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I've heard varying things regarding the pronunciation of the 's' sound in Spain. However, no one was willing/able to explain this to me.

How is the 's' sound pronounced in Spain compared to its usage in, say, Mexico?

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What kind of answer are you looking for? Do you mean the letter 's' alone or how it's used in words in comparison with English? –  jmfsg Nov 15 '11 at 20:51
    
@JuanManuel Great question! I've updated the question, but mostly I'm curious how it compares with what I've been taught. –  Richard Nov 15 '11 at 20:53
    
The question is better since your edits but it's still a bit confusing or misleading since there are three letters which result in one or two sounds, depending on region. But the it's not really right to call them both "s sounds". –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 14:41
    
@hippietrail True, but without knowing the answer, it can be hard to ask a question, sometimes. –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 15:01
    
Just keep in mind that Stack Exchange wants good quality questions and answers that people will continue to find via web searches for the years to come, and during the beta phase they really want to attract exemplary ones that will set a high standard of quality and clarity. –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 15:09
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5 Answers

From here:

Most of the time, the s of Spanish sounds the same as the "s" sound in English words such as "see" and "bus," although perhaps a bit shorter. However, the sound of the Spanish s is also affected by the sound of the letter that follows it. When an s is followed by a voiced consonant — in other words, a b, d, voiced g, m, n, l, r or v — it is pronounced like a soft "z" sound.

Note that the "z"-like sound occurs in Spanish only before those consonants. It does not occur at the end of words (such as in plurals) or when followed by a vowel. The s sound changes slightly merely because it is blending into the sound the follows.

In some areas, native speakers frequently omit the s sound when it comes at the end of a syllable, so that "¿Cómo está usted?" ends up sounding something like "¿Cómo etá uted?" You should be aware of this if you're traveling in such areas but shouldn't imitate it elsewhere.

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When I did a homestay in Cáceres as a Spanish student, I picked up "hissy" S that native Latin American Spanish speakers always comment on as sounding like I'm from Spain. (I definitely use seseo exclusively, so it's not ceceo that's making them think that.) Do you know, phonetically speaking, what's distinctive about the S of Spain, or perhaps just that region of Spain? –  Arthaey Angosii Nov 16 '11 at 1:24
    
When travelling from Mexico to Panama, certain "s" sounds, especially at ends of words started to disappear by the time I got to El Salvador and Honduras but I can't remember if they started to reappear in Costa Rica or Panama. –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 14:44
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In Spain is pronounced as a long version of the English voiceless dental fricative "th". It is common in Spanish also a guttural priming of this sound, rendered in the written language as "es" (e.g., escrito).

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Really? If this is how "s" is pronounced how are "c" and "z" pronounded? –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 13:44
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Dialects

There are three different terms used to describe this dialectal difference: ceceo, seseo, and distinción.

Dialects that are said to have the ceceo use "th" instead of an "s" sound. Dialects with the seseo use the "s" sound. The distinción actually uses both, distinguishing between one and the other.

Example

For example, the words "casa" (house) and "caza" (hunt) may or may not be pronounced the same. When the seseo is used, both are pronounced with an "s" sound. With the ceceo dialect, however, both are pronounced with the "th" sound.

The distinción is a little different in that this dialect distinguishes between the "s" and the "z" or soft "c". Dialects that use the distinción, always pronounce the s as an "s" sound. However, they pronounce the "z" or soft "c" as a "th" sound (such as caza or ciento).

Castillian Spanish

Per the question, Spain has a few dialects. Castillian Spanish uses the distinción, such that "siento ciento" (I feel 100) would be "s"iento "th"iento. However, throughout Spain, the dialects differ and some use the ceceo (using "th" all the time) and other regions use the seseo (using the "s" all the time).

Wikipedia on ceceo

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Your answer seems to be talking about the "s sound" whereas the OP specifically asks about the "letter s". The letters "c" and "z" are affected by ceceo and seseo but the letter "z" is not. But maybe the OP didn't ask what he meant to ask or maybe I'm wrong? –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 13:44
    
True, the OP did ask about the letter "s" rather than the "s" sound. However, I have a strong suspicion that the sound of the letter "s" is really what he was asking about, given that he used the word "pronounced". Great point, though! –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 13:47
    
Since Stack Exchange is hoping to build high quality sites aimed at the expert level and has asked us to aim for experts especially during the beta I'm going to ask the OP to clarify what he wants... But Richard, the questions says that you are the OP \-: –  hippietrail Nov 16 '11 at 14:21
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@hippietrail There we go. ;) Fixed the question. You are right that the question itself wasn't quite specific enough. When I asked the question, I didn't know the answer enough to ask it correctly. Then I started researching and learned a bunch! –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 14:32
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Well the letter "s" has one sound (mostly) but the letters "c" and "z" also have an "s" sound in most regions except most of Spain where "s" sounds like English "s" but "c" and "z" sound like English "th".

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As for accents concern I think the best thing you can do is to hear them.

Here you can watch some different people reading the same text. In 1:54 you can hear a woman talking with Spanish accent although in 2:37, the Mexican man who lives in Spain also has Spanish accent (he says: «naθí en México» and the θ sound in the 'c'/'z' is from Spain).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ABe04lt5D0

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