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I know hardly any Spanish, however I was wondering if there was any difference between the pronunciations of the spellings ⟨sci⟩ and ⟨si⟩, as in si versus piscina. I know that they could just be artifacts from Latin, but I feel as if there should be some subtle pronunciation difference.

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In theory, it's different: the "s" in piscina is part of the previous syllable (pis-ci-na). In practice, the difference in pronunciation is almost nonexistent in regions with seseo (most Latin America), where "s" is pronounced the same as "c". In these regions piscina sounds very similar to pisina, especially in informal conversation. Other examples: ascenso, descendiente. In Spain, it would be different.

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I'm from México and the only thing I can say is that here and all the spanish speaking cuntries in América s and c sound the same so "piscina" sounds as an s. Maybe, the only different thing is that maybe in slow speech could sound as a long s.

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There is a lot of difference. On 'piscina' you have three well differentiated syllables, that of 'pis', 'ci' and 'na', thus having differentiated terminal -s and starting z- sounds.

It is of very poor quality speakers to forget the terminal -s in front of the immediate starting z- and pronounce 'picina' or 'pisina'. It sounds horrible.

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    I don't really think it is "of very poor quality speakers" to pronounce it like "pisina" where "c" is pronounced like "s". I would say it is the standard in those places. Don't forget that Spanish is spoken in many countries, with a huge variability of pronounciations. – MikMik Nov 25 '13 at 8:57
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    On "seseante" or "cecenate" zones it may be true, but for them does not sound horrible because it sounds tha same as their other usual words. I was (of course) talking of standard Spanish, that one which has not "seseo" nor "ceceo". – Envite Nov 26 '13 at 9:46
  • Right, but that doesn't make non-standard Spanish speakers "poor quality speakers". – MikMik Nov 26 '13 at 10:03
  • You missed me. Stadandard zone speakers who does not properly pronounce 'sci' are poor quality speakers. I meant nothing about non-standard zone speakers. I myself are from a non-standard zone (a "seseante" one) so I pronounce something like 'pissina', and when somebody with my own accent pronounces so it sounds normal to me, but when somebody from a standard zone pronounces 'pisina' or 'pizina' it sounds very awful to me as well. – Envite Nov 26 '13 at 10:40
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    Besides, calling standard Spanish the variation that only 10-15% of speakers hold... – Carlos Eugenio Thompson Pinzón Nov 26 '13 at 10:51
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TLDR: I indicate four possible pronunciations of piscina below, each in its own sequentially numbered paragraph:

  1. /pisˈθina/
  2. /piˈsina/
  3. /piˈθina/
  4. [pis̺ˈθina]

To refer to a spelling of ⟨sci⟩ in Spanish is somewhat misleading because those are never all in the same syllable. This would be like talking about a ⟨kpa⟩ spelling in English: the ⟨k⟩ is at the end of one syllable and the ⟨pa⟩ at the start of another, as in backpacker or track-pants.

  1. In Spanish-speaking areas that make a distinction between the ⟨z⟩ and ⟨s⟩, a word like piscina when carefully pronounced comes out as /pisˈθi.na/, with the first syllable as /pis/, the second is /θi/, and the third is /na/.

  2. In “seseante” areas of Andalucía in Spain and throughout America, ones that do not distinguish those two phonemes by saying only /s/ for both, the two duplicate and adjacent /s/ sounds fuse into just a single one, so they say /piˈsi.na/, with a first syllable that now ends in a vowel /pi/.

Notice how I early said “carefully”. This is because in casual, everyday speech, it doesn’t come out that way even for the speakers who make a distinction between those two phonemes. This is because Spanish very strongly prefers “open” syllables, ones that end in a vowel instead of a consonant. So whenever this happens, the first of the two adjacent consonant sounds tends to get dropped in rapid or casual speech. So this also happens in words like actor and aceptar, where the letter I’ve written in bold tends to be dropped in casual speech.

  1. That means that even for speakers who are neither seseo speakers nor ceceo speakers, piscina is quite commonly pronounced not as /pisˈθi.na/ but rather as just /piˈθi.na/, as though they were ceceo speakers.

When the Spanish s ≠ the English s

Another phenomenon commonly heard in Northern Spanish is that the /s/ phoneme is not pronounced the way one pronounces it in English with the tongue spread out broadly. Rather, it is an apical [s̺], meaning more with the point of the tongue than with the flat of it. That’s because they’re trying to put some distance between their two sibilants, /s/ and /θ/.

This is not conscious, and it’s been going on for centuries; it’s just normal phonologic effect to increase the distance between similar sounds. To a native speaker of English, this sound seems closer to the one at the start of the English word shin than it does to the one at the start of the English word sin.

  1. Speakers with an apical [s̺] are less likely to drop it at the end of the syllable there, since it’s far enough “away” from the next sound. For those speakers, piscina can therefore come out sounding [pis̺ˈθina], where I’m using [s̺] to stand for this special kind of /s/ sound from the versions of Spanish spoken in northern and central regions of Spain.

And even though this might very well sound to an English speaker like they’re saying something one might in English write as "pishtheena", but they really aren’t. :)


Expert details

In the Wikipedia article on Transcripción fonética del español con el AFI, they explain all this as follows:

El fonema /s/ puede ser apical [s̺] (norte y centro de España, español andino) o laminar [s̻] (la mayor parte de América, sur de España, Canarias y oeste de Galicia); poste [ˈpo̞s̺te̞]~[ˈpo̞s̻te̞]. Según una transcripción más o menos específica se utiliza [s], [s̺] o [s̻].

  • /s/ se sonoriza [z] ante consonante sonora, pudiendo ser apical [z̺] (mayor parte de España así como en los Andes centrales) o laminar [z̻] (mayor parte de Hispanoamérica); musgo [ˈmuz̺ɣ̞o̞]~[ˈmuz̻ɣ̞o̞]. Según una transcripción más o menos específica se utiliza [z], [z̺] o [z̻].

    • En algunos dialectos esta sonorización va más allá, sobre todo en el español de los Andes centrales, así como el español hablado por los hablantes bilingües de la Comunidad Valenciana, Cataluña e Islas Baleares. La sonorización de [z] ocurre incluso al final de palabra cuando le sucede una vocal; los amigos [loz a̠ˈmiɣ̞o̞s].

    • En otros dialectos no ocurre esta sonorización permaneciendo sorda [s] incluso ante consonante sonora; musgo [ˈmus̺ɣ̞o̞]~[ˈmus̻ɣ̞o̞]. Esto es común en algunos hablantes del dialecto castellano, castellano de Madrid, el norte peninsular como algunos hablantes del español de América. De la misma forma y con obviedad no ocurre sonorización donde /s/ se aspira, se velariza, se gemina la consonante que le sucede o simplemente se elide.

  • En muchos dialectos /s/ en sílaba trabada se pronuncia con una ligera aspiración [ʰ] (realización más común), una velarización [x], una geminación (o alargamiento [:]) de la consonante que le sucede o bien una completa elisión, poste [ˈpɔʰte̞]~[ˈpɔxte̞]~[ˈpɔtte̞]~[ˈpɔte̞]. Esto ocurre en los dialectos meridionales de España; andaluz, murciano, canario, extremeño, y también en el castellano de Madrid y Castilla-La Mancha. Así como el español caribeño, centroamericano, rioplatense y chileno.

    • En subdialectos de Andalucía, Canarias, como en el español caribeño este proceso llega a otros contextos, donde la aspiración de /s/ se da también entre vocales; nosotros [no̞ˈho̞tɾɔʰ].

    • En el dialecto andaluz, madrileño y manchego /s/ puede pronunciarse [ɹ] en las secuencias /sθ/ y /sr/; ascensor [a̠ɹθẽ̞nˈso̞(ɾ)], israelí [iɹra̠e̞ˈli].

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