Origin of Castilian lisp

Joel recently bought me some “Euro Method Instant Immersion Spanish” CDs, which are a lot of fun, but the instructors lisp on their Cs and Zs. “Azul celeste” sounds like “athul theleste.”

When I mentioned it to Joel, he told me his high school Spanish teacher said that’s because Spain once had a king who had a lisp, so his subjects lisped, too, to avoid embarrassing him, and it stuck. That just sounds like an urban legend, so I decided to do a little internet research. While I can find webpages that repeat this story, I can’t find any that say who this king was, when he ruled, or anything else that would prove this story true.

So, is it true?

No facts, but a couple of UL-warning-signs (or maybe not so “U”, a lot of Castille was historically quite the sticks) in the story:

First of all, if there were indeed a king with a speech defect that made him lisp, why would it not affect the “s”, and only the Z and soft C?

Secondly, how would an entire population including those in provinces where HM and his courtiers would never be seen or heard, universally come to affect that pronunciation? Specifically, even if the tale were true, why would they speak that way at home and teach it to their children?

Thirdly, saludos a Opal, ¡olé, guapa!

Fourthly, there is the alternative that it’s the other way around, and the lisp was there from the start, but was lost at some point as Castillian expanded to the rest of Spain and the Americas and became “Spanish”.

Fifthly, if any of the kings of Spain would have speech problems, it would have to be one of the Hapsburgs (aka “House of Austria”; reigned from the mid-1500s to 1700), with their characteristic inherited lip/mandible deformity, reinforced thru a lot of dynastic inbreeding.

I would have to agree with JRDelirious. That just doesn’t make sense. Also, I had a Jr. High English teacher who made the same claim for the “courtly lisp” found in Shakespeare and other literature of the time. She pointed out, which I hadn’t noticed, that the “-eth” ending is only used where a word would normally end in s. That is, that someone might say “he giveth,” but never “I giveth” or “he gaveth at the office.”

In any case, if you find two nearly identical stories that explain different things, the UL warning should go off.

As I understand, most of the conquistadores came from the south of Spain, where the lisp was never prevelant.

These people say that it seems pretty unlikely that the Castillian pronunciation comes from imitating a king:


I had a Spanish teacher in college who explicitly i.d.'d the lisping king story as an urban legend. She didn’t offer cites, but was a competent linguist in other matters, so I trust her on this. As supporting evidence, she pointed out the discrepancy with ‘c’ and ‘s’ that JRDelirious mentioned.

Agree with JRDelirious. And yes, many conquistadores and later colonists came from south of Spain, Andalucía, where the different pronunciations for ‘c’, ‘s’, and ‘z’ are not prevalent.

Surely no courtier would have dared lisp in the king’s presence in case he was thought to be ridiculing him. Can you imagine any employee today imitiating the speech impediment of their boss ‘to avoid embarassing him’ (or her)? No, the reaction of a trained courtier would be to pretend that they hadn’t noticed.

The “lisp” (which is the same as the th in “thing”) comes from a palatalization and subsequent fronting of what was formerly the k sound before i and e.

It evolved like this: k > ts > T (“th”). In italian it went from k > ts > tS (“ch”).

Z apparently used to represent “dz”, and became palatalized as well.

The pronunciation as “s” isn’t solely restricted to the southern provinces. It’s apparently very common throughout the country, but the Royal Academy considers this “unstandard”.

It’s actually pretty handy to have it, because certain minimal pairs become homonyms when z, c, and s are pronounced as “s”:

Cazar - to hunt = Cast: /kaTar/, And: /kasar/
Casar - to marry = Cast: /kasar/, And: /kasar/

T = “th”

Although some would say the whole courting and marrying process is a hunt :).

The idea that it comes from a king is a folk etymology.

Mmm…I thought it may be “unstandard” for national Spaniards, but not for other Spanish-speaking people in other countries (most of Latin America).

I remember from my Spanish classes that they discussed the difference between Castillian Spanish and Puertorrican Spanish. It is standard (and correct) for Puertorricans (and other Caribbeans/Latinamericans) to not differentiate between “c”, “s”, and “z”.

I said the ACADEMY considers it non-standard. The Academy is a Spanish institution. Therefore they only control the standardization of the language WITHIN Spain, NOT Other Spanish Speaking countries. They recognize that Latin American dialects generally do not pronounce c and z before i and e as “th”. Regardless, they still consider it non-standard within Spain. I never said it was non-standard across the board.

Besides, the Academy has very little real power anyway. Spaniards generally ignore it and use many other colloquialisms such as English borrowings, and dialectal pronunciations.

Actually, the respective national academies (including two separate ones for US-mainland and Puerto Rico) gather together with the specifically-Spanish Academy to agree on some international standards (to keep us mutually intelligible). That is mostly centered on the written language: the RAE Dictionary and the general rules of grammar and orthography. Things like the 90’s demotion of “ch” and “ll” from separate-letter status.

So, when did this pronunciation change occur, Doobieous?

So, when did this pronunciation change occur, Doobieous? Are you also saying there was an orthographic change?

Chula, I don’t think he’s saying there was an orthographic change. Language evolve, and the speakers of Castilian Spanish distinguished the words and z-consonant. Later speakers of Spanish adapated the language and didn’t see the need to make a distinction.

In the middle ages, different Spanish languages existed, each visigod-descendent kingdom had one. Castilla gradually became the important kingdom, thru alliances, war, and marriage. As part of a way to unify the country against the Moors, their language became the oficial language of the empire and thus their pronunciation became the standard. Andalucía was the last part of Spain taken from the Arab kingdoms, it is probably that the pronunciation influence was not as strong there as in the other regions.

I didn’t think the Castilian language became the language of the country until Franco came along. Certainly Catalunya, Pais Vasco, and Valenica continued speaking their own languages. How much of the current country was part of the medieval empire?

Well, in the middle ages, it was broken into the Christian countries of Castile, Leon, Catalonia, and Navarre, and first the Muslim Alhomorad Empire, then a bunch of smaller Muslim sucessor states. The country wasn’t unified until King Ferdinand took Grenada in 1492.

Yes, Captain, the country was not completely unified until the take of Grenada in 1492, but long before that the kingdom of Castilla unified the rest of Spain.

Chula, yes, those regions have their own language, but many other regions of Spain took the Castillian dialect instead of the one they previously had. I know that in the middle ages, the regions of Aragón and León each had their own language, later replaced by Castillian.

And certainly, once Queen Isabela of Castilla and King Fernando of Aragón became rulers of Spain, Castillian became the official language of the kingdom. The other languages from Catalunya, Galicia and Basque country survived, but they didn’t have the official status (at least around the country, it is possible that they had official status in their regions, but not during the Franco dictadure).

My High School Spanish teacher, Sra. Hunt, had a lisp. I’m not sure when to lisp or not in Castilian Spanish, Gracias Dios nobody speaks that way in Miami or the majority of Latin America where I travel.

The only times I remember the Castillian pronunciation being used in school was during dictation time, to differentiate the words and make it easier for us to check the spelling.