If you spend enough time in Madrid’s malasaña district, you might see on the walls of one of the popular bars the front cover of a artsy magazine called Madriz. This art- and culture-magazine was popularized during the movida mardileña post-Franco when years of pent up repression came out in a full-on youth rebellion equivalent to the US hippie movement. Malasaña was the center of this movement, as is evidenced today by its alternative and theme bars.
What’s curious is the colloquial spelling of Madrid, which madrileños tend to pronounce with a strong th-sound at the end. This is usually spelled in Castilian Spanish with a “z”. Now, I was in a pizza restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, where another Californian who was living and working in Madrid as well, made the claim that the madrileños spoke bad Spanish. John, we’ll call him, had been hacking and complaining in loud English about the smoke from a quiet newspaper-reading man’s cigarette, when he began a long-winded tirade about how he had been so annoyed with the silly way madrileños talk, with their palatalization of final d’s, that he’d emailed his former Spanish professor back in the US to ask whether or not this was correct Spanish, and the professor had replied that it wasn’t, just as he’d suspected.
I didn’t want to get into an argument about prescriptive or descriptive grammar at the moment so I argued, based on what I was hearing, that the th-sound at the end of the word was not only colloquially correct, but academically correct. After all, they live in the capital of Spain, the seat of the Spanish language, so how could so many people be wrong? It might that was just my tendency to think that language functions as people use it, that if everybody is saying something one way, then that’s the way it’s said, no matter what the stiff academicians and language czars prescribe, but I also thought it was the “correct” way to pronounce the word, just based on what I’d heard on the streets. Moreover, I’m not the type to correct native speakers’ speech. I’ve had far too many Germans tell me I couldn’t call a person or an event “fun,” and that I had to say “funny,” even though it has an entirely different meaning.
Well, in the end John moved on to the topic of how bad and slow the European waiters are, but I made a note of our conversation and decided to do some research once I returned to Spain. I read up a bit on the Internet, but I also talked to some people, who gave me a much deeper insight into what the pronunciation meant.
Well, it turns out, I was partially wrong. Apparently, in strict academic speech, Madrid would be pronounced with a ‘d’ at the end, fulfilling Spanish’s perfection of matching sounds to letters. Still, the ‘z’ is a more common, in fact widespread, pronunciation. Regionally, there are some differences of note: in the Andalusia the final ‘d’ is often droppe, meaning Madrid would warble out like Madrí, whereas in Cataluña it sounds almost Germanic: Madritt. As for the speech of central Spain, the final ending ‘z’ is so widespread however, that if you do pronounce it as a ‘d’—instead of making commands “escuchaz” and “paraz”—your speech will sound so super-posh and clean-cut as to attract stares from the working-class-spirited Madrid populace. In other words, you’ll be a “pijo” or “pija” (or you can use the adjective, calling someone “un poco pijo”), which is like the British “posh” but without the ironically positive aspect.
Hence, the artsy, left-wing, post-fascist groove generation magazine, proudly showing its solidarity with the local people, against the man, by naming itself Madriz. (Not dissimilar to how hip kids in the US drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, even though the working class no longer likes it for that very reason.) Now, that doesn’t mean all pronunciation of the ‘th’ at the end of the word is some demonstration of class solidarity. Rather it’s more the proud, staunch regionalism that characterizes Spain, the preference for the local autonomous communities over the centralized, standardized regime—something which not always manifests itself in the most practical ways in Spanish politics, but which will always be a part of Spaniards’ innate character, that chest-beating pride of the pueblo. Also, this simply the way people learn to talk, and they’re not going to change it just because the books tell them to, even if it makes the language even more serpentine and lispy.
So the next time you, a second-language speaker of Spanish, want to impress your Madrileño friends with your newfound local pride and love of the language “as it is spoke,” pull out a tongue-twisting little sentence like this: “Oíz, chicos, paraz. Estamos zerca de la plaza mayor, aquí en el zentro de Madriz, verdaz?”
It makes the English ‘th’ sound mild and tame, even though it’s the hardest sound for foreigners to learn. I wonder why it never caught on in Latin America.