Where Did Spaniards Get Their ‘Lisp’ From?

First of all, there was and is no lisp

A scene from the Castilla y León region of Spain.

Mirci / Creative Commons.

If you study Spanish long enough, sooner or later you'll hear a tale about Spanish King Ferdinand, who supposedly spoke with a lisp, causing Spaniards to imitate him in pronouncing the z and sometimes the c to be pronounced with the "th" sound of "thin."

Oft-repeated Story Merely an Urban Legend

In fact, some readers of this site have reported hearing the tale from their Spanish instructors.

It's a great story, but it's just that: a story. More precisely, it's an urban legend, one of those stories that is repeated so often that people come to believe it. Like many other legends, it has enough truth—some Spaniards indeed do speak with something that the uninformed might call a lisp—to be believed, provided one doesn't examine the story too closely. In this case, looking at the story more closely would make one wonder why Spaniards don't also pronounce the letter s with a so-called lisp.

Here's the Real Reason for the ‘Lisp’

One of the basic differences in pronunciation between most of Spain and most of Latin America is that the z is pronounced something like the English "s" in the West but like the unvoiced "th" of "thin" in Europe. The same is true of the c when it comes before an e or i. But the reason for difference has nothing to do with a long-ago king; the basic reason is the same as why U.S. residents pronounce many words differently than do their British counterparts.

The fact is that all living languages evolve. And when one group of speakers is separated from another group, over time the two groups will part ways and develop their own peculiarities in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Just as English speakers talk differently in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and South Africa, among others, so do Spanish speakers vary among Spain and the Latin American countries. Even within one country, including Spain, you'll hear regional variations in pronunciation. And that's all we're talking about with the "lisp." So what we have is not a lisp or an imitated lisp, just a difference in pronunciation. The pronunciation in Latin America is no more correct, nor less, than that in Spain.

There isn't always a specific explanation of why language changes in the way it does. But there is a plausible explanation given for this change, according to a graduate student who wrote to this site after the publication of an earlier version of this article. Here's what he said:

"As a graduate student of the Spanish language and a Spaniard, being confronted with people who 'know' the origin of the 'lisp' found in most of Spain is one of my pet peeves. I have heard the 'lisping king' story many times, even from cultured people who are native Spanish speakers, though you will not hear it come from a Spaniard.

"Firstly, the ceceo is not a lisp. A lisp is the mispronunciation of the sibilant s sound. In Castilian Spanish, the sibilant s sound exists and is represented by the letter s. The ceceo comes in to represent the sounds made by the letters z and c followed by i or e.

"In medieval Castilian there were two sounds that eventually evolved into the ceceo, the ç (the cedilla) as in plaça and the z as in dezir. The cedilla made a /ts/ sound and the z a /dz/ sound. This gives more insight into why those similar sounds may have evolved into the ceceo."

Pronunciation Terminology

In the above student comment, the term ceceo is used to refer to the pronunciation of the z (and of c before e or i). To be precise, however, the term ceceo refers to how the s is pronounced, namely the same as the z of most of Spain—so that, for example, sinc would be pronounced like roughly "think" instead of like "sink." In most regions, this pronunciation of the s is considered substandard. When used precisely, ceceo doesn't refer to the pronunciation of the z, ci or ce, although that error is often made.

Other Regional Variations in Pronunciation

Although differences in the pronunciation of the z (and sometimes c) are the most well-known of the geographical differences in Spanish pronunciation, they aren't the only ones.

Another well-known regional variation involves yeísmo, the tendency, common almost everywhere, for the ll and the y to share to share the same sound. Thus, in most areas, pollo (chicken) and poyo (a type of bench) are pronounced alike. But in parts of South America, the sound of the ll can be something like the "s" in "measure," also called a "zh" sound. And sometimes the sound can be something like the "j" or "sh" of English.

Other regional variations include the softening or disappearance of the s sound and a merging of the l and r sounds.

The cause of all these variations is much as the same as for the regional variations in the z—isolation of some speakers can lead to diverging pronunciations.

Key Takeaways

  • Languages such as English and Spanish that cover wide geographical areas tend to develop regional differences in pronunciation.
  • Such a natural change in regional pronunciation—and not a long-ago royal edict as is sometimes believed—is responsible for the z (and c before e or i) being pronounced differently in Latin America than in Spain.
  • Those used to the Latin American pronunciation should not think of the pronunciation of Spain ans being inferior, or vice versa—differences exist, but neither type of Spanish is inherently better.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Where Did Spaniards Get Their ‘Lisp’ From?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/where-did-spaniards-get-their-lisp-3078240. Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Where Did Spaniards Get Their ‘Lisp’ From? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/where-did-spaniards-get-their-lisp-3078240 Erichsen, Gerald. "Where Did Spaniards Get Their ‘Lisp’ From?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/where-did-spaniards-get-their-lisp-3078240 (accessed March 21, 2023).