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Review of  A Sociolinguistic Analysis of /s/-Aspiration in Madrid Spanish

Reviewer: Jim Michnowicz
Book Title: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of /s/-Aspiration in Madrid Spanish
Book Author: Natasa B. Momcilovic
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 21.2487

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AUTHOR: Momcilovic, Natasa B.
TITLE: A sociolinguistic analysis of /s/-aspiration in Madrid Spanish
SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Romance Linguistics 60
YEAR: 2009

Jim Michnowicz, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, North Carolina
State University


This text details a sociolinguistic study of 27 speakers from Madrid, Spain. The
linguistic variable studied is coda (s), which in Spanish has the following
possible variants: for 'disco' 'disk': 'standard' [s] ([disko]), aspirated [h]
([dihko]), assimilation to a following consonant ([dikko]), or deletion
([diko]). The author proposes to answer the following three research questions
(p. 6):

1) ''How does non-standard Madrid Spanish differ from Standard Spanish in
relation to the /s/-aspiration feature?''
2) ''What are the sociolinguistic factors which influence the use of
[non-standard Madrid Spanish] pronunciation of /s/-aspiration?''
3) ''What are the intralinguistic (language inherent) factors that contribute to
an understanding of this phenomena [sic]?''

The book contains six chapters, briefly outlined below.

Chapter 1 is a brief introduction to Madrid Spanish and sociolinguistic theory.
The author focuses on defining 'standard' Spanish as the varieties spoken in
northern Castile, in order to show that Madrid, although the capital of the
country and generally considered to have a prestigious dialect, is not home to
the standard variety, at least with regards to /s/-aspiration. The research
questions outlined above are presented.

Chapter 2 reviews previous literature on /s/-aspiration and northern peninsular
varieties of Spanish. Much of the chapter is devoted to explaining the
development of medieval Spanish sibilants, which led to the current pattern of
'distinction' (/theta/ vs /s/, as in caza vs casa) in northern Spain. This
chapter ends with a brief review of linguistic atlas projects in Spain,
concluding that the data (or lack thereof) from previous studies leaves a lacuna
that can be filled by the present study.

Chapter 3 outlines the methodology for the study. Speakers were primarily
contacted through a 'friend-of-a-friend' technique, and were recorded for a
minimum of 1 hour. In order to capture a wide range of registers, the data set
consists of free conversation (least formal), a reading passage (moderately
formal), and a word list task (most formal). Further details of speakers'
education levels and other social factors are discussed.

Chapter 4 presents frequency results for the four variants of /s/ (again: [s],
[h], assimilation, deletion) for each factor, such as phonetic context, speech
style (reading text, word list, conversation), speaker age, gender, and
education. Cross-tabulations of factors (such as young men with mid-level
education) are also presented. The author explains the procedures for the
statistical analysis used in determining significant factors in /s/ variation
(the GEE method).

Chapter 5 presents a summary of chapter 4, this time with easier to follow
graphs and discussion.

Results from chapters 4 and 5 indicate that the factors speech style, phonetic
context, and speaker gender are significant factors in determining /s/
variability. Other factors, such as speaker education and age, as well as
interviewer, were not significant.

Regarding phonetic context, in general word internal /s/ (as in disco 'disk')
was preserved more frequenty (76%) than word final /s/ (either before a pause,
vowel, or consonant, as in más ('more') - 63% [s]). The context which most
favored weakening of /s/ was word-final pre-consonantal position (as in 'hablas
francés' - 'you speak French').

Regarding speech style, /s/ was weakened most often in conversational style (66%
[s]), followed by the reading text (82% [s]) and finally the word list (93%
[s]). For gender, men were found to weaken /s/ (aspirate, delete, assimilate)
more often than women. For example, in conversation data, men produced [s] 52%
vs. 80% [s] for women. Other, non-significant patterns are also discussed. For
example, a tendency was found for the lower education group to weaken /s/ more
than more educated groups.

Results are briefly compared with Molina's (1998) study of Toledo Spanish. The
author concludes that /s/-aspiration (and related processes) are less advanced
in Madrid than in Toledo, as one would expect from previous studies and patterns
of diffusion for /s/ weakening.

Finally, chapter 6 very briefly summarizes the study, and provides areas for
future research.


This study presents a welcome addition to the body of sociolinguistic literature
on /s/-aspiration and peninsular Spanish. The results, especially as presented
in chapter 5, provide a much clearer picture of /s/ weakening in Madrid than
that previously available. As much as the author hoped to describe the process
in Madrid, the book is a success.

There are, however, several areas that could have been further developed and
made more precise, and so that could have made the study a more important
contribution to the broader field of (Spanish) sociolinguistics.

First, the author presents a superficial view of sociolinguistic theory and
methods, and at times appears to be citing previous work without applying
knowledge gained from other studies to the present investigation. For example,
the author confuses real and apparent time constructs. She states that 'real
time' will be used due to the lack of previous studies on Madrid Spanish and to
time constraints, where the author cannot follow speakers for 10-20 years. In
other words, she will use generational data from a single study to make
predictions about possible language change, which, of course, is a study in
apparent time. In sociolinguistic methods, a study in 'real time' employs
previous studies to compare language over time, precisely what the author is not
doing (see Labov 1994). This lack of understanding of current sociolinguistics
can be found throughout the book. For example, when justifying the use of
speaker gender as a variable, the author states ''It is a linguistically attested
fact that women and men use language differently (Trudgill 1983, Fasold 1990)'',
but no further explanation is given. Citing some of the pertinent literature on
gender, age and other differences would have been helpful.

The other major problem area is the lack of (current) bibliography. Most of the
sociolinguistic studies cited are from the 1960's and 1970's, including Labov's
seminal 1966 study of New York English. While no doubt an important study,
sociolinguistics has come a long way in the past 40 years. In general, the
author seems unfamiliar with recent work in sociolinguistics and phonology. For
example, the author at one point concludes that Natural Phonology is the model
most suited for addressing s-aspiration. No mention is made of more recent work
in constraint-based models, such as Morris 2000, who addresses /s/-aspiration in
peninsular Spanish.

The most significant gap in the background literature is the glaring omission of
studies on Latin American /s/-aspiration. Weakening of /s/ is one of the most
studied processes in Spanish, yet little to no attempt is made to contextualize
the present results with data from other varieties of Spanish. There are dozens
(if not more) studies on /s/ in Latin American Spanish, but none are mentioned
in the present work (e.g. a few examples chosen at random: Cedergren 1978,
Amastae 1989, Terrell 1979, Poplack 1980, Hundley 1987, Carvalho 2006, Lipski
1984, Brown & Torres Cacoullos 2002, among many others). Reviewing literature
from outside of central Spain would have strengthened the study and allowed for
a better understanding of the processes underway in Madrid. Even recent studies
in (and around) Spain are not addressed in the study (Samper-Padilla 1990,
Ranson 1993, Gerfen 2002, Hernández-Campoy & Trudgill 2002, Morris 2000, Sayahi
2005 among many others). Hernández-Campoy & Trudgill (2002) alone provide over
50 references to studies of /s/-aspiration on the first page of their article.
Although the purpose of the book is to study Madrid Spanish, which it does
accomplish, the speech of that city of course does not exist in isolation, and
many of the findings of the present study would not be surprising given the
pattern of /s/-aspiration in other varieties.

Interestingly, there are references in the bibliography that, as far as I can
tell, do not appear in the book. One wonders if poor editing is to blame for at
least some of the problems outlined above.

Finally, no possible explanations are provided for the observed patterns. Can
they be related to migration patterns from Andalusia? Why do men aspirate more
in Madrid? Why isn't education a significant factor? What does that suggest? How
do the observed patterns relate to cross-dialectal and cross-linguistic
sociolinguistic patterns. Unfortunately, it is left up to the reader to fill in
the blanks.

In spite of the (at times serious) problems outlined above, this book does
provide the best study to date on this feature in Madrid. This book makes a
worthy contribution for chapters 4 and 5, results and discussion, alone. The
sociolinguistic patterning of variables in Madrid deserves much future study,
and this book is a step in the right direction. It is hoped that the author (and
others) will continue to study the varieties of Spain's capital, in order to
understand its speech patterns within the wider context of sociolinguistics and
Spanish dialectology.


Amastae, Jon. 1989. ''The intersection of s-aspiration/deletion and
spirantization in Honduran Spanish''. Language Variation and Change 1:2, 169-183.

Brown, Esther L. and Rena Torres Cacoullos. 2002. ''¿Qué le vamoh aher?: Taking
the Syllable out of Spanish /s/ Reduction''. In D. Johnson and T. Sanchez (eds.),
University of Working Papers in Linguistics: Papers from NWAV 30, 17-32.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carvalho, Ana Maria. 2006. ''Spanish (s) aspiration as a prestige marker on the
Uruguayan-Brazilian border''. Spanish in Context 3:1, 85-114.

Cedergren, Henrietta. 1978. En torno de la variación de la S final de sílaba en
Panamá. Corrientes actuales en la dialectología del Caribe Hispánico, ed. by
Humberto López Morales, 35-50. Río Piedras: Editorial.

Gerfen, Chip. 2002. ''Andalusian codas''. Probus 14:2, 247-277.

Hernández-Campoy, Juan Manuel & Peter Trudgill. 2002. ''Functional compensation
and southern Peninsular Spanish /s/ loss''. Folia Linguistica Historica 23:1-2,

Hundley, James E. 1987. ''Functional constraints on plural marker deletion in
Peruvian Spanish''. Hispania 70:4, 891-894.

Labov, William. 1966. The social stratification of New York City. Washington,
DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change: Internal factors. Oxford:

Lipski, John. 1984. ''On the weakening of /s/ in Latin American Spanish''.
Zeitschrift für Dialektologie und Linguistik 51, 31-43.

Molina Martos, Isabel. 1998. La fonética de Toledo: contexto geográfico y
social. Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá.

Morris, Richard E. 2000. ''Constraint interaction in Spanish /s/-aspiration:
Three Peninsular varieties''. In H. Campos, E. Herburger, F. Morales-Front & T.J.
Walsh (eds). Hispanic linguistics at the turn of the Millennium: Papers from the
3rd Hispanic Linguistics Symposium, Somerville, MA: Cascadilla.

Poplack, Shana. 1980. ''Deletion and disambiguation in Puerto Rican Spanish''.
Language 56:2, 371-385.

Ranson, Diana L. 1993. The interaction of linguistic and contextual number
markers in Andalusian Spanish. Hispania 76.9, 19-30.

Samper-Padilla, José Antonio. 1990. ''Estudio sociolingüístico del español de Las
Palmas de Gran Canaria''. Sintagma: Revista de lingüística 2, 94-96.

Sayahi, Lotfi. 2005. ''Final /s/ retention and deletion in Spanish: The role of
the speaker's type of competence''. Language Sciences 27:5, 515-529.

Terrell, Tracy D. 1979. ''Final /s/ in Cuban Spanish''. 62, 599-612.

Jim Michnowicz is Assistant Professor of Spanish at North Carolina State University. His research interests include dialect change and standardization, linguistic expressions of identity, and dialect/language contact.