The pronunciation of the letter X in (Mexican) Spanish - 29/09/2016, 02:16

I originally wrote this for a friend who's visiting Mexico. Thought it would be fun to share it here.
Additionally I know that in Spain there is a 6th sound for words that come from Basque like "Montxo" - pronounced "MONcho". So it's not entirely Mexican Spanish overriding the X, it has happened before! ;)

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The X can have 5 different pronunciations depending on where the word comes from and also who is the one speaking it.
j - the Spanish J; e.g. México - [MÉjico]
z - the Spanish Z; e.g. Xochimilco - [zochiMILco]
s - a softer version of the "Z"; probably a simplification of sounds; e.g. Tlaxcala - [tlasCAla] *
sh - as sh in English sh; e.g. Xicoténcatl - [shicoTÉNcatl]; Ixbalanqué - [ishbalanKÉ] **
ks - as the English X; e.g. Excelente - [ekseLENte] ; Taxco - [TAKS·ko]

* At the moment I can't remember any word that switches from Z to any other pronunciation, however Tlaxcala can be pronounced [tlaksCAla] or (as I wrote) [tlasCAla]

** The "sh" pronunciation can also switch to "j" depending on the speaker. It is not uncommon for the proper name Xicoténcatl to also be pronounced [jicoTÉNcatl]. Usually these words come from Náhuatl (the somewhat common tongue at the time of the Spanish conquest), Mayan or other pre-Columbian languages. This is more on a word-by-word basis.

I can't think of any hard rules but my algorithm for knowing how the heck something is pronounced would be -

Does the word seem to be from the general Spanish language? Then probably KS

Does it end in "tl", "te", "tle", "tli" (or when you know it comes from Náhuatl) ? Probably comes from Náhuatl - use SH
Name of city or person in southern México? Most likely Mayan. Use SH

Is X in the very beginning of the word or would it sound superweird with other pronunciations? use Z (though there are exceptions such as Xola which is pronounced [SHOla])

Does it involve a series of (even more than usual) complicated sounds e.g. somethingXCsomething ? Simplify to S

:D And finally, I doubt anyone will fault any foreigner for not knowing how things are pronounced. Even native speakers don't get it right 100% of the time so, no worries!

Hope this helps :P !

(For the luls: There is even a place called Xbox in Yucatán, and it is pronounced [sh'bOsh])

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