The King Never Had A Lisp

There is a weird story that goes around in America that Spainards speak Spanish the way they do because there once was a king who had a lisp.

Ask anyone from Spain about this story and I’m betting the majority of people there have no idea what you’re talking about. So I’m here to clear the air so that you don’t have those embarrassing conversations.

And honestly, are you ever able to single out who that darn king was? That’s because there wasn’t a king with a lisp who changed the accent. It’s just how Spanish formed, well Castilian Spanish.

Breakdown of Spanish languages in Spain. Yellow-Green is Castilian Spanish, Orange is Catalan, Gray is Basque, Blue is Galician, Red is Aranese. Blue-Green and yellow are recognized but not co-official languages. By FogueraC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A quick digression: Castilian Spanish is the Spanish spoken in most of the world, and the Spanish in Latin America came to be when Spainards in their craze of the Reconquisition decided to let Christopher Colombus (after being turned down by Italy and Portugal) go out in search of a new passage to the east. And, instead of dying like Queen Isabel expected, he and his crew survived all the way to what is now Latin America. In addition to disease, massive disruption, war, slavery, and more, this new connection also brought with it, Castilian Spanish.

Spanish as we think of it in the states and elsewhere is Castilian Spanish. It’s a language that developed from vulgar latin (i.e. neoclassical, people’s latin [1]) much like other “romance” languages (which by the way means origins from Rome, and has much much less to do with love).

Part of that development included at some point deciding when to deviate the c and z sound from the s sound. In addition to a plethora of other changes from Latin that make Castilian Spanish, Spain had to decide what to do with whether as a country they should vocalize the c and z as it was voiced in many parts of Andalucía where Arabic influence thrived, compared to the north where Basque influence, (that then spread to central Spain did not voice the c and z) [2].

In the 11th century, there began a strengthening reconquisition of Spain by the Castilian reign. It concluded with the surrender of the last threshold, and Arabic stronghold, the city of Granada in 1492. The same year that Christopher Columbus requested voyage from the new, young, fresh, and very power-hungry royalty of Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand — who succeeded in their goal of bringing together the various parts of Spain (through violence and a strong, even deadly, imposition of Catholicism on anyone possibly considered non-Catholic).

Some of the larger language family groups in South America. By Brdaro — Davius, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22790868

Regionalized accents in different parts of Spanish-Speaking Latin America came from the Castilian Spanish that the new settlers brought (and again, with it, ended up wiping out many thousands of indigenous people and their languages). Native languages like Taíno (Puerto Rico), Nauhtal and Mayan languages (Mexico) also influenced the painful merging process of languages. Words like cacao (Nahutal, English: cocoa), llama (Nahutal), and tiburón (Arawak, English: shark) come from indigenous languages[3]. Map left shows indigenous family groups in South America, obviously many more existed (and continue to exist) from North and Central America as well.

Left [3], Middle description: breakdown of Seseo, Ceceo and distinction in Southern Spain[4]. Right description: breakdown of Seseo, Ceceo and distinction in all of Spain[5]

One thing that came from Spain that was not so common in Spain, but fluorished throughout Spanish-Speaking Latin America was the seseo.

The map above left shows where seseo happens around the world: the Canary Islands, all of Spanish-speaking Latin America, and a very small region in the northern part of Andalucía, the southernmost region in the Iberian peninsula. The main cities that would have seen immigration at the time that also sesean include (you guessed it) Seville, but also Cádiz and Córdoba. You may also find people who sesea in parts of Granada, Málaga, Almería, and Jaén to name a few other places. See the second map (which is a partial map of Spain) to understand the regions of southern Spain that sesean. This sound factors in depending on letter placement and where it falls in relation to the syllables.

There are also places in Spain that cecean. Meaning they pronounce their s sound as a Spanish c or z (the th sound for English speakers). Then there’s the majority of Spanish individuals who distinguish between the s sound and the sound for c and z. See the final map, right above for these distinctions in Spain.

So now you know, there was never a king with a lisp who changed the accent.

This post was a good map post — data visualization has a lot of origins in cartography. When you know you can capture a global concept in a single image, you’re on to something good.

To learn more about differences between Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain, check out this resource [7].

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Vulgar latin. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Vulgar-Latin
  2. Indigenous words in the Spanish language. SpanishDict. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2022, from http://www.spanishdict.com/answers/233215/indigenous-words-in-the-spanish-language
  3. UCSD. (n.d.). Sibilant handout Linguistics 150. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from http://grammar.ucsd.edu/courses/lign-gs/student-materials/147%20materials/sibilant-handout.pdf
  4. Left Map: By Fobos92, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  5. Middle Map By De Lanoyta — Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94173495
  6. Right Map By De Fobos92 — http://www.quazoo.com/q/Seseo Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37646589
  7. Babbel.com, & Lesson Nine. (n.d.). How is Spanish in Spain different from Spanish in Latin America? Babbel Magazine. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/how-is-spanish-in-spain-different-from-spanish-in-latin-america

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