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Title: Seseo  
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Subject: Andalusia, Spanish language in the Americas, Puerto Rican Spanish, Paisa Region, Nicaraguan Spanish
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In Spanish dialectology, the terms distinción, seseo and ceceo are used to describe the opposition between dialects that distinguish the phonemes /θ/ and /s/, and those that exhibit merger of the two sounds (neutralización) into either /s/ (seseo) or ], a sibilant fricative similar to /θ/ (ceceo).

Dialects that distinguish the two sounds, and thus pronounce the words casa "house" and caza "hunt" differently, are described as having distinción, whereas the dialects that lack this distinction and pronounce the two words as homophones are described as having seseo if both words are pronounced with [s] or ceceo if both words are pronounced with ].

Seseo is typical of the Latin American and Canarian dialects and some dialects of central Andalusia, whereas distinción is typical of most dialects in Spain, except in much of Andalusia and the Canary Islands. Ceceo is found in some dialects of Spain, in the southernmost part of Andalusia.


Distinction (Spanish: distinción) refers to the differentiated pronunciation of the two Spanish phonemes written ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ or ⟨c⟩ (only before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩, the so-called "soft" ⟨c⟩):

  1. ⟨s⟩ represents a voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ (either laminal as in English, or apical);
  2. ⟨z⟩ and soft ⟨c⟩ represent a voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ (the ⟨th⟩ in think).

This pronunciation is the standard on which Spanish orthography was based, and it is universal in Central and Northern parts of Spain, except for some bilingual speakers of Catalan and Basque, according to Hualde (2005). Thus, in Spanish the choice between the spellings ⟨sa⟩, ⟨se⟩, ⟨si⟩, ⟨so⟩, ⟨su⟩ and ⟨za⟩, ⟨ce⟩, ⟨ci⟩, ⟨zo⟩, ⟨zu⟩ is determined by the pronunciation in most of Spain, unlike English, where it is often done according to etymology or orthographic conventions (although in English, soft c is always /s/ and never /z/ like s is, as with "rise" vs. "rice").


In many other Spanish-speaking regions and countries, however, the phonemic distinction between /s/ and /θ/ has been neutralized or merged. These varieties of Spanish are sometimes said to exhibit neutralización ('neutralization') as opposed to distinción. In this case, their pronunciation may or may not coincide with the English pronunciation.


Ceceo is a phenomenon found in a few dialects of southern Spain in which the historical phonemes /s/ and /θ/ are both realized as ], a sibilant sounding somewhat like [θ], but not identical.[1] Ceceo is found primarily in some varieties of Andalusian Spanish, although Hualde reports that there is some evidence of it in parts of Central America. It is a largely rural pronunciation and is often stigmatized.[2] Note that although these dialects make no distinction between the letters ⟨s⟩ and ⟨c⟩/⟨z⟩, they are never pronounced as in English in this case.


Seseo is the merger in the opposite direction: the original phonemes /s/ and /θ/ are both pronounced as [s]. Seseo is the most widespread pronunciation among Spanish speakers worldwide. Although a minority pronunciation in Spain, virtually all speakers in Hispanic America are seseantes, and seseo is considered standard in all varieties of Latin American Spanish. It coexists with distinción and ceceo in parts of Spain (e.g. in Canary Islands and in some areas of Andalusia). Traditional dialect atlases (e.g., Alvar (1991)) show one variant or another used in adjacent regions. In Spain, seseo is considered "more socially acceptable or perhaps 'less substandard' than ceceo."[3]

The following table gives an example of the three pronunciation patterns discussed so far:

la casa "the house" la caza "the hunt"
distinción /la ˈkasa/ /la ˈkaθa/
ceceo /la ˈkas̄a/ /la ˈkas̄a/
seseo /la ˈkasa/ /la ˈkasa/

Ceseo or seceo

Many speakers of ceceo and seseo dialects in Spain show [2], both of whom are from Seville.


Castilian 'lisp'

A persistent urban legend claims that the prevalence of the sound /θ/ in Spanish can be traced back to a Spanish king who spoke with a lisp, and whose pronunciation spread by prestige borrowing to the rest of the population. This myth has been discredited by scholars for lack of evidence.[6] Lundeberg (1947) traces the origins of the legend back to a chronicle of López de Ayala stating that Pedro of Castile "lisped a little" ("ceceaba un poco"). The timeline is totally incorrect, however: Pedro reigned in the 14th century, but the sound /θ/ only began to develop in the 16th century (see below). Moreover, it is clear that a true lisp would not give rise to the systematic distinction between /s/ and /θ/ that characterizes Standard Peninsular pronunciation. For example, a lisp would lead one to pronounce both siento "I feel" and ciento "hundred" the same (as [θjento]), whereas in Standard Peninsular Spanish they are pronounced [sjento] and [θjento], respectively.

Nevertheless, for speakers of seseo varieties of Spanish, where /θ/ is absent, and for people who are more familiar with seseo pronunciation (e.g., learners of Spanish in North America), the use of /θ/ by Peninsular speakers is striking, and does indeed give an impression of "lispiness". The misnomer "Castilian lisp" is used occasionally to refer to this aspect of Peninsular pronunciation (in both distinción and ceceo varieties).

Historical evolution

In the 15th century Spanish had developed eight sibilant phonemes,[7] more than any current variety of Spanish. Those eight phonemes merged differently as they evolved during the 16th and early 17th centuries into the pronunciation of the modern dialects.[8] There were four pairs of voiceless versus voiced sibilants: dental/alveolar affricates /t͡s/ vs. /d͡z/ (spelled ⟨c⟩/⟨ç⟩ vs. ⟨z⟩); dental/alveolar fricatives /s/ (spelled ⟨ss⟩ when intervocalic, ⟨s⟩ otherwise) vs. /z/ (intervocalic only, spelled ⟨s⟩); postalveolar affricates /t͡ʃ/ vs. /d͡ʒ/; and postalveolar fricatives /ʃ/ vs. /ʒ/ (⟨x⟩ vs. ⟨j⟩ and ⟨g⟩ before ⟨i⟩/⟨e⟩). Most likely, /dʒ/ deaffricated and merged with /ʒ/ before the year 1500.[9] The main difference between the prestige dialect of North Central Spain and dialects to the south (such as Andalusian Spanish) was that, in the north, dental/alveolar continuants were more retracted than the affricates (the former pair can be represented as /s̺/ and /z̺/ and the latter as /t͡s̪/ and /d͡z̪/) but homorganic in those to the south such as in Andalusia.[10]

The first step away from that system was the deaffrication of /d͡z̪/ a couple of decades after 1500. Because of a differing place of articulation, this still contrasted with /z̺/ in the prestige dialect of North Central Spain, though it was a complete merger for southern dialects.[11]

pronunciation orthography
voiced affricates → fricatives voiced /dʒ//ʒ/ ⟨j⟩ or soft ⟨g⟩
voiced /d͡z̪//z̪/ ⟨z⟩
voiceless affricates voiceless /t͡ʃ/ ⟨ch⟩
voiceless /t͡s̪/ ⟨c⟩ (before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩) or ⟨ç⟩ (before ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨u⟩)
apicoalveolar fricatives voiced /z̺/ intervocalic ⟨s⟩
voiceless /s̺/ ⟨s⟩ (syllable-initial or -final) or ⟨ss⟩ (intervocalic)
postalveolar fricatives voiced /ʒ/ ⟨j⟩ or ⟨g⟩ (before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩)
voiceless /ʃ/ ⟨x⟩

The second step was the devoicing of voiced sibilants.[11] In the north, /z̺/ and /ʒ/ were lost, though /z̪/ remained contrastive as there had been no voiceless /s̪/. This sound contrasted with two acoustically similar sounds: dentoalveolar /t͡s̪/ and apicoalveolar /s̺/. By 1600, /t͡s̪/ had deaffricated and merged with /s̪/.[11] Subsequent changes to the sound system of Spanish retained the contrasts while enhancing the segments by increasing articulatory distance amongst their rather subtle acoustic contrasts, an appropriate step due to the high productivity of these phonemes in differentiating frequently used minimal pairs. The dentoalveolar one was moved "forward" to interdental /θ̟/, losing its former sibilance in the process (which increased its acoustic distance to the remaining sibilant ⟨s⟩), and the prepalatal one was moved "backward" to velar /x/ also losing its former sibilance. All in all resulting in the three-way distinction found in modern Standard Peninsular pronunciation:

original 6-way contrast deaffrication 1 devoicing deaffrication 2 modern distinción orthography
/d͡z̪//t͡s̪/ /z̪//t͡s̪/ /s̪//t͡s̪/ /s̪/ [θ̟] ⟨z⟩ or ⟨c⟩ (before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩)
/z̺//s̺/ /s̺/ [s̺] ⟨s⟩
/ʒ//ʃ/ /ʃ/ [x] ⟨j⟩ or ⟨g⟩ (before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩)

In the south, the devoicing process and deaffrication of /t͡s/ gave rise to new fricatives that were indistinguishable from the existing ones. The process of increasing articulatory distance still applied, however, and /ʃ/ retracted to /x/ in the south just as it did in the north.[8] In a number of ceceo areas (particularly the southernmost provinces like Cádiz) /s/ developed into a non-sibilant apico-dental [θ̺], perceptually similar to the interdental /θ̟/ used by Standard Peninsular speakers for orthographic ⟨c⟩/⟨z⟩. In seseo areas (particularly in the westernmost provinces like Seville and Huelva), the resulting phoneme developed a predorsal alveolar realization [s̻] (like English ⟨s⟩), perceptually similar to the apicoalveolar [s̺] used by Standard Peninsular speakers for orthographic ⟨s⟩. This seseo variety was the pronunciation that most impacted Latin America, as many emigrants to the Americas were from Andalusian and Canarian ports. In addition, several generations of Spanish speakers had lived and grown in the Americas before /θ/ appeared in Castilian.[12]

original 6-way contrast deaffrication 1 devoicing deaffrication 2 modern ceceo modern seseo orthography
/d͡z//t͡s/ /z//ts/ /s//ts/ /s/ [θ̺] [s̻] ⟨z⟩, ⟨c⟩, ⟨s⟩
/ʒ//ʃ/ /ʃ/ [x] [x] ⟨j⟩ or ⟨g⟩ (before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩)

The development of the sibilants in Ladino (which split off from Castilian and other Peninsular varieties in the 15th century) was more conservative, resulting in a system closer to that of Portuguese.[13]

See also



  • (Spanish)

External links

  • Articles on Real Academia Española
  • An explanation of the development of Mediæval Spanish sibilants in Castile and Andalusia.
  • A recording of the sibilants, as they would have been pronounced in medieval Spanish.ja:セセオ


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