Ceceo: Explaining the Spanish “lisp”

Ceceo: Explaining the Spanish lisp

Get our free email course, Shortcut to Conversational.

Have conversations faster, understand people when they speak fast, and other tested tips to learn faster.

More info

Just like British English is different from American English, Spanish from Latin America and Spanish from Spain significantly vary in many aspects. One of the most distinctive phonological features of Spanish from Spain is definitely the way they pronounce the s sound, which is colloquially known by some as the Spanish lisp, but it’s not the most accurate term.

So, in today’s post, we’ll tell you all about the linguistic phenomena that causes this particular feature: ceceo, seseo and distinction. We’ll also cover some speculations about their origin. By the end, you’ll know all there is to know about the so called Spanish lisp

Let’s get started!

Pronunciation differences

First of all, as you’ve probably guessed, the Spanish lisp is not actually a lisp, but simply a linguistic trait. There are three ways of pronouncing sibilant sounds in Spain depending on the region and dialect: distinction, ceceo and seseo.

Distinción – Distinction

In most Spanish regions, Spanish speakers make a distinction between the pronunciation of the letters ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘c’ (before e and i). The ‘s’ is pronounced similar to a regular s in English, while ‘c’ and ‘z’ are pronounced with a ‘th’ sound, similar to the English ‘th’ in words like “think” or “math.


We saw in the paragraph before that in most Spanish regions, there is a distinction of pronunciation for the sibilant sounds ‘s’, ‘z,’ and ‘c’. Now, ceceo is a distinctive phonological feature in the Spanish language, notably prevalent in the southern regions of Spain, such as Andalusia, that involves the pronunciation of both the letters s, z and c as with a ‘th’ sound.


On the other hand, seseo is a phonological phenomenon in the Spanish language where the pronunciation of both ‘s’ and ‘z’ is merged into a single clear ‘s’ sound, as opposed to ceceo and distinction. Though this trait is found in Spain, it is common to the Latin American pronunciation.

Spain vs Latin America

Now, where does the Spanish lisp come from and why does Spanish from Latin America not have it?

A widely spread myth of the origin of ceceo and distinction is the narrative of King Ferdinand, a medieval king. According to this tale, King Ferdinand spoke with a lisp, so Spanish people adopted the distinctive lisp-like pronunciation out of respect and to please their king, creating what is now known as the Spanish lisp. However, this story, despite its prevalence, has been debunked as a myth, and many Spanish speakers find it disrespectful when their way of speaking is labeled as a “lisp” by foreigners.

Some people also believe that the reason why Latin American Spanish doesn’t have a lisp is because Latin America was colonized by Spanish conquerors and settlers from the southern regions of Spain, particularly Andalusia and the Canary Islands, who spoke differently than those in the central and northern regions. While this version has historical merit, it oversimplifies the complex linguistic evolution that occurred over the 300 years of Spanish control in the Americas.

The real reason behind distinction, seseo and ceceo, as with any language’s distinctive features, lies in the natural evolution of languages. Much like the diverse English accents and dialects, the Spanish language in all of the places where it’s spoken developed its unique characteristics over time, leading to variations not only between countries but also within individual nations.


So, after our journey through the Spanish lisp, we’ve learned it’s not exactly a “lisp” as we might think. Instead, it’s like a musical dance of sounds in different parts of Spain and Latin America. Distinction involves pronouncing z, and c with a th sound, while the keeps a regular s sound; ceceo involves pronouncing ‘s,’ ‘z,’ and ‘c’ solely with th sound, and seseo merges ‘s’ and ‘z’ into a single clear ‘s’ sound.

We also looked into some stories about kings and conquerors, but turns out, the real story is simpler. It’s about how languages naturally change over time, creating unique ways of speaking. It’s important to note that there isn’t a correct or incorrect way of pronouncing these sounds in Spanish, just keep in mind that some are more common in some regions than others. Ceceo, for example, may sound odd for a Latin American, while for Andalusians is the norm.

Now that you know the truth about Spanish lisp, you’re ready to uncover more quirks and features of the Spanish language. Share this post with your fellow Spanish learners and stay tuned for more posts like this.


Get our FREE 7-day email course, Shortcut to Conversational

The exact strategies you need to become conversational in Spanish this year. Join the course now, before we come to our senses and charge for it!

This blog is presented by BaseLang: Unlimited Spanish Tutoring for $179 a Month. Learn more here.