The King’s Thpeech

Have you heard the one about the lisping king? You’ve probably noticed that, while Hispanophones from this hemisphere generally pronounce s, z, and soft c (i.e. before front vowels) identically, Spaniards make a distinction. They say s as we do in English (it’s a voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative, if you’re keeping score), except that English seems to produce its s and similar sounds with more force than Spanish. The c and z are instead produced by pressing the tip of the tongue against the teeth, like (a softer version of) the th in English thin or ether. This sound is usually represented in phonetics by the Greek letter theta.
The story that I and countless others have been told be people who should have known better is that the theta pronunciation originated when the King of Spain (in the version I heard it was just a prince, but whatevs) had a severe lisp that prevented him from pronouncing cinco or mozo correctly. Then either (a) a royal edict was promulgated requiring everyone to lisp, or (b) imitating the royal speech impediment became so fashionable that soon everybody was doing it. This story oozes such bogosity from every pore that I am amazed to have heard it from educated people.
First, how is it that the King couldn’t say the /s/ sound in cinco but he could say it in sin, couldn’t say it in zero but could say it just fine in serio? If the story were true, Spaniards would say the s as a theta too—it doesn’t take any expertise in Spanish linguistics to see that. Second, why does Spanish have different letters instead of using the same letter for what, in American Spanish, is the same sound? Surely it is more likely that the sounds used to be different and then fell together in some dialects than that the Spaniards mischievously used three letters for the same sound and then invented a different sound for two of them….right?
So why is this dumbass story so appealing? Part of it is a sort of “empire writes back” impulse for ex-colonies to thumb their noses at the metropolis, which is understandable; I’m sure Spaniards can be annoying, and for that matter I wish that the World Cup had been won by someone who played a more exciting and less constipated style of soccer. But that’s no reason to go spreading lies.
There’s also a broader reason: people love stories that trace a linguistic phenomenon to some famous person. I’ve been told (again by a reasonably educated person) that the word “gaudy” derives from the architect Gaudi (just as a cheming cynic is said to be Machiavelly, or a weird foreign film might be Felliny, I guess), and have read that “marmalade” is so called because Mary Queen of Scots ate it when she was sick, hence “Marie Malade.”  I must say that if I were running the Jam & Jelly Council I would not be thrilled at having my product called “Sick Mary”; the word comes from Portugues marmelo meaning quince, which I guess was a popular flavor back in the day.
What people don’t like, or much believe in, is the way language really works Words can come from names (Boycott was a land manager in Ireland who was shunned by the locals, Gerry was a politican who was good at gerrymandering), but usually lexical change is anonymous, and so far as I know, changes in the sound and structure of language are always initially by groups of anonymous people. In fact, though changes do spread when one group adopts the change and other want to sound like them, the trendsetters are not necessarily people of high status: plenty of the African-American slang of the past is now standard English. (Apprently, according to an interview on NPR this morning, the writers of Downton Abbey have their swanky Brit characters using phrases like “when push comes to shove” that were still considered Black English at the time.) I personally love the fact that language is profoundly anarchic, that it goes where it wants with no regard to what William Safire or some Royal Academy wants, but a lot of folks find that upsetting.
As for what really happened in Spanish…well, I’m not a Romance philologist, but it’s pretty clear what happened with c. Most of the words where Spanish has a c are derived from Latin words that also had c: ciento < centum, cena < cena. Of course Latin (like Spanish) also used the letter c in words like carnem and causa, and the reason they used the same letter is that all these words in Latin began with the same sound, a stop /k/ made at the back of the mouth (the soft area called the velum), just as in Spanish carne. What happened, in all the Romance languages, is that /k/ started to change when it came before /e/ or /i/: these vowels are made at the front of the mouth, and there is a universal tendency in language for sounds made in one part of the mouth to pull neighboring sounds toward that same part. In this case the back /k/ got pulled forward (and also softened) in a process called palatalization. The first step would have been a sort of ‘ky’ sound like the start of “cube,” then we would come to the somewhat fronter and softer palatal affricate like English “ch” (this is where the change stopped in Italian (cento, Cesare). Next we come to /ts/ like the z in Nazi. At this point the words that started out with Latin ti, like nacional < natio, gracias < gratias. At this point the French (and some versions of Spanish, presumably) simplified the /ts/ to /s/, while the ancestor of modern peninsular Spanish kept going with the same process of moving forward as far as you can go without sticking your tongue out. That is, they pressed their tongues against their teeth to make the theta.
So all the Romance pronunciations of the original Latin /ki/ or /ke/ are different endpoints on the same trajectory. The fact that I find this process a more satisfying story than a lisping prince probably makes me a pervert.

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3 Responses to The King’s Thpeech

  1. beth mchugh says:

    Roy, this was a pretty fascinating discussion, but also laugh out loud funny in several places! Loved it! Boodle

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    I heard that pervert comes from fervor, which, like enthousiasme, is looked down upon.

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