" when it comes before an "e" or "i." The same is true in English. So "cielo" (sky) is pronounced as "SYEH-loh" for most Spanish speakers, and "cena" (dinner) is pronounced as "SEH-nah."

However, in most of Spain, especially outside the areas where Catalan is also spoken, the "c" before "e" or "i" is pronounced as the "th" in "thin"—but not the "th" in "that." In most of Spain, then, "cielo" is pronounced as "THYEH-low" and "cena" as "THEH-nah." To avoid confusion between the two "th" sounds, linguists sometimes represent the unvoiced "th" with θ, the Greek letter theta. So the pronunciations of the two words might be represented as "θYEH-loh" and "θEH-nah."

Contrary to common belief, the third sound of "c" in Spain is not a lisp. It is simply the way the letter is pronounced.

Pronouncing "Z"

The third "c" sound represents the "z" sound as well. The "z" sound doesn't vary with the letters that follow. Note that the "z" sound doesn't have the buzz that it does in English. So while you may be tempted to prononce "zumbar" (to hum) as "zoom-BAHR," its correct pronunciation is either "soom-BAHR" or "thoom-BAHR," depending on whether you're in Spain or Latin America.

In the Spanish word "pizza" (which also means "pizza" as it does in English), the double "z" is generally pronounced in imitation of Italian, giving the word a pronunciation similar to what it has in English.

Spelling With "C" and "Z"

With few exceptions, the "z" isn't followed by an "e" or "i" in Spanish. Instead, the letter "c" is used before those letters instead. Thus the Spanish equivalent of "zero" is "cero," for "zinc" it's "cinc," and for "zebra" it's "cebra." Among the few exceptions are words of foreign origin such as "zigzaguear" (to zigzag) and "zepelín" (zeppelin).

When a noun or adjective ends in "z" and is made plural, the "z" changes to "c." Thus the plural of the Spanish word "faz" (face) is "faces," and the plural of "pez" (fish) is "peces." More examples include:

  • Una actriz feliz, dos actrices felices > one happy actress, two happy actresses
  • Una nariz, tres narices > one nose, three noses
  • La luz, las luces > the light, the lights
  • El juez voraz, los juezes voraces > the greedy judge, the greedy judges

The "c" and "z" can also change in conjugated verb forms. The "z" changes to "c" if it is followed by an "e," so one of the forms of "empezar" (to begin) is "empecé." Also, the "c" changes to "qu" when followed by an "e" or "i," so the forms of "tocar" (to touch or play) include "toqué" and "toquemos."

Some other examples of verb conjugations affected by these spelling rules include:

  • Comenzar, comencé, que comiences, que comiencen > to begin, I began, that you begin, that they begin
  • Trozar, trocé, que troces, que troccen > to break, I break, that you break, that they break
  • Cocer, que yo cueza. que cozamos > to cook, that I cook, that we cook