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 . Thus, in Spanish the choice between the spellings se, si and ce, ci, or za, zo, zu and sa, so, su is determined by the pronunciation in most of Spain, unlike English, where it is often done according to etymology or pure orthographic conventions.
In many other Spanish-speaking regions and countries, however, the phonemic distinction between s and z 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 z are both realized as /θ/. In other words, only the latter sound is used for c (+e or i), z, and s. 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. 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 z 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 does coexist with distinción and ceceo in parts of Spain (e.g. in some areas of Andalusia). Traditional dialect atlases (e.g., ) show one variant or another used in adjacent regions . In Spain, seseo is considered "more socially acceptable or perhaps 'less substandard' than ceceo.
The following table gives an example of the three pronunciation patterns discussed so far:
|la casa "the house"||la caza "the hunt"|
Many speakers of ceceo and seseo dialects in Spain show sociolinguistic variation in usage. In some cases, this variation may arise when a ceceo or seseo speaker more or less consciously attempts to use distinción in response to sociolinguistic pressure (hypercorrection). However, as, for instance, in the case of the variation between the standard velar nasal and alveolar pronunciation of the nasal in -ing in English (walking versus walkin), the switching may be entirely unconscious. It is perhaps evidence of the saliency of three-way ceceo-seseo-distinción variation that inconsistent use has elicited evaluative comments by some traditional Spanish dialectologists. For instance, discussed it as "sporadic or chaotic switching [between /s/ and /θ/] and the use of intermediate sounds impossible to determine with precision". proposes the synonymous terms ceseo and seceo to refer to these "mixed" patterns, and notes surprise at a speaker who produced all four possible pronunciations of Zaragoza within the space of a few minutes. In fact, sociolinguistic variation is typically highly structured in terms of how often each variant will appear given various social and linguistic independent variables.
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 is discredited by scholars for lack of evidence. 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.
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).
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.
|voiced affricates → fricatives||voiced||/dʒ/ → /ʒ/||j or g (before e, i)|
|voiced||/d͡z̪/ → /z̪/||z|
|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)|
The second step was the devoicing of voiced sibilants. 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/. 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|
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 /ʒ/ retracted to /x/ in the south just as it did in the north. 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.
|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|
|/z/ – /s/|
|/ʒ/ – /ʃ/||/ʃ/||[x]||[x]||j or g|
The development of the sibilants in Ladino (which split off from Castilian and other Peninsular varieties in the 16th century) was more conservative, resulting in a system closer to that of Portuguese.