Spanish historical phonology/phonetics


Athel Cornish-Bowden asks, in a comment under the post on English spelling reform, if Spanish spelling has remained constant over hundreds of years, as his Spanish host claimed a few weeks ago. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We have to distinguish between changes in the spelling, and changes in the pronunciation which may or may not be recognised by the spelling.

If I may return briefly to English, we can read Shakespeare relatively easily, because modern editions adopt modern spelling, while leaving the words themselves unchanged. The same is true of Spanish – Golden Age playwrights such as Lope de Vega are published with modern spellings, and they are fairly straightforward for us to read.

English has changed its vowel system drastically since the Norman Conquest, while the consonants have remained remarkably stable. This is why most of the difficulties with English spelling are to do with representations of vowels: Middle English had two phonemes written as <ea> /ε:/ and <ee> /e:/. These have merged in many cases into /i:/, but some <ea> words have shortened to become /e/.

Spanish, on the other hand, has kept the same vowel system (i.e. phonology) since the Middle Ages, but its consonant system has undergone some radical phonetic changes as well as some less radical phonological ones. The spelling has changed to some extent to reflect this. There is evidence to suggest that in Cervantes’ time,  the letter ‘x’ represented the sound /ʃ/ – as it does in Catalan and Portuguese today. This is reflected in the way that French has borrowed Quixote – spelling and pronouncing it Quichotte. Medieval Spanish also had a phoneme /ʒ/ (written as ‘j’), which devoiced to /ʃ/ some time before the end of the sixteenth century. In the course of the 17th Century, the point of articulation of this merged consonant (/ʃ/ from /ʒ/ and original /ʃ/) moved back from palato-alveolar, or even perhaps palatal, to velar, becoming /x/. Because the change did not affect the distribution of the phoneme, merely its phonetic nature, it was unnecessary to amend the spelling, but eventually, because there were now two possible spellings for /x/, the letter ‘j’ became the norm in Spain, while elsewhere, ‘x’ remained (cf the Spanish spelling Méjico versus the Mexican spelling México, both pronounced /ˈmexiko/). There have been other changes, but this is enough to show that Athel’s host was not quite right in his assumptions.


  1. Just to add another example of ‘x’ and ‘j’ alternation, consider the name Javier and Xafier which is derived from the Arabic Ja’far.

  2. This is slightly OT (again), but Graham’s discussion shows why modern Spanish uses spellings such as yihad (English “jihad”) & Jomeini (“Khomeini”).

  3. Thanks for this detailed explanation, which confirms what I thought, but didn’t want to argue with my host about. One thing surprised me in particular, which was that the book I was looking at used the modern spelling Quijote whereas I had been under the impression that our English spelling derived from the original as written by Cervantes.

  4. Athel – you’re right. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear that the spelling of Cervantes’ time would have been “Quixote”.

  5. Hola, Graham:

    Como bien sabes, mi inglés es muy pobre, pero creo haber entendido un poco lo que explicas.

    Del topónimo México se podría decir que se refiere a la ciudad, y Méjico denominaría a toda la nación, si bien desde fines del XIX oficialmente se escribe México. Pero siempre se pronuncia la velar j [x], nunca [ks] .

    Se podrían traer aquí también el tópónimo Texas, léase ‘Tejas’, y los pantalones tejanos, con j. Y los antropónimos Xavier o Ximénez, que pasaron a grafiarse Javier y Jiménez.

    Igual sucede con Oaxaca, México, o la Sierra de la Axarquía en Málaga, España, arcaísmos que son aceptados por la Real Academia como formas alternativas a las grafías modernas; en cualquier caso, la x en estas palabras debe de ser pronunciada como una j.


    Jesús Bermejo

  6. ¡Gracias, Jesús!
    Jesús’ comment translated:
    You could say that “México” refers to the city, while “Méjico” designates the whole country, although since the end of the 19th century, officially the country has been called “México”. But it is always pronounced with [x], never [ks].
    We could also bring in the place name “Texas” (to be read “Tejas”) and “Texan trousers” [these are unknown to me – perhaps someone can elaborate?], both pronounced with jota. And the people’s names Xavier or Ximénez, which changed their spellings to Javier and Jiménez.
    The same happens with Oaxaca, Mexico, or the Sierra de la Axarquía in Málaga, Spain, archaisms that are accepted by the Real Academia as alternative forms to the modern spellings; en any case, the in these words must be pronounced as a jota ([x]).

  7. Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) wrote her name with an initial Y. As a modern Spanish Isabel, it took me a while to understand what the initials F Y meant in monuments build by the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella.

    And why does the most Spanish queen of all have an Italian name in English? 😉

  8. “Pantalones tejanos” are blue jeans.

  9. Isabel, not “Isabella”. Don’t know why the change came about in English translation for if they really wanted to translate to English she would have been “Elisabeth”
    ¡Qué jaleo! (or should I say ¡Qué xaleo!

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