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I was recently reviewing a page over at Span¡shD!ct and though I had read the following (or something similar) numerous times before, I have never stopped to really think about why the "z" must undergo the change described as follows:

To maintain the /k/, /g/, and /s/ sounds in the first person singular, the [c], [g], and [z] change to [qu], [gu], and [c] respectively. All other persons and all endings are regular.

--Source: Span¡shD!ict

For context, the page was about the preterite tense and specifically used "cruzar" as an example, explaining that the "z" in "cruzar" changes to "c" for 1st person singular -- crucé (not cruzé).

When I think of all the Spanish words I know that contain a "z," I can't think of any examples where "z" is not pronounced with an "s" or "soft c" sound. Did the "z" have a hard sound at one point in time? Or is it possible that there is another reason for this spelling change?

Thanks in advance for any insight you may have on this topic.

  • 1
    You're probably aware of this, but just to make sure -- when the Z appears right before certain consonants, the pronunciation changes to the type of Z we typically have in English. Example: juzgar. But note that the same thing happens to the S before those same consonants. Example: cisne. – aparente001 Apr 3 '18 at 6:16
  • @aparente001 I actually wasn't aware of that, but I have since discovered (and have had native speakers confirm for me) that some Spanish speakers do pronounce a "z" sound, although it doesn't ever sound quite like the way it is pronounced in English. Nevertheless, I find your comment very interesting,so thank you for adding it. Do you know which consonants have this effect on the "z" (or "s") in the Spanish language? – Lisa Beck Apr 8 '18 at 6:44
  • Some Spanish speakers do pronounce a "z" sound -- would be interested to know more about this, and hear an example. // which consonants have this effect on the "z" (or "s")? -- the voiced consonants, e.g. N, asno, rebuzna, juzgar. – aparente001 Apr 8 '18 at 17:44
  • @aparente001 Well, for starters, I think at least some native speakers of Spanish would be surprised if you told them that the "z" sound does not exist in their language. What I may have not made the distinction of in the past is that this applies almost exclusively to certain instances of "s" when it precedes certain consonants. – Lisa Beck Sep 6 '19 at 4:44
  • @aparente001 NTL, I do sometimes hear the "z" prounounced as a "z." The first time I heard this was in some DELE material and the phrase was "diez de." One of these days, I'll record it and upload it as an additional example. In the meantime, I don't believe I've heard this in the speech of those who use distinción. In fact, I think it may be something you're more likely to find in Mexico (if anywhere at all). I'll give you a link to an example in my next comment. – Lisa Beck Sep 6 '19 at 4:45
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It does, in the past. It would have been pronounced as [dz] with ç being the unvoiced equivalent [ts]. But following phonetic changes, spelling reforms have made it such that no (native) Spanish words have an z followed by e or i. Those that do are generally just pronounced as if they were a c, but you may hear some variation as with many imported words.

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    Good to know, @guifa. I truly appreciate the wealth of knowledge you bring to this forum. – Lisa Beck Jul 30 '16 at 19:32
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Just to add to guifa's comment, some contemporary 'native' words do have (RAE-accepted) spellings retaining a 'z':

And these odd doublets where there is a contemporary sound difference between the two:

In addition to the loans:

etc

And those taken from proper names:

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  • Are these words pronounced with a "z" sound similar to that found in English? Or does it just depend on the region (or perhaps age of a person, say, someone well past his/her school days and whose knowledge about language and pronunciation rules are from days gone by)? Also, has any decree been made by the Academy or anyone else that dictates words with "z" shall, forever more, be only pronounced with an "s" (or perhaps with the "th" sound as found in "thin")? – Lisa Beck Apr 8 '18 at 6:50
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    z and c (before i and e) always have the same sound in Spanish. Depending on your dialect, that sound can be like an 's' or like a 'th'. This is similar to 'f' and 'ph' both being spellings for the same sound in English. The English 'z' sound doesn't exist as a phoneme in Spanish, but 's' sounds can be pronounced like an English 'z' sound when they occur right before a consonant (e.g. desde, rasgo, mismo, jazmín etc), though there is a certain amount of free variation in this. – brazofuerte Apr 8 '18 at 7:45
  • Indeed, there is a certain amount of free variation. I've even heard a "z" sound when the "z" comes at the end of a word as in "diez." I don't really detect any such thing in the 16 versions of it I found at Forvo, but I swear I've heard it pronounced as such in some of my DELE prep materials. The first time I heard it, I remember thinking What?! I thought Spanish didn't have a "z" sound. And then, of course, I was reminded of this question I posted here and wondered if there was more of a need for this spelling change than I could fathom at the time. – Lisa Beck Apr 8 '18 at 8:37
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    In my defense I think out of that list I'd really only call zis zas and zipizapi native words :-) Most of them are pretty obviously highly technical Latin/Greek origin or come from proper names from groups and as we see with Mexico, those are very resistant to change. But it's a great list nonetheless to show that there are a handful of words that are simply not used with the modern ce-/ci- spelling. – user0721090601 May 1 '18 at 22:50
  • With respect to the comment I made April 8, 2018 at 8:37, I think I know why I hear a "z" sound sometimes when it comes at the end of the word. It is because, unlike a Forvo recording, a word ending in "z" may be immediately followed by one of those consonants that tend to alter its pronunciation — the same ones that affect the "s" (b, d, voiced g, m, n, l, r or v). – Lisa Beck Sep 6 '19 at 5:30

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