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Even as a native speaker I don't know the reason for this: why is the "x" in México, Texas or Xavier pronounced as the letter "j"?

  • 4
    Don't forget about Oaxaca... – Richard Nov 16 '11 at 21:42
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    I don't always spell "México" and "Texas", but when I do, I prefer dos equis. – Flimzy Nov 16 '11 at 22:27
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    Xavier is pronounced Shavier, not Javier. – Serabe Nov 17 '11 at 0:35
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    @Richard If a person from Spain is called Xavier, chances are 99% that his name is not spanish but catalan and therefore the correct pronunciation is indeed "SHavier". – Mackie Messer Dec 8 '11 at 2:20
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    @MackieMesser, they could also be Asturian or Galician (same pronunciation of the X as in Catalan). – user0721090601 Jun 24 '14 at 14:36
37

In Old Spanish, words like "caja", "bajo", and "jarabe" were originally spelled with an "x", and pronounced as "sh" (voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant).

In 1815 the spellings were officially changed from an "x" to a "j" by the RAE, including words like "Méjico" and "Tejas". By this time, the "j" was pronounced the same as "x" (previously it was pronounced like a French "j" (voiced palato-alveolar sibilant)).

Over time, some words (like "Méjico", "Tejas", "Oajaca", and "Javier") reverted back to the "x" spelling, but retained their "j" pronunciation. And the letter "j" took on the "h" pronunciation that we know today.

Here is an excellent article on the subject.

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  • 14
    The archaic use of x for the current sound of j explains why Don Quijote is spelled Don Quixote in English. – Jaime Soto Nov 17 '11 at 3:14
  • Looking at Flimzy's answer, I guess this answers the historical aspect of the question without address the practical aspect. The "foreign" words must have decided to revert back to (or keep) the "x" spelling. – Richard Nov 21 '11 at 14:59
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    But usually nobody writes Javier with X in Spanish, while the correct way to write Mexico is with X. See on DPD: lema.rae.es/dpd/?key=mexico Usually when somebody is Xavier or Xavi, is because his name is Catalan and then read with the Catalan pronunciation for X, as Serabe said. – David Dec 19 '12 at 9:49
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    In Russian, today, 'x' is pronounced as in 'Tejas'. (Common origins, still in use). – Giuseppe Nov 6 '15 at 22:03
  • @David: Or from Guipuzcoa, like Xabier Arzalluz – user13560 Oct 2 '16 at 9:25
10

X pronunciation in Spanish:

The Spanish x is usually pronounced as the English ks between vowels, or as the English s before consonants and at the beginning of words. In words of foreign/indigenous origin, it is pronounced as the English h or sh.

In the two examples you provided, the origin of the words is a foreign or indigenous language:

  • The name Texas comes from the Caddo language, which was spoken by a group indigenous to the Oklahoma-Texas-Arkansas-Louisiana region.

  • The name México is Aztec in origin, so also foreign/indigenous.

  • The native Spanish version of the name Xavier is Javier, and therefore pronounced with a J sound. Compare, for instance, the Wikipedia pages on Francis Xavier in English and Francis Javier in Spanish. If the name is ever spelled as Xavier in Spanish, it seems it is likely to be pronounced as with an English s sound.

  • Oaxaca is originally a Nahuatl word.

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  • 1
    That's a great quote... Where is it from? – Richard Nov 21 '11 at 14:59
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    @Richard: It's a paraphrase of the text used in my Spanish class here in Guadalajara. A paraphrase, because I no longer have the original text book, but I have my notes. :) – Flimzy Nov 22 '11 at 1:21
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    If you want to, you could link to Letra x in the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas. – Gonzalo Medina Nov 22 '11 at 21:58
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    "X" in place names of Native American origin can also sound like "s" as in "Xochimilco", the floating gardens in Mexico City. – hippietrail Dec 5 '11 at 20:17
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    @hippietrail yet in the original Nahuatl "x" is pronounced like "sh": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xochimilco – Andy Dec 19 '17 at 19:07

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