Spanish, Why does the 'z' in empezar change to a 'c' in the subjunctive tense?
- Zac ZLv 71 month ago
This is really simple if you know a few things.
So please bear with me for a paragraph or two and you will be amply rewarded (by understanding what's going on rather than having to memorize countless spellings). ;-)
The key is phonetics, more specifically the phonetics of the Spanish of Spain.
Mainland Spanish has a sound called "voiceless dental fricative" which is the th-sound in "thought" (as opposed to the th-sound in "that" which is the voiced dental fricative).
You don't need to know the linguistic terms but if you ever see them, now you know what they are! ;-)
There are a few regions (Andalusia and the Canary Islands) in Spain where this th-sound is replaced by a simple s-sound. This phenomenon is called seseo.
From what I heard, many of the seamen or soldiers that colonized the Americas in the 16th century came from these regions and imported this linguistic phenomenon.
Nowadays, the seseo is common throughout all of Latin American Spanish, meaning that native Spanish speakers from Latin America will not distinguish between the s-sound and the th-sound. (Finc who says that speakers often confuse s and z apparently is a native Latin American Spanish speaker; or more precisely, his pals who confuse the spelling.)
What does all of this have to do with your question?
Here we go.
This th-sound I have been speaking all the time is written with a "c" or a "z", depending on which vowel follows.
A "c" is pronounced as a voiceless dental fricative when placed before "e" or "i" (as in cerdo, cinco) but as a k-sound when placed before "a", "o" or "u" (cada, corte, cuidado).
But how to spell a word where there is this th-sound before "a", "o" or "u"? This is where the "z" comes into play. It is always pronounced as a voiceless dental fricative and is used whenever the "c" would be pronounced as a k-sound but the word actually has a th-sound. Examples are Zaragoza, zorro, azul.
What is important to understand is that the first choice to spell the voiceless dental fricative is always the "c". A "z" is only used when the "c" would be pronounced as a k-sound.
That's why there are no "proper" Spanish words that have the letter combination "ze" or "zi"! The only examples are words from other languages, like Zeus or zinc. (If you find an example, I'd like to know about it.)
Therefore, your question is actually the wrong question.
The question shouldn't be why the "z" in empezar changes to a "c" in the subjunctive tense, it should be rather why is there a "z" and not a "c" in the first place.
Knowing all of this, the answer to your question now is very simple.
In mainland Spanish, the word empezar is pronounced with a voiceless dental fricative. That's why we need to use the letter "c", except for the cases where it would indicate a k-sound.
It really doesn't have anything to do with the subjunctive mood. It's just that it happens that most of the conjugated verbs in the indicative moods have the voiceless dental fricative before an "a" or an "o". The first-person singular form of the past indefinido tense (which is not a subjunctive mood), for example, DOES have a "c" as well: empecé
And various past subjunctive verb forms do have "z"s because the voiceless dental fricative is found before an a-sound, e.g. empezara/empezase or empezáramos/empezásemos.
Now, if you learn Spanish from native Latin American Spanish speakers, because of the seseo, the easy way to know that you need to reflect in the spelling the voiceless dental fricative, which is not pronounced in that Spanish variety, unfortunately is lost.
When you hear "kassa" from a Latin American Spanish speaker you must rely on context to know whether they're talking about a house (casa) or hunting (caza). And to properly write it you need to memorize which one has the "s" and which one the "z".
Mainland Spanish does phonetically distinguish the sounds which is an advantage for the Spanish learner. (But the Latin American variety is more beautiful on the ear, if you ask me, but that's a personal preference.)
If you have a verb with a "z", or a "c" before an "e" or "i", you now know that you have to adapt the letter if the vowel changes from "e" or "i" to "a", "o" or "u" - and vice versa.
NB: You didn't ask about it but this is directly connected.
There are some verbs that have a "c" before an "a", "o", or "u" which stands for a k-sound as we've said.
In cases where the vowel changes to an "e" or "i" for grammatical reasons you want to preserve the k-sound.
For example, the k-sound in the verb indicar is still present in the subjunctive mood where the "a" changes into an "e".
As in the parallel case we've discussed at length above, where the "c" is replaced by a "z" to keep the voiceless dental fricative, here too the "c" is replaced.
One could imagine the subjunctive for the first-person present to be spelled indike but that is not so. In fact, the letter "k" is alien to the Spanish spelling and is extremely rarely found, and only in words of foreign origin.
Instead "qu" is used: indique
The mechanism is the same. The letter "c" takes preference, if phonetically necessary it's replaced by "qu".
- 1 month ago
because with their accent and pronunciation of words it wouldn't really work, so they change the spelling for it to be able to easily be said!
- 1 month ago
...that's just the way it works...for pronunciation purposes