I had some trouble understanding a question that asks for a recommendation of which of three pronunciation systems to learn: seseo, ceceo, or distinción. I'm confused because I thought that in Spain, there is a sound similar to the TH in the English word "with," and I thought it was written with Z, CE and CI. (I thought that CA, CO, CU and final C, called "hard C," as in "caro," would be the same the world over.) But with each new thing I read I've only felt less enlightened. I think our site needs a clear explanation of the three systems.

There is already an answer with some nice maps, but audio examples would be appreciated. Also, is there a universal pronunciation of the word "ceceo"?


The three systems you mention not only relate to how z/c is pronounced, but also to how s is pronounced.

Consider the words casa (house) and caza (hunt). There is a group of Spanish speakers that pronounce them exactly the same. There is another group that pronounce them differently. This last group is the one that makes a distinction between s and z, and that's why it is labeled distinción. This group uses the sound /s/ for casa and the sound /θ/ for caza (this last sound is the one you mention to be similar to the TH in the English word "with").

The group that doesn't distinguish between casa and caza can be further divided in two, according to the sound they use to pronounce both words. The ones that use the sound /s/ for both are labeled seseo. The ones that use the sound /θ/ for both are labeled ceceo.

Finally, in all three systems ce and ci will use the same sound as za, zo, zu.

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Here's a table that I think should boil things down to the most simple:

┃    type    ┃   S   │CE/CI/Z┃
┣━━━━━━━━━━━━╋━━━━━━━┿━━━━━━━┫  │ Where
┃ distinción ┃  /s/  │  /θ/  ┃  │ /s/ is like English S
┠────────────╂───────┼───────┨  │     as in [s]ing
┃   seseo    ┃  /s/  │  /s/  ┃  │ /θ/ is like English TH 
┠────────────╂───────┼───────┨  │     as in [th]istle
┃   ceceo    ┃  /θ/  │  /θ/  ┃

The majority of Spanish speakers in Spain and Equatorial Guinea speak with distinción, that is, they distinguish the Z and soft C from the S. This doesn't mean, as it might sound to English ears that they speak better, just that they literally distinguish the two sounds. For someone from Madrid, caza sounds like what in English would be catha but casa instead is like cassa.

The overwhelming majority of Spanish speakers, though, including virtually all speakers from Latin America, are seseantes. That means they say pronounce words like caza and casa, or cocer and coser identically and when they pronounce them, the Z, soft C, and S sound like the English S. In other words, they pronounce caza and casa like someone from Spain would pronounce casa. (hence seseo, or using S)

A minority of Spanish speakers situated in South Spain, are ceceantes (there are also a few small pocket areas in Latin America that are too). They, like seseantes pronounce caza and casa the same. But the sound they use for the second consonant much more closely matches the one that someone from the North would use to pronounce caza. Technically, the sound is [s̪̟], but it's close enough that the term ceceo developed.

All of this came about because in the 13-16th century or so, there were a lot more sounds that were very similar and started getting confused and merged. As a result, even back then before all of the sibilant readjustment had completed they had multiple terms for pronunciations that didn't distinguish: seseo (as [s̺]), çeçeo (as [t͡s]) and zezeo (as [d͡z]].

I'm not entirely sure how someone pronounces the actual word ceceo outside of Spain, but my guess is that they pronounce it with the /θ/ sound, or the closest approximation they can so it's clear they're not saying seseo (and since the word is literally to talk about the sound used in speech, it's justifiable to use an otherwise foreign sound).

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  • You're probably using "virtually" right -- but this is word that often gets interpreted differently than I think you meant it. What would you say to replacing it with "practically" or "very nearly" or something like that? It felt abrupt when I reached the part about the small pockets. – aparente001 May 2 '18 at 4:02
  • Question about the bottom row of the table -- which is amazing, could you post on our Meta the steps you go through to make that? Maybe you use a utility? Are you saying that putting the theta symbol in both of those cells is a bit of an oversimplification? I read at one of the related questions that some people do something interesting with the S. I think I have come across this in some Spanish films. It kind of reminded me of one of the sounds of Polish. // Is there a universal pronunciation of ceceo (the word)? Or should I post that as a separate question? – aparente001 May 2 '18 at 4:04
  • @aparente001 Virtually for me means "nearly/almost all". I'm not aware of another interpretation for it? I'm using /θ/ (phonetic) to try to keep it as simple and obvious as possible.If the only difference was [θ] vs [s̻~s̺] vs [s̪̟] (phonemic), I think that would just confuse people more ;-) s̪̟ sounds most like θ (and is so perceived by seseo and distinción speakers) which is why it traditionally gets that phoneme to represent it. Here we get into the trouble of describing the language phonetically vs phonemically which I tried to avoid because my answer would be 3x as long otherwise. – user0721090601 May 2 '18 at 4:12
  • Re virtually -- I'm not the only one who can get thrown off by that. For example, Merriam Webster has a second meaning listed: "For all practical purposes, e.g. virtually unknown." // So, am I understanding correctly, that the theta appearing in both cells in that row is a slight oversimplification? – aparente001 May 2 '18 at 4:18
  • @aparente001 simplification in the sense that it's not exactly the same sound as the /θ/ you hear in Madrid. Its technical IPA symbol uses S as the base letter, but the difference between s̪̟ and θ is as slight as is the difference between s̻ and s̻ (the two S sounds used in the Spanish speaking world, that although distinct, no one perceives as representing different letters/sounds). As a result, Spanish speakers perceive it as /θ/, although its evolution is distinct. – user0721090601 May 2 '18 at 4:24

There are dialects of Spanish that have two fricative sibilant phonemes, and there other dialects that have only one.

The dialects that have two fricative sibilants are said to have distinción. They have a dental fricative /θ/ and an alveolar fricative /s/. The alveolar /s/ might be realized in varying ways, mostly laminal (the blade of the tongue touches the alveoli) or apical (the apex or tip of the tongue touches the alveoli). Distinción with an apical /s/ is the norm in Madrid.

Among the dialects that have only one fricative sibilant, there are some which realize it as a dental /θ/, and others which realize it as an alveolar fricative /s/. The former dialects are called ceceantes and are found mostly in southern Spain. The latter are seseantes and are found in parts of southern Spain and all over Latin America. For the most part the /s/ among Latin American seseantes is a laminal sibilant, though there are dialects (mostly in the Bolivian Andes and northwestern Argentina) where it is apical instead.

Simplified pronunciation table with examples

Now, the orthography. For dialects with distinción, the alveolar sibilant /s/ is always written «s», and the dental sibilant /θ/ is written «z» before «a, o, u» and «c» before «e, i» (there are no «ze, zi» spellings in Spanish except on borrowings like zeppelin or zip, some learned words like enzima, and a few others). Conversely, if you hear /θ/ in a Spanish dialect with distinción, you can always confidently write it down with a «z» or «c» as just explained.

For dialects with seseo or ceceo, there is no way to know a priori if a word you hear with a fricative sibilant is written with a «z/c» or «s». This is of course the cause of many orthographic mistakes, some of which might also produce homonyms. (Many bad jokes have been made based on the homonymy of casar[se] "to marry" and cazar "to hunt". Also, in Latin American Spanish we tend to say cocinar instead of cocer "to cook" because cocer sounds the same as coser "to sew".)

I'm not sure if you meant to ask this, but the letter «c» is always "hard" (/k/) before «a, o, u» and before other consonants (except «h»), no exceptions. There's no way to transform it or mark it in any way to make it sound as a sibilant. In several related Romance languages there is what we call c cedilla («ç»): thus Catalan Barça (the FC Barcelona) pronounced /'barsa/, Portuguese «praça» /'prasa/ "square, plaza", French façade /fa'sad/, but Spanish hasn't had a «ç» for centuries. That's precisely why dialects with distinción have to employ «z» before «a, o, u».

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  • "there are no «ze, zi» spellings in Spanish except on borrowings like zeppelin or zip" Note: there are some exceptions to this. – brazofuerte May 1 '18 at 22:26
  • What's crazy is (AFAIK) the ç isn't pronounced any differently than the unvocalized S in those languages with the exception parts of northern Portugal where ç/ce/ci/z group is pronounced laminally and the s/ss is pronounced apically. Spanish just modified the orthography before it got too ingrained :-) – user0721090601 May 1 '18 at 22:56
  • @ukemi Well spotted, should have said "borrowings, alternative spellings of learned words and a few onomatopoeic words". – pablodf76 May 2 '18 at 1:10
  • @guifa Really? That's news to me. I thought Portuguese had lost the distinction completely. – pablodf76 May 2 '18 at 1:12
  • Sigh. I'm no closer to understanding ceceo and distinción than I was before. You guys are having this sophisticated discussion and I'm looking for a very basic explanation that doesn't use a lot of technical language. But Pablo, your post looks like it would also be an addition to the site -- could you draft a question to fit the post you wrote? For my question, I need someone to start at the beginning and explain distinción to someone who doesn't understand the term. – aparente001 May 2 '18 at 1:17

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