English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

My brief overseas experience in Great Britain has taught me that British people tend to pronounce Ibiza as Ibitha. My questions are as follows:

  1. Why is this the case?

  2. How did this develop?

  3. What are the circumstances that determine if a z is pronounced like a z or a th?

share|improve this question
up vote 26 down vote accepted

Because Spanish people pronounce 'Z' as 'th' and the British are famous throughout Europe for their insistence on punctilious observation of foreign language and customs.

share|improve this answer
Spanish pronunication shifted in the late middle ages to differentiate different ts dz sounds, just as they were populating south America. So south American Spanish ended up with a slightly different 'c' and 'z' than Spanish-Spanish – mgb Apr 17 '12 at 2:52
More precisely, it's because Britains pronounce are more likely to pronounce Spanish the way Spaniards do, while Americans are more likely to pronounce Spanish the way Mexicans do. As for this claim of punctilious observation of foreign language... have you ever heard a Briton pronounce "jaguar"? – Peter Shor Apr 17 '12 at 3:04
@PeterShor Can't you smell the sarcasm? :) – Pitarou Apr 17 '12 at 3:10
@mgb That’s only very broadly speaking correct, as the tale of Spanish sibilants is rather more complicated. The folks who went to the American colonies tended to be from seseo regions,who lack phonemic /θ/. Also, both Catalan and northern and central Spanish (and from the Andes) realizes /s/ apically as [s̺] not laminarly as [s̻], which confuses the untrained anglophone’s ear into making the wrong phonemic assignments. – tchrist May 10 '12 at 12:07
@PeterShor Have you ever heard an American (by which I mean a North American) pronounce Jaguar? – Dominic Cronin Dec 19 '12 at 21:42

I understood the question to be about British usage, not general Spanish pronunciation... so here's my crack at it.

1) and 2) As @mgb pointed out, the British are rather notorious for pronouncing foreign words in their own way, and the rest of the world be damned. Even on the BBC World Service, which is produced for foreign consumption, you will regularly hear heinous offenses committed against the Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian languages. (Probably most others, too, but those are the only ones where I can tell the difference.)

Ibiza is a singular exception. I believe that the reason is that it's a very popular British holiday destination; Britons on holiday (possibly drunk, and therefore in an unusually receptive condition?) hear the local pronunciation and mimic it. Compare with Zaragoza, which I have never heard a Briton pronounce as "Tharagotha".

3) As far as I'm aware, "Ibiza" is the only example where speakers of (BBC-standard) British English regularly pronounce "Z" as "th". When "z" appears in an English word, it is pronounced as the "z" in "zip"; when it appears in a Spanish word, it's generally pronounced as "s" (occasionally as "th", depending on the region and the reporter); when it appears in a German or Italian word, it's pronounced as "ts" - most of the time. Sometimes they pronounce it as "z" there too, and it makes me want to scream.

This answer obviously contains far too much opinion and should have been posted as a comment, but it ran too long.

share|improve this answer
Now that I think of it, even "Ibiza" isn't safe: the local pronunciation is (approximately) "ee-BEE-tha", but many Brits pronounce it "EYE-bee-tha" - for example, one of my favorite songs of all time, "Life on Mars?" by David Bowie: youtube.com/watch?v=v--IqqusnNQ&ob=av2n – MT_Head Apr 17 '12 at 7:40
BBC radio are normally obsessive about pronunciation - but about the word is pronounced in English. After Haiti there were a lot more letters and column inches about their pronunciation of "Port au Prince" (locally 'Port' is pronounced in English, while 'Prince' is pronounced in French) than about the hurricane they were reporting. – mgb Apr 17 '12 at 15:08
@MT_Head Lately I’ve been hearing the BBC Radio pronounce Spanish (closer to) correctly, making a distinction between s and c/z in the way that standard/northern Spanish does (as in Madrid or Barcelona). The Spanish say /iˈβiθa/. Even more surprisingly I recently heard the Beeb getting Portuguese “right” (as spoken in Lisboa or Coimbra), too, which was even more of a surprise. – tchrist May 10 '12 at 11:48

protected by RegDwigнt May 10 '12 at 9:37

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.