I grew up in the United States and learned Spanish here. All of the Spanish that I learned had the words pronounced how they were spelled. However, when I visited Spain, I noticed that a lot of people pronounced different words with a lisp. The same Spanish words I learned in the United States were being pronounced differently in Spain. After a lot of research and practice, I learned the differences and decided to write a helpful post to share my findings.
Why do some people speak Spanish with a lisp? Ancient Spanish had four sounds that were closely related to one another. People were often confused by the different sounds, so these sounds were simplified to make things easier. These simplified sounds are what many people refer to as the Spanish lisp.
The Spanish lisp varies depending on the region and the words being used. In some cases, there is no lisp at all. Below we discuss which Spanish dialects have a lisp and how the lisp is used.
Which Spanish Dialects Speak With a Lisp and How Is It Used?
Origins of the Spanish Lisp
Originally, there was a legend of how the Spanish lisp came to be. Legend has it that in the 13th century King Ferdinand of Spain had a lisp. To show respect for the king, his followers and the general population of Spain began to mimic the lisp used by King Ferdinand. However, this legend was eventually debunked and shown to be a myth.
The true origins of the Spanish lisp are generally rooted in medieval Spanish. Medieval Spanish had several different sounds and these sounds were confusing for people to speak and understand. Over time, these sounds were simplified to what we know today as the Spanish lisp, which is called ceceo.
Ceceo is one characteristic of the different Spanish dialects across many regions. The Spanish dialects vary across regions of Spain and Latin America. The characteristics that make up these different Spanish dialects are called ceceo (as noted above), seseo, and distinción.
What Exactly are Ceceo, Seseo, and Distinción?
The Spanish lisp can affect the pronunciation of three different letters: s, z, and c (when after e or i).
Depending on what region you’re located in and who you’re talking to, the letters s, z, and c can take on either of two different sounds. The sounds are either the English s or the English soft th, which you can hear at the end of “teeth”. Also, I like to think that the soft th sound is similar to the sound a snake makes when it hisses.
Now, here is where ceceo, seseo, and distinción come into play. Based on the Spanish dialect, these three terms will determine how you pronounce s, z, and c.
Ceceo is where you pronounce thes, zandclike thethin “teeth.”
Seseo is where you pronounce thes, zandclike an English s.
Distinción is where thesis pronounced like an Englishs, and thecandzare pronounced like thethin “teeth.”
Of the three characteristics of the Spanish dialects, only ceceo and distinción use the Spanish lisp sound of th. Seseodoes not require any use of the lisp.
Ceceo and seseo can actually have some words be a bit confusing based on how the words are pronounced.
For example, the words “casa” (house) and “caza” (hunt) are pronounced the same if the seseo is used, which means that both words are pronounced with the s sound. If we use the ceceo, then both words are also pronounced the same but with the th sound. If we are using distinción, then casa is pronounced with the English s and caza is pronounced with theth.
Why Latin America Does Not Have a Lisp
Dating back to Medieval Spain, the country has had several dialects. Northern Spain follows distinción so they follow the rules where thesis pronounced like an Englishs, and thecandzare pronounced like theth. However, things get trickier when we look at Southern Spain (Andalucía) because the ceceo and seseo are used throughout the region. Here is a map showing where ceceo and seseo are used in Southern Spain.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain to discover the globe. On his adventure, he discovered the Americas. Following Columbus’ discovery, Spaniards began migrating to the Americas. Over 80% of the people leaving Spain departed from Seville in the South of Spain.
Seville is a region in Spain that follows seseo, so there was no Spanish lisp among the many Spaniards migrating to the Americas. Due to this migration of seseo Spanish speakers, the Spanish lisp did not follow to the Americas. This is why most people in the Americas do not use the ceceo or Spanish lisp, and why I did not learn the ceceo when I learned Spanish in the United States.
How Do You Make That Spanish Lisp Sound?
So, I want to make sure that we understand the Spanish lisp and how that sound is made. To make the Spanish lisp or ceceo we will make the English soft th, like in “teeth”. Here is a very helpful video from Spanish Dude discussing how to make the sound and also goes over some of what we discussed above.
What other Letters have a Different Pronunciation in Spanish?
There are a couple of other letters and peculiarities in some Spanish dialects. I wanted to quickly highlight some of these for you so that you have a basic understanding of them and won’t be caught off-guard.
Lisp of the Letter D in Certain Regions
Some places in Spain and Latin America also provide some other distinctions. If you are ever in and around Madrid, the letter d at the end of a word can become lisped. Words such as Madrid and ciudad can have the lisp on the final d. So in Madrid, these words would be pronounced as Madri-th and ciuda-th.
J is Pronounced as H in Spanish
In English, we have the hard j sound that you hear in the words “jacket” and “jockey”. However, the hard j sound does not exist in Spanish. In Spanish, the j is instead pronounced as an h. So in Spanish, the words “James” and “mojito” will sound like “hames” and “mohito”. Here is a video from Howcast discussing how to pronounce the Spanish j.
V is Pronounced as B in Spanish
When I learned Spanish in the US, I pronounced words containing the letter v with the hard v sound. So I would pronounce words like “vamos” and “vosotros” with the hard v sound. However, most Spaniards do not make the hard v sound. Instead, Spaniards pronounce the letter v with the b sound. So the words “vamos” and “vosotros” would be pronounced as “bamos” and “bosotros”. Here is a video discussing the letters b and v.
How to pronounce the LL in Spanish
The double ll in Spanish is not a common sound in English. It provides a little extra flavor to the Spanish language but is not terribly hard to pronounce. If you are a native English speaker, the double ll is pronounced like the letter y in English. Words like “llama” and “pollo” (chicken) would be pronounced as “yama” and “poyo”. Here is another helpful video from Howcast on how to pronounce the double ll.
What letters are silent in Spanish? In Spanish, the letters H and U can be silent. For example, the words “hasta” (until) and “ahora” (now) would be pronounced as “asta” and “a-ora” so that the H is silent. The letter U is silent in words like “porque” (why) and “seguir” (to follow), and pronounced as “por-keh” and “se-geer”.
Why do certain Spanish dialects drop the letters S and D in certain words? Dropping the letters S and D is very common in the Caribbean, parts of Latin America, and Southern Spain. This was brought over from the Spaniards when they migrated to the Americas. So a word like “sentado” would be pronounced as “sentao”.