Spanish Phonology

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The four main phonological divisions are based respectively on (1) the phoneme /θ/ (“theta”), (2) the debuccalization of syllable-final /s/, (3) the sound of the spelled ⟨s⟩, (4) and the phoneme /ʎ/ (“turned y”),[232]

The phoneme /θ/ (spelled c before e or i and spelled ⟨z⟩ elsewhere), a voiceless dental fricative as in English thing, is maintained by a majority of Spain’s population, especially in the northern and central parts of the country. In other areas (some parts of southern Spain, the Canary Islands, and the Americas), /θ/ is merged with /s/. The maintenance of phonemic contrast is called distinción in Spanish, while the merger is generally called seseo (in reference to the usual realization of the merged phoneme as [s]) or, occasionally, ceceo (referring to its interdental realization, [θ], in some parts of southern Spain). In most of Hispanic America, the spelled ⟨c⟩ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩, and spelled ⟨z⟩ is always pronounced as a voiceless alveolar “hissing” sibilant.

The debuccalization (pronunciation as [h], or loss) of syllable-final /s/ is associated with the southern half of Spain and lowland Americas: Central America (except central Costa Rica and Guatemala), the Caribbean, coastal areas of southern Mexico, and South America except Andean highlands. Debuccalization is frequently called “aspiration” in English, and aspiración in Spanish. When there is no debuccalization, the syllable-final /s/ is pronounced as voiceless “apico-alveolar” “grave” sibilant or as a voiceless alveolar “hissing” sibilant in the same fashion as in the next paragraph.

The sound that corresponds to the letter ⟨s⟩ is pronounced in most of Spain as a voiceless “apico-alveolar” sibilant [s̺] (also described acoustically as “grave” and articulatorily as “retracted”), with a weak “hushing” sound reminiscent of retroflex fricatives. In most of Hispanic America (except in the Paisa region of Colombia) it is pronounced as a voiceless alveolar hissing sibilant [s], much like the most frequent pronunciation of the /s/ of English. Because /s/ is one of the most frequent phonemes in Spanish, the difference of pronunciation is one of the first to be noted by a Spanish-speaking person to differentiate Spaniards from Spanish-speakers of the Americas.

The phoneme /ʎ/ spelled ⟨ll⟩, palatal lateral consonant sometimes compared in sound to the sound of the ⟨lli⟩ of English million, tends to be maintained in less-urbanized areas of northern Spain and in highland areas of South America. Meanwhile, in the speech of most other Spanish-speakers, it is merged with /ʝ/ (“curly-tail j”), a non-lateral, usually voiced, usually fricative, palatal consonant, sometimes compared to English /j/ (yod) as in yacht and spelled ⟨y⟩ in Spanish. As with other forms of allophony across world languages, the small difference of the spelled ⟨ll⟩ and the spelled ⟨y⟩ is usually not perceived (the difference is not heard) by people who do not produce them as different phonemes. Such a phonemic merger is called yeísmo in Spanish. In Rioplatense Spanish, the merged phoneme is generally pronounced as a postalveolar fricative, either voiced [ʒ] (as in English measure or the French ⟨j⟩) in the central and western parts of the dialectal region (zheísmo), or voiceless [ʃ] (as in the French ⟨ch⟩ or Portuguese ⟨x⟩) in and around Buenos Aires and Montevideo (sheísmo).


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