Pronouncing the 'C' and 'Z'

Sound of 'C' depends on which letter follows

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

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

3 Pronunciations of C

The sound of the c depends on the letter that follows:

  • When the c is followed by h, the two letters together form the ch sound, which is very similar to the the "ch" sound of 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 casa (house) is pronounced much like "CAH-sah," and clase (class) is pronounced much like "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 much like the English "s" when it comes before an e or i. Note that the same is true in English. So cielo (sky) is pronounced much like "SYEH-loh" for most Spanish speakers, and cena (dinner) is pronounced much like "SEH-nah." However, in most of Spain, especially outside the areas where Catalan is also spoken, the c before e or i is pronounced much like that "th" in "thin" — but not the "th" in "that." In most of Spain, then, cielo is pronounced like "THYEH-low" and cena like "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 a common urban legend, the third sound of c in Spain is not a lisp. It is simply the way the letter is pronounced.

    Pronouncing the Z

    The third c sound represents the z sound as well. The z sound doesn't vary with the letters that follow. You can hear the letter, including regional variations, pronounced here.

    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 someing like zoom-BAHR, its correct pronunciation is either soom-BAHR or thoom-BAHR, depending on whether you're in Spain or Latin America.

    In the word pizza, however, the double-z is generally pronounced in imitation of Italian, giving the word a pronunciation similar to what it has in English.

    Spelling With the C and Z

    With few exceptions, the z isn't followed by an e or i; a c is used before those letters instead. Thus the equivalent of "zero" is cero, "zinc" is cinc, and "zebra" is 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 faz (face) is faces, and the plural of pez (fish) is peces. More examples:

    • 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 becomes 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:

    • 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)