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Yeísmo (Spanish pronunciation: [ɟʝeˈizmo]; literally "Y-ism") is a distinctive feature of certain dialects of the Spanish language, characterized by the loss of the traditional palatal lateral approximant phoneme /ʎ/ (listen) (written ⟨ll⟩) and its merger into the phoneme /ʝ/ (listen) (written ⟨y⟩), usually realized as a palatal approximant or affricate. It is an example of delateralization.

In other words, ⟨ll⟩ and ⟨y⟩ represent the same sound [ʝ] (listen) when yeísmo is present. The term yeísmo comes from one of the Spanish names for the letter ⟨y⟩ (ye[1]). Over 90% of Spanish speakers exhibit this phonemic merger.[2] Similar mergers exist in other languages, such as French, Italian, Hungarian, Catalan, Basque, Portuguese or Galician, with different social considerations.

Occasionally, the term lleísmo (pronounced [ʎeˈizmo]) has been used to refer to the maintenance of the phonemic distinction between /ʝ/ and /ʎ/.[3][4][5]


Regions with the merger (yeísmo) in dark blue, regions with distinction in pink[image reference needed]
Regions with the merger (yeísmo) in dark blue, mixed regions in purple, regions with distinction in pink[image reference needed]

Most dialects that merge the two sounds represented by ⟨ll⟩ and ⟨y⟩ realize the remaining sound as a voiced palatal approximant [ʝ] (listen), which is much like ⟨y⟩ in English your. However, it sometimes becomes a voiced palatal affricate [ɟʝ] (listen), sounding somewhat like ⟨j⟩ in English jar, especially when appearing after /n/ or /l/ or at the beginning of a word. For example, relleno is pronounced [reˈʝeno] and conllevar is pronounced [koɲɟʝeˈβaɾ] or [kondʒeˈβaɾ].

In dialects where /ʎ/ is maintained, its pronunciation involves constriction in both the alveolar or post-alveolar area and in the palatal area. Its duration when between vowels is 20% longer than that of a simple /l/, and the formant transitions to the following vowel are nearly twice as long. Replacing /ʎ/ with /ʝ/ can thus be considered a type of lenition since it results in a lower degree of closure.[6]

Zheísmo and sheísmo[edit]

In most of Argentina and Uruguay the merged sound is pronounced as a sibilant [ʒ];[7] this is referred to as zheísmo.

The [ʒ] sound itself may have originated in Argentina and Uruguay as an influence of local Amerindian languages on the colonial pronunciation of the Spanish language typical of the area's inhabitants of that time, a pronunciation that persisted after the mass immigration of post-colonial Italians and Spaniards into the region which otherwise transformed the demographics and affected aspects of the Spanish language there, including most noticeably intonation. Prior to this post-colonial mass immigration wave, as most other South American countries, their populations were similarly composed of a mestizo majority (those of mixed Spaniard and Amerindian ancestry). In Buenos Aires the sound [ʒ] has recently been devoiced to [ʃ] (sheísmo) among younger speakers.[8]

In the Ecuadorian Sierra region spanning from the Imbabura province to the Chimborazo Province, by contrast, where the pronunciation of /ʎ/ as [ʒ] survives among the majority population of colonial-descended mestizos, the sibilant has not merged as in Argentina and Uruguay, and so a distinction is also maintained but with ⟨ll⟩ representing [ʒ] (rather than the original Spanish [ʎ] sound) and ⟨y⟩ representing [ʝ].[9] The shift from /ʎ/ to [ʒ] in this region of Ecuador is theorized to have occurred long before the 20th century, and affected both Ecuadorian Spanish and Quichua, which through the early 17th century maintained distinctions between [ʒ], /ʎ/, [ʝ]. This three-way distinction is still present in the Kichwa of more southerly regions, such as the Azuay province, which uses the graphemes <zh>, <ll>, and <y> to distinguish between these phonemes. In the orthography of several Ecuadorian dialects of Quichua, under the influence of the orthography of Ecuadorian Andean Spanish, the grapheme ⟨ll⟩ is also used to represent the [ʒ] sound.[10]

Parts of Colombia, like the Andean regions of Ecuador, maintain a distinction between ⟨ll⟩ representing [ʒ] and ⟨y⟩ representing [ʝ]. This type of distinction is found in southern Antioquia Department and the southeast end of Norte de Santander Department. A greater portion of Andean Colombia maintains the distinction between [ʎ] and [ʝ]. Overall, Colombia presents great variety with regards to yeísmo.[11]

The same shift from [ʎ] to [ʒ] to [ʃ] (to modern [x]) historically occurred in the development of Old Spanish; this accounts for such pairings as Spanish mujer vs Portuguese mulher, ojo vs olho, hija vs filha and so on.

Extension of yeísmo[edit]

The distinction between /ʝ/ and /ʎ/ remains in the Philippines, Andean Ecuador and Peru, Paraguay, both highland and lowland Bolivia, and the northeastern portions of Argentina that border with Paraguay.[12]

The retention of a distinction between /ʎ/ and /ʝ/ is more common in areas where Spanish coexists with other languages, either with Amerindian languages, such as Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní, which, with the exception of Guaraní, themselves possess the phoneme /ʎ/,[13] or in Spain itself in areas with linguistic contact with Catalan and Basque.

By 1989, several traditionally non-yeísta areas, such as Bogotá and much of Spain and the Canaries, had begun rapidly adopting yeísmo, in the timespan of little more than a single generation. In areas where yeísmo is variable, [ʎ] is lost more often in rapid and casual speech. There is also idiolectal correlation between yeísmo and speech rate, with fast-speaking individuals being more likely to be yeísta.[6]

Yeísmo has begun appearing in the speech of Ecuador's middle and upper classes.[14]

In Spain, most of the northern half of the country and several areas in the south, particularly in rural Huelva, Seville, Cadiz, and part of the Canaries used to retain the distinction, but yeísmo has spread throughout the country, and the distinction is now lost in most of Spain, particularly outside areas in linguistic contact with Catalan and Basque. In monolingual, urban northern Spain, a distinction between /ʝ/ and /ʎ/ only exists among the oldest age groups in the upper classes.[15][16]

Although northern, rural areas of Spain are typically associated with lack of yeísmo, and yeísmo is typically thought of as a southern phenomenon, there are several isolated, rural, Asturleonese-speaking areas where yeísmo is found even among elderly speakers. These include the valley of Nansa, Tudanca, and Cabuérniga, all in Cantabria. This is evidence that the existence of yeísmo in the southern half of the Peninsula and beyond may be due to the arrival of Astur-leonese settlers, who already had yeísmo, and subsequent dialect levelling in newly reconquered southern communities.[17]

Minimal pairs[edit]

Yeísmo produces homophony in a number of cases. For example, the following word pairs sound the same when pronounced by speakers of dialects with yeísmo, but they are minimal pairs in regions with the distinction:

  • haya ("beech tree" / "that there be") ~ halla ("he/she/it finds")
  • cayó ("he/she/it fell") ~ calló ("he/she/it became silent")
  • hoya ("pit, hole") ~ olla ("pot")
  • baya ("berry") / vaya ("that he/she/it go") ~ valla ("fence")

The relatively low frequency of both /ʝ/ and /ʎ/ makes confusion unlikely. However, orthographic mistakes are common (for example, writing llendo instead of yendo). A notable case is the name of the island of Mallorca: since Mallorcans tend to pronounce intervocalic /ʎ/ as /ʝ/, central Catalan scribes assumed the authentic (and correct) name Maiorca was another case of this and hypercorrected it to Mallorca. This new form ended up becoming the usual pronunciation, even for native Mallorcans.[18]

Similar phenomena in other languages[edit]

Romance languages[edit]

  • Standard Portuguese distinguishes /ʎ/, /j/ and /lj/. Many Brazilian Portuguese speakers merge /ʎ/ and /lj/, making olho and óleo both /ˈɔʎu/. Some speakers, mainly of the Caipira dialect of Brazil, merge /ʎ/ and /j/, making telha and teia both /ˈtejɐ/. Some Caipira speakers distinguish etymological /ʎ/ and /lj/, pronouncing olho /ˈɔju/ and óleo /ˈɔʎu/.
  • In standard French, historical /ʎ/ turned into /j/, but the spelling ⟨ill⟩ was preserved, hence briller ([bʁ], originally [bʁi.ʎe]), Versailles ([vɛʁ.sɑj], originally [vɛʁ.sɑʎ]).
  • Romanesco and many Northern and Central dialects of Italy have /j/ or /jj/ corresponding to standard Italian /ʎʎ/.


  • In Hungarian, /ʎ/ in most dialects turned into /j/, but the spelling ⟨ly⟩ was preserved, hence lyuk [juk].
  • In Swedish, /lj/ turned into /j/ in word-initial positions, but the spelling ⟨lj⟩ was preserved, hence ljus [ˈjʉːs].
  • In Cypriot Greek, /lj/ is often pronounced as [ʝː], especially by younger speakers. In Standard Modern Greek, it always surfaces as [ʎ].[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "La "i griega" se llamará "ye"" Cuba Debate. 2010-11-05. Retrieved 25 November 2010.
  2. ^ Coloma (2011), p. 103.
  3. ^ Álvarez Menéndez (2005), p. 104.
  4. ^ Schwegler, Kempff & Ameal-Guerra (2009), p. 399.
  5. ^ Travis (2009), p. 76.
  6. ^ a b Lipski, John M. (1989). "SPANISH YEÍSMO AND THE PALATAL RESONANTS: TOWARDS A UNIFIED ANALYSIS" (PDF). Probus. 1 (2). doi:10.1515/prbs.1989.1.2.211. S2CID 170139844.
  7. ^ Martínez-Celdrán, Fernández-Planas & Carrera-Sabaté (2003), p. 258.
  8. ^ Lipski (1994), p. 170.
  9. ^ "Andean Spanish".
  10. ^ "OM_Quichua_of_Imbabura_A_Brief_Phonetic_Sketch_of_Fricatives" (PDF). Retrieved 17 September 2021.
  11. ^ Peña Arce, Jaime (2015). "Yeísmo en el español de América. Algunos apuntes sobre su extensión" [Yeísmo in the Spanish spoken in America. Some notes on its extension]. Revista de Filología de la Universidad de la Laguna (in Spanish). 33: 175–199. Retrieved 5 October 2021.
  12. ^ Coloma (2011), p. 95.
  13. ^ Lapesa, Rafael. "El español de América" (in Spanish). Cultural Antonio de Nebrija.
  14. ^ Klee & Lynch (2009), pp. 136–7.
  15. ^ Coloma (2011), pp. 110–111.
  16. ^ Penny (2000), p. 120, 130, 132.
  17. ^ Penny, Ralph (1991). "El origen asturleonés de algunos fenómenos andaluces y americanos" (PDF). Lletres asturianes: Boletín Oficial de l'Academia de la Llingua Asturiana (in Spanish). 39: 33–40. ISSN 0212-0534. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  18. ^ "Diccionari català-valencià-balear".
  19. ^ Arvaniti, Amalia (2010). "A (brief) review of Cypriot Phonetics and Phonology" (PDF). The Greek Language in Cyprus from Antiquity to the Present Day. University of Athens. pp. 107–124. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 January 2016.


Further reading[edit]

  • Pharies, David (2007). A Brief History of the Spanish Language. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-66683-9.

External links[edit]