Eccentric but not outlandish, strange but not unusual, exaggerated but not grotesque. That’s X — la equis — the sexiest letter in the Spanish alphabet.
The X is one of the least used letters in Spanish. Ironically, it’s not even used in equis, its Spanish name. X is the undeniable star of mathematics: the queen of formulas, equations and the unknown. Keep in mind that in counting out its virtues, it would prefer to do it in Roman numerals, and there its favorite number is 10.
X really likes Wednesdays, and its also a film-lover (though the movies it’s used to describe aren’t for everyone). It’s also X that names the rays used to view our skeleton and examine our fractures.
But we haven’t yet told you the most interesting characteristic of this letter, which makes it an eccentric exception in Spanish: X can be pronounced in four different ways! In a language like Spanish, where you can generally assume that words are pronounced as they’re written, this characteristic shows just how eccentric it is.
The Four Pronunciations Of La Equis
The Most Common Pronunciation Of La Equis
The sound most associated with X is what’s used in examen, that is, a K followed by an S (this is also the most common English pronunciation, which makes it easier for you learners). This sound occurs when la equis appears between vowels like taxi; when it’s followed by a consonant like texto; or when it’s at the end of a word like relax.
This X is an abrupt sound that splits the word in two, and it’s actually not always always pronounced in Spanish. In Spain, you’ll often hear that when an X is followed by a consonant, it’s pronounced like an S, for example with words like excursión or experto. Of course, if you want to emphasize it, X sounds like [ks].
Why ‘X’ When You Can ‘S’?
In the Spanish dictionary, there are only 99 words that start with an X. Most of them come from Greek and are always pronounced as S because… Spanish doesn’t have any other way to pronounce them! Try it: xenofobia, xerografía, xilófono… It’s too difficult to pronounce them as [ks].
The Mexican ‘X’
You’ve surely wondered why Mexico is written with an “X” is pronounced like a Spanish “J” (which, in turn, is pronounced somewhat like an English “h”). Originally, the word comes from Nahuatl, and it was pronounced like [sh]. This sound in Old Spanish was written with an X, and it’s kept the original spelling. Over time, the [sh] sound in Spanish changed to the modern “J” sound, which is why the Real Academia Española — which has caused controversy about the language since the 19th century — decided that any word written with “X” but pronounced like “J” should start to be written with that letter.
That didn’t go over very well in Mexico. Losing the original pronunciation was one thing, but changing the spelling as well? Never! The “X” became a question of identity and although in Spain they insisted on writing Mexican terms with a J (still considered correct by the RAE, but not recommended). In Mexico, place names like Oaxaca, Xalapa, Texas and, of course, México stayed with the X.
Beyond North America, this change in sound and spelling explains a few phenomena like the last names Jiménez-Ximénez or Mejía-Mexía. It all comes down to whether they keep the old spelling, although the pronunciation is the same.
X As [sh]
Finally, we can’t forget that some place names originating from indigenous languages still keep the original [sh] pronunciation of la equis. That’s the case for the Guatemalan city Xela or Punta Xicalangó in Mexico.
This article was originally published on the Spanish edition of Babbel Magazine.