History of Spanish Consonants

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1. The Latin system
To understand how the modern Spanish consonantal system came into being, one has to go back to the pronunciation of consonants in Latin. As a first approximation, it can be noted that written Latin had 14 consonantal letters. These are shown below using modern lower-case characters, which were not themselves used by the Romans, who used either capitals (for inscriptions) or the handwritten script known as Latin cursive (for letters, accounts and many other types of document).

b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t

The above consonants are all thought to have been originally pronounced, but both the letter h and final -m came to be silent. Accordingly, the system of consonantal phonemes in Classical Latin is usually reconstructed as in Table 1 below (which assumes h to be unpronounced):

Table 1   Idealization of Latin consonant system

Voiceless stop
Voiced stop

In addition to the consonants in Table 1, we need to take into account the labial-velar and palatal semivowels [w] and [j], corresponding to the letters v and i in initial and intervocalic positions. Even though these sounds were not originally consonantal in Latin, they subsequently became so in those positions, a development which is addressed in Section 2 below.

A further point to note is that, apart from /ɸ/ and the voiced stops, the consonants shown in Table 1 routinely appeared in geminate form, i.e. doubled, as in the examples below.

gotta/ gŭttam (> gota ‘drop’)
/ˈbokka/ bŭccam (> boca ‘mouth’)
/ˈɔsso/ VL ŏssum > (hueso ‘bone’)
/ˈgɛmma/ gĕmmam (> yema
/kaˈballo/ caballum (> caballo ‘horse’)
/ˈanno/ annum > (año ‘year’)

All the consonants in Table 1 survive into Modern Spanish, but their distribution across the lexicon has changed in many cases. In addition, a number of new consonants have been added to the system; most obviously, the voiceless dental fricative /θ/, the alveolar trill /r/, the palato-alveolar affricate /tʃ/, the palatal nasal /ɲ/, the palatal lateral /ʎ/ and the voiceless velar fricative /x/. The emergence of these sounds, as well as the other major developments that have affected consonants over the course of the history of Spanish, are described in 2 to 11 below.


2. Consonantization of Latin v and i
In initial and intervocalic positions written v and i appear to have originally represented labial-velar and palatal semivowels respectively, viz. [w] and [j]. However, their reflexes in medieval and modern Spanish are full consonants, implying that they hardened into consonants in later spoken Latin.

2.1 Latin v > Old Spanish /β/ > Mod. Spanish /b/
In the Iberian Peninsula, the labial semivowel [w] corresponding to Latin v must have developed into a labial fricative, specifically bilabial /β/ (cf. French, where the relevant fricative is labiodental /v/, as in voisin < vecīnum). In initial position, the fricative /β/ contrasted phonemically with the bilabial stop /b/ corresponding to Latin b. This contrast appears to have continued into Old Spanish, given that medieval scribes distinguished fairly consistently between words that began with u or v (= /β/) and words which began with b (= /b/):

uaca/vaca ‘cow’ (< vaccam)
ualle/valle ‘valley’ (< vallem)
vassura ‘rubbish’ (< versūram)
boca ‘mouth’ (< bŭccam)
bueno ‘good’ (< bŏnum)

Modern Spanish has no residue of this contrast, however, given that [β] is now prohibited in initial position (the distribution of the letters b and v in modern Spanish bears no relation to pronunciation). The contrast can be assumed to have disappeared by the 15th century at the latest, with [β] being eliminated from word-initial position.

In word-internal contexts, medieval Spanish does not appear to have had separate reflexes for Latin v and b, [β] apparently being used in both cases (as in fact was probably already the case in late spoken Latin, given common ‘misspellings’ such as plevis for plebes, identified in the Appendix Probi). The Old Spanish orthography typically represents this [-β-] using the letter v/u, regardless of whether the relevant word was spelled with v or b in Latin:

Old Sp. auer [aˈβeɾ] ‘to have’ (< Lat. habēre [aˈbeɾe])
Old Sp. seruir [seɾˈβiɾ] ‘to serve’ (< Lat. sĕrvīre [seɾˈwiɾe])

Despite this merger, Old Spanish does appear to have manifested word-internal [-b-], but in this case the source was Latin /-p-/, which became voiced during the lenition process. In medieval Spanish, words that had /-p-/ in Latin are fairly consistently spelled with a b, implying that they were actually pronounced with [-b-] rather than [-β-]. For example, the reflex of Latin lupum ‘wolf’ was almost always spelled lobo, pointing to the pronunciation [ˈlobo]. Over time, however, Old Spanish [-b-] (< Lat. /-p-/) was fricatized to [-β-], a process which resulted in pronunciations such as [ˈloβo] lobo.

Word-internally, then, fricative /β/ and the stop /b/ ultimately merged (probably no later than the 15th century), just as they did in initial position. However, the result of the word-internal merger was the loss of the stop articulation (except after a nasal, given that Modern Spanish disallows [β] after nasals) rather than the loss of the fricative one. In this way, we arrive at the modern allophony of Spanish /b/.

2.2 Latin i > Mod. Spanish /ʝ/ or /x/
As regards Latin i, this seems likely, in initial and intervocalic positions, to have come to be pronounced as the palatal fricative /ʝ/. In initial position, the palatal pronunciation is retained in modern Spanish only before stressed non-back vowels, as in yace [ˈaθe] (from iacet ‘he/she/it lies’), where the affricate [dʒ] is an allophone of /ʝ/. Before unstressed non-back vowels, initial Latin i has no reflex in Spanish, as can be seen from examples such as echar ‘to throw’ < iactāre and enero ‘January’ < iānuārium. Before back vowels, initial i has /ʒ/ as its reflex in Old Spanish, but this sound was subsequently devoiced and then underwent retraction to the velar position, delivering /x/ as the modern reflex:

iŏcum [ˈʝɔko] > Old Sp. iuego [ˈʒweɣo] > [ˈʃweɣo] > [ˈxweɣo] juego ‘game’
iūnctum [ˈʝunkto] > [ˈʒunto] > [ˈʃunto] > [ˈxunto] junto ‘joined’
iŭdaeum [ʝoˈdεo] > Old Sp. judio/iudio [ʒuˈðio] > [ʃuˈðio] > [xuˈðio] judío ‘jew(ish)’

In intervocalic position, the phonetic correlate of i appears to have been a geminate, perhaps [jj] to begin with but subsequently /ʝʝ/. For example, māium (accusative singular of māius ‘May’) probably came to be pronounced [ˈmaʝʝo]. This geminate /ʝʝ/ usually has simple /ʝ/ as its reflex in modern Spanish, a result that implies simplification as part of the generalized process of lenition or ‘weakening’ which, according to Penny (2002:74), began ‘in the last centuries of the Empire and [continued] through the Dark Ages’:

māium [ˈmajjo] > [ˈmaʝʝo] > [ˈmaʝo] mayo ‘May’


3. Palatalization of Latin syllable-initial /k/ and /g/
In syllable-initial position, the Latin velars /k/ and /g/ each underwent phonemic split, yielding different phonemes in medieval and modern Spanish according as the following vowel was articulated at the front of the mouth or at the back. When the following sound was a front vowel, both /k/ and /g/ were palatalized, the former yielding /θ/ in modern Spanish and the latter either /ʝ/, /θ/ or nothing at all. In contrast, when the following sound was a back vowel, /k/ generally survives as a velar consonant, while /g/ either survives as a velar or is lost altogether.

3.1 Voiceless /k/

Taking voiceless /k/ first, this sound corresponds mainly to written c in Latin, but it was represented by the letter q in the unit qu and by the digraph ch in certain Greek loanwords. Before front vowels, including [j], /k/ appears to have had a fronted or palatal articulation, which we can represent as [c]. The latter is the IPA symbol for the voiceless palatal stop, the sound encountered in modern French qui [ci] ‘who’. Some examples are given below:

cĭrcā [ˈceɾka] (> Sp. [ˈθeɾka] cerca ‘near’)
VL vĭcīnum (for vīcīnum) [βcino] (> Sp. [beˈθino] vecino ‘neighbour’)
ērīcium[eˈɾicjo] (> Sp. [eˈɾiθo] ‘hedgehog’)
bracchium [ˈbɾaccjo] (> Sp. [ˈbɾaθo] ‘arm’)

In medieval Spanish, the reflex of Latin [c] was a dental affricate, either voiceless /ts/, often written as ç, or voiced /dz/, written as z. Voiceless /ts/ occurred in words in which [c] had been preceded by a consonant in spoken Latin (this consonant was in fact generally lost unless it was a sonorant, such as /l/ or /ɾ/). In contrast /dz/ was found in words in which [c] had been intervocalic. The voiced affricate /dz/ can thus be assumed to be the reflex of an earlier /ts/ which became voiced in intervocalic position as part of the generalized lenition process. Examples of Old Spanish words containing /ts/ or /dz/ are as follows:

peçes petses] ‘fish’ (< Lat. pĭscēs [ˈpesces])
cerca/çerca [ˈtseɾka] ‘near’ (< Lat. cĭrcā [ˈceɾka])
uezino [βeˈdzino] ‘neighbour’ (< VL vĭcīnum (for CL vīcīnum) [βeˈcino])

Note that when the front vowel following Latin [c] was in fact [j], resulting from the loss of an earlier hiatus, this [j] usually does not survive into medieval Spanish:

braço [ˈbɾatso] ‘arm’ (< Lat. bracchium [ˈbɾaccjo])
erizo [eˈɾidzo] ‘hedgehog’ (< Lat. ērīcium [eˈɾicjo])

One example where the [j] did survive is the following:

laçio latsjo] ‘lank’ (< Lat. flacci(d)umɸlaccjo])

In later Old Spanish, the two dental affricates /ts/ and /dz/ evolved into dental fricatives – perhaps [θ] and [ð] – and in the 16th and 17th centuries, the voiced member of this pair was lost (see Devoicing of the sibilants on this page). The overall diachronic process culminating in /θ/ is schematized in Table 2 below.

Table 2 From [c] or [cj] to /θ/

Early Ibero-Romance
Old Spanish
Later Old Spanish
Modern (Castilian) Spanish
/ts, dz/
/θ, ð/

Examples illustrating the transition from Old to Modern Spanish are as follows:

Old Sp. calça [ˈkaltsa] > Mod. Sp. [ˈkalθa] calza ‘stocking’
Old Sp. peçes [ˈpetses] > Mod. Sp. [ˈpeθes] peces ‘fish’
Old Sp. laçio [ˈlatsjo] > Mod. Sp. [ˈlaθjo] lacio ‘lank’
Old Sp. uezino [βeˈdzino] > [βeˈðino] > Mod. Sp. [beˈθino] vecino ‘neighbour’

In much of Andalusia, the dentals /θ/ and /ð/ merged with and displaced the alveolar fricatives /s/ and /z/, which were the reflex of Latin ss (as in passum ‘step’) and Latin s (as in casam ‘cottage’), the sibilant having become voiced when single in intervocalic position (cf. medieval Spanish casa [ˈkaza] ‘house’). The two surviving phonemes /θ/ and /ð/ were themselves merged in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the relevant Andalusian varieties (associated with Huelva, Seville, Cadiz and Malaga provinces), the words casa ‘house’ and vecino ‘neighbour’, for example, are both pronounced with /θ/, i.e. as [ˈkaθa] and [beˈθino] respectively. This phenomenon is known as ceceo.

The converse phenomenon of seseo, found in Latin America, Seville City and those Andalusian provinces that abut New Castile, implies loss of the dentals and survival of the alveolars (originally /s/ and /z/ but ultimately just /s/). Thus in dialects which have seseo, words which in medieval Spanish were spelled with ç or z, implying a dental articulation, have alveolar /s/ in the modern language rather than dental /θ/:

Old Sp. calça [ˈkaltsa] > [ˈkalsa] calza ‘stocking’
Old Sp. peçes [ˈpetses] > [ˈpeses] peces ‘fish’
Old Sp. laçio [ˈlatsjo] > lasjo] lacio ‘lank’
Old Sp. uezino [βeˈdzino] > [βeˈzino] > [beˈsino] vecino ‘neighbour’

In contrast to the foregoing developments, if /k/ was followed by a back vowel, it survives as a velar into modern Spanish but is voiced in intervocalic position, an instance of lenition.

arcum [ˈaɾko] > arco ‘arch’
acūtum [aˈkuto] > [aˈgudo] > [aˈɣuðo] agudo ‘sharp’
aquamakwa] > [ˈagwa]> [ˈaɣwa] agua ‘water’

3.2 Voiced /g/
The voiced phoneme /g/ must also have had a palatal articulation before a front vowel, which we will represent here using the IPA symbol [ɟ]. The latter symbol stands for the voiced palatal stop, the sound found in modern French [ɟi] gui ‘mistletoe’.

When preceded by a consonant (specifically one of the sonorants /n/ or /ɾ/), the reflex of [ɟ] is /dz/ in Old Spanish and then /θ/ in the modern language (or /s/ in Latin America and in parts of Andalusia):  

gĭngīvam [ɟeɲˈɟiβa] > [enˈdzia] Old Sp. enzia > [enˈθia] encía ‘gum’ ([enˈsia] in L.A.)
[aɾˈɟilla] > [aɾˈdziʎa] Old Sp. arzilla > [aɾˈθiʎa] arcilla ‘clay’ ([aɾˈsiʝa] in L.A.)

In other contexts, [ɟ] either has /ʝ/ as its reflex in modern Spanish or it is lost altogether. In intervocalic position the /ʝ/ outcome is apparent in words in which the vowel immediately following [ɟ] was semivocalized to [j] in spoken Latin, due to loss of the hiatus. The survival in this context of a residue of [ɟ] suggests that the spoken Latin sequence [ɟj] developed into a geminate which was subsequently simplified:

fageam ‘of beechwood’ [ˈhaɟja] > [ˈhaʝʝa] > [ˈaʝa] haya ‘beech tree’

Where no following [j] was present, intervocalic [ɟ] was generally lost, presumably after having fricatized, a pattern of change that can be seen as part of the early medieval process known as lenition. An example is given below:

magĭstrum [maˈɟestɾo] > [maˈʝestɾo] > [maˈestɾo] maestro ‘teacher/master’

The same result, i.e. loss, is also found in some words in which [ɟ] was followed by [j] in spoken Latin. In these cases, however, what seems to have happened is that a front vowel that preceded [ʝ] (< [ʝʝ] < [ɟj]) absorbed this [ʝ] through assimilation:

cŏrrĭgiam ‘shoelace’ [koɾˈɾeɟja] > [koɾˈɾeʝʝa] > [koˈreʝa] > [koˈrea] correa ‘leather strap’

In initial position Latin [ɟ] was lost in unstressed syllables and evolved to /ʝ/ (pronounced [dʒ]) in stressed ones (in the latter case, any [j] resulting from the diphthongization of stressed ĕ was assimilated into the initial palatal consonant):

gĕrmānum [ɟeɾˈmano] > [eɾˈmano] hermano ‘brother’
gypsum [ˈɟepso] > [ˈdʒeso] yeso ‘plaster’
gĕmmam [ˈɟɛmma] > [ˈɟjemma] > [ˈdʒema] yema ‘yoke’

Before non-front vowels, /g/ developed in an analogous way to its voiceless equivalent /k/. In other words, it survives unchanged in word-initial position but suffers the consequences of lenition when intervocalic:

gaudium [ˈgawdjo] > [ˈgotso] > [ˈgodzo] > [ˈgoθo] gozo ‘joy’
lēgālem [leˈgale] > [leˈɣal] > [leˈal] leal ‘loyal’

4. Palatalization of dento-alveolar consonants
With the exception of /ɾ/ and /s/ the Latin dento-alveolars were all palatalized when they occurred immediately before [j], corresponding to an earlier front vowel in hiatus.

4.1 /t/ and /d/
In the case of the stops /t/ and /d/, the outcome in medieval Spanish of the palatalization process was exactly as for /k/ and /g/. In other words, both [tj] and [dj] yield /ts/ after a consonant, while in the intervocalic context [tj] yields /dz/ and [dj] yields /ʝ/, the latter presumably resulting from the simplification of an earlier geminate /ʝʝ/:

Old Sp. caçar [kaˈtsaɾ] ‘to hunt’ (< Lat. captiāre [kapˈtjaɾe])
Old Sp. março [ˈmaɾtso] ‘March’ (< Lat. martium [ˈmaɾtjo])
Old Sp. orçuelo [oɾˈtswelo] ‘stye’ (< Lat. hordeŏlum [oɾˈdjɔlo])
Old Sp.
pozo [ˈpodzo] ‘well’ (< Lat. pŭteum
Old Sp. razon [raˈdzon] ‘reason’ (< Lat. ratiōnem [ɾaˈtjone])
Old Sp. poyopoʝo] ‘stone bench/ledge’ (< Latin pŏdiumpɔdjo])

As was discussed in 3.1 above, medieval Spanish /ts/ and /dz/ were later deaffricated and then merged to produce modern Castilian Spanish /θ/:

Old Sp. caçar [kaˈtsaɾ] ‘to hunt’ > mod. Sp. [kaˈθaɾ] cazar
Old Sp. março [ˈmaɾtso] ‘March’ > mod. Sp. [ˈmaɾθo] cazar
Old Sp. orçuelo [oɾˈtswelo] ‘stye’ > mod. Sp. [oɾˈθwelo] orzuelo
Old Sp.
pozo [ˈpodzo] ‘well’ >
[ˈpoðo] > mod. Sp. [ˈpoθo] pozo
Old Sp. razon [raˈdzon] ‘reason’ > [raˈðon] > mod. Sp. [raˈθon] razón

As was noted in 3.1, in many parts of Andalusia /θ/ is the reflex not just of dental /ts/ and /dz/, but also of alveolar /s/ and /z/. In contrast, Latin American dialects, as well as Andalusian varieties in Seville city and in the north of the region, have /s/ as the unique reflex of the four medieval phonemes.

4.2 The sonorants
Turning now to the sonorants /n/ and /l/, palatalization in this case produced the palatal nasal /ɲ/ and the voiced palato-alveolar fricative /ʒ/ in medieval Spanish, the latter sound stemming from an earlier palatal lateral /ʎ/ (which in fact is retained in Portuguese words such as alho ‘garlic’, mulher ‘woman’ etc.). The palatal nasal /ɲ/ continues unmodified into modern Spanish, while /ʒ/ was first of all devoiced to /ʃ/ and later had its place of articulation retracted to the velar area, producing modern Spanish /x/:

arāneam [aˈɾanja] > [aˈɾaɲa] araña ‘spider’
ālium [ˈaljo] > [ˈaʎo] > Old Sp. aio [ˈaʒo] > [ˈaʃo] > [ˈaxo] ajo ‘garlic’
hiljo] > hiʎo] > Old Sp. fijo [ˈhiʒo] > [ˈiʃo] > hijo ‘son’

The development of early medieval /ʎ/ into /ʒ/ implies that this sound merged with the reflex of Latin initial i before back vowels. Given that the latter sound was originally the mid-palatal /ʝ/, the merger can be regarded as replicating the modern phenomenon of žeísmo which is encountered in River Plate Spanish.


5. Semivocalization of syllable-final velars and /-l/

5.1 Syllable-final velars
In syllable-final position (i.e. before any consonant other than /ɾ/), the Latin velar consonants were semivocalized to [j], the latter sound then becoming the trigger for palatalization of the following consonant. Thus the /k/ or /g/ at the beginning of the groups represented in the orthography by -ct-, -x-, -c(V)l-, -g(V)l- and -gn- is assumed to have been weakened to [j]. This [j] must then have exercised an assimilatory effect on the consonant it preceded, as the latters place of articulation was generally retracted to the palatal or palato-alveolar region, with [j] itself being lost in the process. These developments are illustrated in Table 3 below.

Table 3  Old Spanish reflexes of Latin preconsonantal velars

Latin group
Reflex in Old Spanish
-ct- /tʃ/ tēctum [ˈtejto] > [ˈtetʃo] techo ‘roof’
-x- /ʃ/ dīxī [ˈdijsi] > [ˈdiʃe] dixe ‘I said’
-cl/gl- /ʒ/, via /ʎ/ apĭc(u)lam [aˈpejla] > [aˈpeʎa] > [aˈβeʒa] abeja ‘bee’
-gn- /ɲ/ sĭgna [ˈsejna] > [ˈseɲa] senna ‘sign’

Of the Old Spanish reflexes shown above, /tʃ/ and /ɲ/ continue unchanged into modern Spanish, while the other two underwent further modification in the late Middle Ages or early modern period. First of all, /ʒ/ was devoiced and so merged with /ʃ/. Then the place of articulation of /ʃ/ was retracted to the velar area, producing modern /x/:

Old Sp. [aˈβeʒa] abeja/abeia > [aˈβeʃa] > [aˈβexa] abeja
Old Sp. [ˈdiʃe] dixe > [ˈdixe] dije

Note that the palatalization process just described failed to occur if the ‘[-j] + consonant’ sequence resulting from semivocalization was itself followed by a consonant, this case usually arising through intertonic vowel syncope:

pĕct(i)nem [ˈpεktine] > [ˈpejtne] > [ˈpejne] peine ‘comb’

The same failure to palatalize is also apparent when the ‘[-j] + consonant’ sequence was word-final, as in the example below:

sĕx [sεks] > [sejs] seis ‘six’

5.2 Syllable final /-l/
The /-l/ of the Latin group represented by -ŭlt- was in all probably articulated as a ‘dark l. This is the kind of l that occurs in syllable-final position in most varieties of British English – e.g. in feel or belt – and its phonetic symbol is [ɫ]. What gives the sound [ɫ] its distinctive ‘dark’ quality is its secondary, velar articulation. Due to this velar feature, Latin /-l/ in the -ŭlt- sequence developed in the same way as the syllable-final velar consonants considered in 5.1. That is, it semivocalized and then caused the following consonant to palatalize:

cŭltĕllum [koɫˈtεllo] > [kojˈtεllo] > [kuˈtʃjeʎo] > [kuˈtʃiʎo] cuchillo ‘knife’
mŭltum [ˈmoɫto] > [ˈmojto] > [ˈmutʃo] mucho ‘much’

As with the velar consonants discussed in 5.1, the palatalizing effect of syllable-final [-j] (< /-l/) on the following consonant was generally blocked if the consonant in question was itself followed by a consonant:

vŭlt(u)remβoɫtɾe] > [ˈβojtɾe] > [ˈβujtɾe] > [ˈbwitɾe] buitre ‘vulture’

6. Initial consonants and groups
The main changes here relate to /ɸ-/ (represented orthographically by f), /ɾ-/, [kw-] and combinations of voiceless obstruent + lateral, viz. /pl-/, /ɸl-/ and /kl-/.

6.1 Latin initial f

In modern Spanish words that descend from Latin by popular transmission, the reflex of Latin f- is either zero, spelled h, or /f-/, the latter sound occurring when the following segment is either /ɾ/ or [w]. For example, harina ‘flour’ (< farīnam) and hijo ‘son’ (< fīlium) have no initial consonant, whereas fuerte ‘strong’ (< fŏrtem) and frío ‘cold’ (< frīgidum) begin with /f/. The initial /f/ of words like falso ‘false’, figura ‘figure’, forma ‘form’ etc. appears to reflect learnèd restructuring under the influence of either medieval Latin or Gallo-Romance.

To account for the /f-/ ~ zero alternation in words of popular descent, a plausible initial assumption would be that Latin f was bilabial (symbol: /ɸ/) in north Iberian Latin rather than labiodental, as it was in the Latin of Rome. This (hypothetical) state of affairs actually has parallels in the modern Spanish-speaking world. For example, Spanish /f/ is often realized as [ɸ] in Andean Spanish. In light of the pattern that subsequently materialized in the Castilian dialect, the Latin phoneme /ɸ/ presumably had (at least) two distinct articulations when it occurred in initial position, viz. [ɸ] before liquids or the semivowel [w], and [h] before all other sounds. Under this assumption, pronunciations such as the following can be reconstructed for north Iberian Latin, at a relatively late period:

[ˈɸɾito] frīctum ‘fried’
[ˈɸweɾte] fŏrtem ‘strong’
[haˈɾina] farīnam ‘flour’
[ˈhoɾno] fŭrnum ‘oven’

The reason why the allophones were distributed in the specific way implied by the examples above is impossible to identify at this historical distance. However, as was just noted, the existence of the pattern is indicated by the subsequent dual treatment of /ɸ-/.

The situation just described persisted into Old Spanish, although the letter f continued to be used to represent the phoneme in question, as can be seen from Old Spanish spellings such as frio ‘cold’, fijo ‘son’ and fazer ‘do/make’.

In the late Middle Ages, the bilabial allophone [ɸ] was apparently modified to [f], a development which may be linked to an influx of French speakers that occurred in the 12th and 13th centuries. This turn of events resulted in a situation in which, on the one hand, words such as farina and fijo continued to be pronounced with an initial [h], while on the other hand words like fuerte and frío were now pronounced with initial [f].

In addition, from the Middle Ages onwards, learnèd words in which [f-] appeared before sounds other than [ɾ] and [w] were borrowed into Old Spanish from Latin, Old French and Occitan. The accumulation of such words in the Spanish lexicon ultimately brought [f] and [h] into contrast in initial position, resulting in a phonemic split. For example, the homographs forma ‘form’ and forma ‘shoemaker’s last’ constituted a minimal pair, being pronounced [ˈfoɾma] and [ˈhoɾma] respectively (phonemically: /ˈfoRma/ versus /ˈhoRma/).

Until the 15th century both [f-] and [h-] were written as f. However, with the emergence of the phonemic distinction just alluded to, Spanish orthography began to reserve f for the first sound and h for the second. On the other hand, by the 16th century, /h/ was on the way to being eliminated from the phonemic inventory of Castilian Spanish, although the letter h was retained in the spelling system (and remains there, a curious anomaly in an otherwise largely phonemic system).

The developments overall can be exemplified as follows:

fŏrtem [ˈɸɔɾte] > [ˈɸweɾte] > [ˈfweɾte] fuerte ‘strong’
fab(u)lārī/e [haˈβlaɾe] > [haˈβlaɾ] > [aˈβlaɾ] hablar (previously fablar) ‘to speak

6.2 Latin initial r
Word-initial /ɾ-/ became trilled in all cases, analogously to the intervocalic geminate /-ɾɾ-/:

rēgem [ˈɾege] > [rey] rey ‘king’
rŭptum [ˈɾopto] > [ˈroto] roto ‘broken’

6.3 Latin initial pl-, fl- and cl-
As regards /pl-/, /ɸl-/ and /kl-/, these have /ʎ/ as their normal reflex in Old Spanish and Modern Spanish:

plānum > llano ‘flat’
flammam > llama ‘flame’
clāvem > llave ‘key’

Note, however, popular exceptions such as plateam > plaza ‘square’, flōrem > flor ‘flower’, clavīc(u)lam > clavija ‘peg’.

(The sequences [pl], [ɸl] and [kl] also occurred in postconsonantal position, and in that case the reflex is the affricate /tʃ/, generally with loss of the preceding consonant if this is not a nasal: amplum > ancho ‘wide’, inflāre > hinchar ‘to swell’, masc(u)lum > macho ‘male’.)

6.4 Initial Latin qu-
The sequence [kw-] (corresponding to written qu-) has quite a high frequency in the lexical stock of Latin but it was generally reduced to [k] before the Old Spanish period whenever it was followed by a vowel other than /a/:

quōmo(d)o [ˈkwomo] > [ˈkomo] como ‘how’
quaerōkwεɾo] > [ˈkεɾo] > [ˈkjeɾo] quiero ‘I want’
(e)cim [ˈkwind(e)ce] > Old Sp. quinze [ˈkindze] > [ˈkinθe] quince ‘fifteen’

In the last two examples, the loss of [w] exposes the initial /k/ to a following front vowel, viz. /ε/ or /i/. Given that in these cases the initial /k/ self evidently did not develop into /ts/ (and ultimately /θ/), as it normally did before a front vowel, it can be surmised that the change whereby Latin /k/ was assibilated to [ts] before front vowels had come to an end by the time [w] was lost in the qu sequence.

Before /a/ the reflex of initial [kw-] varies between [kw] and [k]:

VL quattor (for CL quattŭŏr) [ˈkwattoɾ] > [ˈkwatɾo] cuatro ‘four’
VL quattord(e)cim [kwatˈtoɾd(e)ce] > Old Sp. catorze [kaˈtoɾdze] > [kaˈtoɾθe] catorce ‘fourteen’


7. Lenition
During the early medieval period, in most of the Western varieties of Romance, intervocalic consonants (together with those occurring in the context vowel ___ liquid) underwent a series of related processes of weakening and/or voicing. These processes collectively are referred to as lenition. As far as Spanish is concerned the pattern of changes was as follows.

7.1 Geminate obstruents
The Latin geminate obstruents, all of which were voiceless, were simplified to single, voiceless consonants:

cŭppam [ˈkoppa] > [ˈkopa] copa ‘cup/goblet’
[ˈgotta] > [ˈgota] gota ‘drop’
[ˈbokka] > [ˈboka] boca ‘mouth’
massam [ˈmassa] > [ˈmasa] masa ‘dough’

Note that, through assimilation, the Latin groups /ps/ and /ɾs/ merged with the alveolar geminate /ss/, while the group /pt/ merged with the dental geminate /tt/. These geminates were then simplified as part of the process just illustrated:

ĭpse [ˈepse] > [ˈesse] > [ˈese] ese ‘that’
ŭrsum [ˈoɾso] > [ˈosso] > [ˈoso] oso ‘bear’
captāre [kapˈtaɾe] > [katˈtaɾe] > [kaˈtaɾ] catar ‘taste/look at’

7.2 Geminate sonorants

Geminate sonorants were also simplified. However, with the exception of /mm/, such geminates were modified as part of the simplification process. Thus /ll/ and /nn/ were palatalized to /ʎ/ and /ɲ/, while geminate /ɾɾ/ was modified to a simple trill /r/:

flammam [ˈɸlamma] > [ˈʎama] llama ‘flame’
[ˈpollo] > [ˈpoʎo] pollo ‘chicken’
[ˈanno] > [ˈaɲo] año ‘year’
tĕrram [ˈtεɾɾa] > [ˈtjera] tierra ‘land’

This development also affects the Latin groups /mb/ and /mn/, which underwent assimilation to /mm/ and /nn/ respectively:

lŭmbum [ˈlombo] > [ˈlommo] > [ˈlomo] lomo ‘back’
dŏm(i)num [ˈmno] > [ˈnno] > [dweɲo] dueño ‘owner’

7.3 Simple voiceless consonants
Among the voiceless consonants, the effect of lenition was voicing, although in the case of /s/, such voicing was subsequently reversed as part of the generalized devoicing of the sibilants.

Intervocalic examples are as follows:

casam [ˈkasa] > [ˈkaza] > [ˈkasa] casa ‘house’
prōfectum [pɾoˈɸekto] > [pɾoˈβetʃo] provecho ‘benefit’
prātum [ˈpɾato] > [ˈpɾado] > [ˈpraðo] prado ‘meadow’
acūtum [aˈkuto] > [aˈgudo] > [aˈɣuðo] agudo ‘sharp’
lŭpum [ˈlopo] > [ˈlobo] > [ˈloβo] lobo ‘wolf’

Pre-liquid examples include the following:

aprīcum [aˈpɾiko] > [aˈbɾigo] > [aˈβɾiɣo] abrigo ‘shelter’
[ˈdoplo] > [ˈdoblo] > [ˈdoβle] doble ‘double’
[ˈpatɾe] > [ˈpadɾe] > [ˈpaðɾe] padre ‘father’
sŏcrum [ˈsɔkɾo] > [ˈswegɾo] > [ˈsweɣɾo] suegro ‘father-in-law’

As can be seen from the examples above, when lenition produced a voiced stop, this was as a rule fricatized: Modern Spanish disallows voiced stops in precisely those positions in which the diachronic process of lenition occurred. In the case of /b/ < Latin /p/, fricatization can be assumed to have occurred relatively late, given that the Old Spanish reflexes of words which in Latin had intervocalic /p/ were consistently spelled with -b- rather than -v-, the latter (in all probability) designating the fricative articulation [β] and the former the stop [b].

A further point to note is that voicing predates the loss of the intertonic vowel. The latter process causes an originally intervocalic consonant to become post-consonantal and hence ineligible for lenition. Thus if the consonant in question has gone from being voiceless to being voiced, the voicing must have occurred prior to the loss of the vowel. This is illustrated by examples such as the following:

bŏn(i)tātem [bon(itate] > [bon(i)ˈdade] > [bonˈdað] bondad ‘goodness’
(ĭ)cum [doˈmin(e)ko] > [doˈmin(e)go] > [doˈmiŋgo] domingo
VL. pŏrtāt(ĭ)cum [poɾˈtat(i)ko] > [poɾˈtad(i)go] > [poɾˈtaðɣo] portazgo ‘toll’ (previously portadgo)

7.4 Simple voiced consonants

As regards those (simple) consonants that were already voiced in Latin, only the obstruents were affected by lenition. As Latin lacked voiced fricatives, the voiced obstruents were all stops, i.e. /b/, /d/ and /g/. Like the voiced stops produced by the lenition process itself, these were all fricatized in intervocalic and pre-liquid positions, with subsequent loss being common in the case of /d/ and /g/:

habēre [aˈbeɾe] > [aˈβeɾ] haber ‘have’ (auxiliary)
[kwadɾaˈɟenta] > [kwaðɾaˈʝenta] > [kwaɾaˈenta] > [kwaˈɾenta] cuarenta ‘forty’
kwadɾo] > [ˈkwaðɾo] cuadro ‘picture/square’
[ɾeˈgale] > [reˈɣal] > [reˈal] real ‘royal’
pĭgrĭtiam [peˈgɾetja] > [peˈɣɾedza] > [peˈɾeða] > [peˈɾeθa] pereza ‘laziness’
nĭgrum [ˈnegɾo] > [ˈneɣɾo] negro ‘black’

7.5 Exclusion of /gl/ and /kl/
Note that the velar stops in the clusters /gl/ and /kl/ are excluded from the lenition effect. This is because the velar stop in this cluster appears to have been treated as being syllable-final and hence was semivocalized to [j], with the following /l/ being subsequently palatalized.

8. Adjustments due to vowel syncope
The elision of Latin intertonic vowels in many cases resulted in sequences of phonetic segments that were (or came to be) disallowed by either the phonotactics or the allophonic rules of Old Spanish. A variety of developments took place to regularize these cases.

Often the loss of an intertonic vowel necessitated merely a change in the place of articulation of a nasal (e.g. sēm(i)tam > senda ‘path’), in accordance with the principle that pre-consonantal nasals assimilate to the following consonant. Equally predictable are (i) the simplification of geminate sonorants when they became pre-consonantal (e.g. gall(i)cum > galgo ‘racing dog’) and (ii) the trilling of [ɾ] > [r] after a nasal, as in hon(ō)rāre [onoˈɾaɾe] > [onˈraɾ] honrar ‘to honour’.

Other developments have more of an ad hoc character, being specific to particular words or groups of words. Some of the commoner processes are described below.

In the first place, groups of three consonants were reduced to two in a variety of ways:

cŏmp(u)tāre > contar ‘to count’
hŏsp(i)tālem > hostal ‘boarding house’

Secondly, there was frequent dissimilation (the converse of assimilation) between nasals, usually resulting in a nasal becoming a lateral or /ɾ/:

an(i)mam > [ˈanma] > [ˈalma ] alma ‘soul’
(ui)nem > [ˈsaŋgne] sangne > [ˈsaŋgɾe] sangre ‘blood’

Thirdly, a so-called epenthetic consonant was often inserted between a nasal and a following /ɾ/ (representing an alternative solution to the trilling illustrated by the hon(ō)rāre case above):

hŏm(i)nem > [ˈomne] omne > [ˈomɾe] omre > [ˈombɾe] hombre ‘man’

Fourthly, two consonants were sometimes transposed in a word (a phenomenon known as metathesis):

cat(ē)nātum > [kaðˈnaðo] > [kanˈdaðo] candado ‘padlock’

Finally, syllable-final /b/ (realized as [β]) was generally semivocalized to [w], although this latter sound was later lost through assimilation if it followed a back vowel (see the codo example below):

dēb(i)ta > [ˈdeβða] debda > [ˈdewða] deuda ‘debt’
cap(i)tālem > [
kaβˈðal] cabdal > [kaðal] caudal ‘money, river flow’
cŭb(i)tum > [ˈkoβðo] cobdo > [ˈkowðo] > [ˈkoðo] codo ‘elbow’

An analogous development is found with /-l/ when this consonant came after /a/, as can be seen from the historical trajectory of the words for ‘willow’ (sauce) and ‘river bed’ (cauce):

sal(i)cem > [ˈsaldze] salze > [ˈsawðe] > [ˈsawθe] sauce ‘willow’
(i)cem > [ˈkaldze] calze > [ˈkawðe] > [ˈkawθe] cauce ‘river channel’


9. Prothetic /e/
A well-known feature of Spanish phonotactics is a rule that forbids the sequence /s/ + consonant at the beginning of a word. Similar rules operate or have in the past operated in other Romance languages and the tendency seems to predate the Middle Ages. In terms of etymology, the Spanish rule against word-initial /s/ + consonant has meant that a so-called prothetic [e] has been added to the beginning of those words which in Latin began with the prohibited sequence:

stāre > estar ‘to be’
spērāre > esperar ‘to wait’

The term prosthetic can also be used in this sense, although ‘prothetic’, without the s, is more common linguistics.


10. Final Consonants
Of the consonants that in Latin appeared in final position only /-l/, /-s/ and /-n/ survive into Spanish. Latin /-ɾ/ was often transposed with the preceding vowel, as in ĭnter > entre ‘between’, quattŭŏr > cuatro ‘four’ etc. Final /t/ was eliminated in Vulgar Latin, except as the marker of the 3rd person singular in verbs, in which role it survived until about the 12th century. The remaining Latin final consonants had been lost by the time Spanish began to written down. Apocope of final /e/ in the Middle Ages has ensured that some Spanish words end in consonants other than the /-l/, /-s/ and /-n/ that were directly inherited from Latin.

11. Devoicing of the sibilants
The existence of both a voiceless and a voiced series of sibilants is a salient feature of Old Spanish and one that is firmly reflected in the old orthography. In initial and intervocalic positions, the graphs ç (or c when followed by a front vowel), ss and x represented the voiceless series, viz. dental /ts/, alveolar /s/ and palato-alveolar /ʃ/ respectively. The graphs z, s and j/i (or g when followed by a front vowel) represented their voiced counterparts /dz/, /z/ and /ʒ/. This system is illustrated in the table below.

Table 4  Old Spanish sibilants (initial and intervocalic positions)

  Dental cabeça [kaˈbetsa] ‘head’ pozo [ˈpodzo] ‘well’
  Alveolar espesso [esˈpeso] ‘thick’ espeso [esˈpezo] ‘spent’
  Palato-alveolar dixo [ˈdiʃo] ‘said’ mugier [muˈʒjeɾ] ‘woman’

In final and preconsonantal positions, the above voicing distinction appears not to have been operative. In those positions, the sibilant subsystem was represented orthographically by just three graphs, viz. z (dental), s (alveolar) and x (palato-alveolar).

From the beginning of the 16th century the voiced sounds illustrated in Table 4 – the dentals by now having been deaffricated – were lost in northern Iberian dialects and this innovation spread southwards, becoming the Peninsular norm by the beginning of the 17th century. The much quoted observation below provides a nice snapshot of the variability of the time and suggests that a voicing-related isogloss was located somewhere between Old and New Castile:

Los de Castilla la Vieja dizen hacer y en Toledo hazer, y dizen xugar, y en Toledo dizen jugar.
‘The Old Castilians say hacer and in Toldeo they say hazer, and they say xugar and in Toldeo its jugar.
(Fray Juan de Córdoba, Arte en lengua zapoteca, 1578)

Devoicing of the sibilants did not occur in Judaeo-Spanish, however, given that this variety had become separated from developments in the Iberian Peninsula as a consequence of the Expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Thus the modern Judaeo-Spanish phonology retains four of the sounds shown in Table 4, viz. /s/, /z/ /ʃ/ and /ʒ/. Contemporary varieties apparently exhibit no reflex of the dental series (originally /ts/ and /dz/), which was displaced by alveolar /s/ and /z/, as also happened in Latin American dialects of Spanish. The complete generalization of this loss in Judaeo-Spanish may be relatively recent, given that Menéndez Pidal, writing in the early 20th century, observed that hoy los judíos españoles de Bulgaria y Marruecos conservan restos de la pronunciación africada en la sonora de ciertas palabras como podsu ‘pozo’, tedsu ‘tieso’ (con s sonora) ‘today Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria and Morocco conserve a residue of the affricate pronunciation in the voiced consonant of some words such as podsu “well” and tedsu “stiff” (in which the s is voiced)’ (Menéndez Pidal 1958: 112).

12. References

Menéndez Pidal, Ramón. 1958. Manual de gramática histórica española (10th ed.). Madrid: Espasa Calpe.
Penny, Ralph. 2002. A history of the Spanish language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.