What’s the Spanish Lisp? All About the Ceceo
One of the most characteristic sounds you hear when Spaniards speak their own language is known as the Spanish lisp.
In the English world, this distinctive sound is identified as a lisp, or a kind of speech disorder. So, is it possible that a whole nation suffers from a speech disorder? If so, how did it come to this?
Keep reading to know everything you need to know about the Spanish lisp and the ceceo—why it’s not actually a lisp, and what are the fantastic stories told about why the Spanish people speak like they do.
Finally, we’ll discuss the differences between the Spanish from Spain and the one spoken in Latin America.
Get ready for a fascinating linguistic trip to the heart of the Spanish language!
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What’s the Spanish Lisp?
If you’ve ever been to Madrid, you surely noticed that people speak “different” than in Mexico City or Bogota for instance.
Actually, you don’t need to be an avid traveler to notice this difference in Spanish pronunciation, just compare an Almodovar’s films with one of Iñarritu’s early films in Spanish.
People of Madrid, and most parts of Spain, pronounce the letters z and c (when before an e or i) different from people in Latin America. This difference in pronunciation is what’s called the “Spanish lisp.”
However, you might not be surprised to learn that this term is offensive to Spanish people, as it basically means that they all speak with some sort of speech disorder as we’ll see in a moment.
What’s a Lisp?
A lisp is a speech disorder that “creates the inability to pronounce consonants,” with the letter “s” being one of the most common. Lisps usually take place during early childhood, and are more common that one might think.
Types of Lisps
Three different types of lisps have been identified by speech therapists:
The frontal lisp is the most common one. It happens when the tongue protrudes between the front teeth and obstructs the airflow needed for the correct pronunciation of the “s” and “z” sounds. You may recognize this type of lisp in English when words such as “pass” or “sleep” are pronounced as “path” and “theep.”
This lisp occurs when a person “rolls their tongue too far back and touches it against the roof of the mouth.”
Similar to the frontal lisp but with the crucial difference that
in the dental lisp the person pushes their tongue against the front teeth (instead of between them).
Is the Spanish “Ceceo” Really a Lisp?
Now that we know that lisps are actually speech disorders, we can confidently say that what is colloquially known as the “Spanish lisp” is not actually a lisp.
That distinctive sound you hear in the streets of Madrid and in Almodovar’s movies is more of a regional dialect produced by a different way of pronouncing specific letters.
It even has a name: ceceo.
Why Do Spanish People Speak Like That?
So, if the Spanish lisp is not a lisp, why do Spanish people speak like that? Well, there are different answers to this question.
Let’s go through each one of them:
The King’s Myth
Everytime you research or talk about the Spanish lisp, you’ll find this story to come up quickly. Apparently, one of Spain’s medieval kings, usually identified as King Ferdinand, had a lisp. As a form of respect, and to please their king, Spanish people started speaking with this now characteristic sound called by some as the Spanish lisp.
I’m only including the story because of its relevance to the subject of this post. However, it has proven to be false and nothing more than a myth. Without even mentioning how disrespectful Spanish people find that foreigners called their way of speaking “a lisp.”
To be clear, King Ferdinand’s story never happened, and if there ever was a king with a lisp, that’s not the reason Spanish people speak the way they do.
The Story About Conquerors
The second story that pops up everywhere is the one that explains that most Spanish conquerors and subsequent settlers of the countries that form today’s Latin America came from the southern regions of Spain. Specifically Andalucia, where Spain’s main ports were located at the time and the Canary Islands.
People from Andalucia speak differently than the rest of the country. Famously, they don’t do that distinctive “ceceo,” which some people identify as “the Spanish lisp.” For that reason, Spanish speakers from Latin America countries speak more like Andaluces (South of Spain), than like Castilians (Center-North of Spain).
Although this version has more historical support, it’s still too simplistic in its approach. As along the 300 years of Spanish control of the Americas, there were for sure many Spaniards from Central and Northern Spain that emigrated to the colonies.
So, what’s the real reason behind the Spanish lisp?
The Natural Evolution of Languages
Have you ever wondered why the English people have their distinctive accent? Or why is it so hard for an American to understand Scottish or Australian people sometimes?
The answer to those questions lies at the center of our Spanish lisp discussion. English, Scottish, Australian, and American people speak differently because languages are living creatures that keep evolving all the time. When a group of speakers of one language are separated from the rest for a long period of time, it develops unique features and characteristics.
Under this light, we can understand how after five centuries of existence of the Spanish language in the Americas it has developed its distinctive features.
You can take this argument even further to explain why the people from Mexico speak differently than the people from Colombia, Chile, or Argentina. Even within the borders of one country, you find differences in the way people speak a language.
I know that the King’s story was more colorful, and the conquerors’ one made a lot of sense. But sometimes the most boring explanation is also the most accurate one.
Understanding the Spanish Lisp
Now that we know that the Spanish lisp is not a lisp, and that it doesn’t come from fantastic historical stories, we can try to understand how it works. This is important as the Spanish lisp is the main difference in pronunciation between the Spanish from Latin America and that spoken in Spain.
Three linguistic terms help us to explain the Spanish lisp:
- Distinción (distinction)
Let’s explore them.
Ceceo is that sound English speakers identify as the Spanish lisp. Ceceo takes place when the letters s, c (before e and i) and z are pronounced using the inter-dental fricative which can be identified as the “th” English sound (as in “thing”).
It finds its purpose in words such as casa (house) and caza (hunt). In Latin America these two words are pronounced exactly the same way, but in (northern) Spain the ceceo allows for a differentiation of the two words just by the way people pronounce them.
The opposite of ceceo and widely used in Latin America, seseo happens when people pronounce the letters s, c (before e and i), and z with the sound of an English “s.”
In this case, there’s no distinguishable difference in the pronunciation of casa and caza, among many other words. Latin American people will tell you that this is not a problem as in most cases the context helps to make clear what you are talking about.
If we were looking for the “correct” way of speaking, maybe this one would be the choice. However, there’s no right way of speaking, as every country and region have their own uses and traditional ways of expressing themselves.
Distinción refers to a way of speaking that differentiates between the sounds of the letter s, and that of the letters c (before e and i) and z. In this case, the Spanish s sounds just like the English “s,” but the Spanish c and z are pronounced like the English “th” sound.
Spanish from Spain and Spanish from Latin America
Discussing about the Spanish lisp invariably puts in the spotlight the differences between the Spanish language from Spain and the one spoken in Latin America. You may even be inclined to ask which one is better or which one you should learn. The reality is that it makes no difference.
If you have ever traveled to London or Dublin and communicate in English without any problem, you know that the differences in pronunciation are just cultural details that remind us of the amazing diversity of the human race; but nothing more that may become a communication obstacle. If you learn Spanish, you can be sure that it will serve you well from Mexico to Argentina in Latin America, and all over Spain.
Want to Practice Speaking?
That said, there are some dialects that are easier to understand for beginners, such as the Guatemalan one spoken by our certified teachers. Sign up for a free trial class and start speaking today with any of them using your favorite choice between ceceo, seseo, or distinción.
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