In the spirit of the new year, I’m setting out to try something completely novel every week. Walking on stilts, mental arithmetic, cooking with salt.
To ease myself in I decided to join our sibilant South American cousins and drop the ‘th’ sound with which I was taught to pepper my Spanish sentences. Brilliant, I thought – why haven’t I tried this before? No longer will I have to take time out in meetings to mentally practise pronouncing ‘organithathiones’ before composing the sentence. My life will be simpler in one fell swoop.
Just one morning of seseando [pronouncing c and z as s not th] and I realise that it’s not so much a tongue twister as a mind bender. So what’s the background to this quirky phonetic phenomenon?
Don’t worry, dear, he’s from Barthelona
“Dos thervezas, por favor!” goes the typical layperson’s impression of every Juan, Pedro and Carlos. Yip, everyone’s a Hispanist.
Unsurprisingly, the much parodied Castilian lisp didn’t actually start with the Seventies British sitcom Fawlty Towers, in which the long-suffering Manuel, the waiter from Barthelona, ambled around unwittingly incurring the wrath of his dimwit boss. The issue of seseo/ceceo was always a linguistic hot potato. In fact, it still stokes passionate arguments today, as you can see from a quick glance at the online forums. Never mind the sensitivities around the Castilian/Catalan debate – the real question is whether you’re hissing your esses with the best of them.
And like other linguistic issues closer to home, it inspires emotionally and politically charged invective. Spanish people had warned me off seseando for years, cautioning that someone from the UK really shouldn’t be speaking like that. When probed as to why, they would merely shrug and say it would be "frowned upon". But the stigma of seseando is the product of a fairly modern mindset, as it turns out.
The king’s new clothes
Historically the use of ‘th’ wasn’t socially acceptable at all, until the practice of ceceo began to take off in the 16th-century, supposedly inspired by the influence of a lisping king. Impressively, the urban myth of the Castilian lisp turns out to be mythical on two counts. The famous Spanish monarch who inspired a generation has been proven to be sadly apocryphal while the so-called lisp isn’t really a lisp - as in a speech impediment - at all.
Meanwhile, over in the new world, Latin Americans opted sensibly to sesear, but no-one’s quite sure why. Theories range from the mundane to the ridiculous. One guess is that since most of the conquistadores’ boats set sail for the Americas from Seville, the new territories naturally picked up the seseando habits of their crews. Another is that Latin Americans are just too dry of mouth, owing to their tropical surroundings. Hmm.
In my own attempt to cast off the shackles of a lifetime I fell flat on my face. Not because locals rushed away in horror at the transgression, but because the jettisoning of a lifetime of education felt almost, well, wanton. It just felt wrong. I suppose it would be like the effect of affecting a new accent in your own language – you feel a bit of a fraud. I fear seseando, together with rolling my r’s, is Spanish terrain I am destined not to conquer.