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I’ve heard varying things regarding the varying pronunciations of the “s” sound in Spain. However, no one was willing (or at least, able) to explain these variations to me.

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

  • 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? – juan 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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None of these answers answer the question.

The pronounciation of the S in Spain will vary a little by region. But, generally, the ese castellana (not unique to Spain but very common hence the name) is used whereby the s is pronounced apically, that is, the tip of the tongue is slightly raised obstructing the air (in IPA: [s̺] instead of [s]). This causes the sound to be heard (to English-speakers, at least) as something far closer to the English sh [ʃ].

When you go the South of Spain, the s, like in many parts of Latin America, will be aspirated, causing words like está to be pronounced /eh'ta/.

In Madrid and central Spain, /s/ before /k/ results in j [χ], but not in other situations. Hence Es que Óscar habla con unos sastres en Eroski: eχ ke 'oχkar aβ̞la kon unos̺ s̺as̺tres̺ en eroχki

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    This is the best answer, talks only about the /s/ and ignores the confusion that western hemisphere second-language learners have around the c/z in Spain. – asveikau Jun 23 '14 at 4:47
  • This answer helped me to understand the difference between the English [s] and the somewhat "hissy" s I heard (apparently they are different!) -- now I know it as [s̺]. Very interesting. – PatrickB May 22 '15 at 21:14
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    I do not agree with you on the last paragraph. In Madrid and central Spain sounds very general. From my experience, the most people I know do not pronounce "es que" as "eχ ke". – Jdamian Feb 5 '16 at 9:27
  • @Jdamian in Madrid, you may hear it less because so many people are imports from other parts of Spain. But you can hear it even in upper class neighborhood like Pozuelo and Aravaca, although virtually everyone in Carabanchel (working class neighborhood) use it. It's a lot like the so-called g-dropping in English, though, and most speakers can use standard pronunciation in careful speech. See the TV show Aída to hear it with very high frequency. – user0721090601 Feb 5 '16 at 12:47
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    @aparente001 Please take the time to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. Until you do so, it is not possible to discuss pronunciations with you using standard notation. What you were calling “that funny X” is not an X at all. It’s a the Greek letter chi, which is the symbol used for phonetic [χ], the uvular fricative allophone of phonemic /x/, which is normally a velar fricative. Natives of the city of Gijón /xiˈxon/ have one of each when they say [xiˈχõˠ]. – tchrist Dec 16 '17 at 21:06
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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
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    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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From How To Pronounce the S:

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 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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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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They're not talking about the difference between "z vs s", they're talking about the pronunciation of the letter "S" in Spain vs Mexico, well it's not too hard to explain, in Mexico the S is pronounced like the English one, at the end, at the beginning the pronunciation never changes, the Spaniards pronounce the letter S as a sound between sh and S of the English, it's more intermediate; and South Americans pronounce it aspirated like an H letter.

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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
  • Ceceo: “El ceceo es un fenómeno lingüístico que en lengua española implica que los fonemas del español peninsular /s/ y /θ/ (el segundo es el sonido de <z> en español peninsular septentrional) se pronuncian del mismo modo, es decir, como sibilante dental [s̪̟] (similar a la consonante fricativa dental sorda [θ] aunque no idéntica fonéticamente).” – tchrist May 26 '17 at 13:25
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Maybe if i can help, because i asked this question to one of the tour guides when i went recently to granada, spain. The tour guide told me that in the past, one of the kings had a heavy tongue, and could not pronounce the letter "S" as we pronounce it in english. So as for respect to the king, people started pronouncing the letter "S" and "z" which require the same ability as "th". It was then kept like that as people were used to it until this day. Which king and when? I am not sure, i didnt even look it up. It might not even be true.

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    This does not answer the question and is an urban legend in any case. Old Spanish had three pairs of voiced/unvoiced sibilants. [t͡s~d͡z] merged into the devoiced [t͡s] and then into [s̪]. [s ~ z] merged into [s̺]. Lastly [∫~ʒ] merged into devoiced [∫], then went to [ç], then [χ] and now is [χ~x~h]. But because [s̪] and [s̺] are very similar, they quickly merged into [s̺] in the south (now [s̺~s~h~Ø]). Elsewhere, though, the [s̪] changed to [θ] before the merger could occur, keeping the first two pairs fully distinguished. – user0721090601 Oct 21 '15 at 1:25

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