How Should Cusco’s Name Be Pronounced?

“The people of Lima say the name of our city wrong. It is insulting. Instead of saying it with the full sound of the s, like we do, they replace it with a different sound, [what in Spanish we call] a J In English it is an H, isn’t it?”

Eyes glaring with anger, a young attorney from Cuzco, expressed this opinion strongly. “They say ‘Cuhco’ instead of ‘Cusco’. It sounds wrong. Why can’t they be respectful and pronounce it right. I live in Lima and always correct people when they say it wrong. They do not like it but they should be more respectful.”

Visitors to this amazing city and state that was the first capital of Spanish Peru and the seat of the vast Inca Empire. It is more than a simple city. It is a cosmological and ritual center, as well as an emblem of contested histories, including that of the now powerful coastal people versus the people of Cuzco. Not only is this difference manifested in economic and political power, it is also strongly marked in different dialects of Spanish.

The people of the coast rely on a common pattern in lowland Latin America where an S following a vowel becomes a sound we really do not have in English outside of Scotland. It is the sound in “loch”, a very hard blowing of air out of the throat which can cause the uvula to vibrate,

In other words, a simple pronunciation stands for so much more that a simple name with two was of saying it. It encompasses a long history of tension and struggle between coast and highland, going back to even before the Spanish.


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There is even more in the issue of this name and its pronunciation, however.

Within Spanish there is quite a variety of ways of saying the sound generally written as an S (although sometimes it is a C or a Z). Sometimes these differences separate people into different with, fairly frequently, historical and social tensions. Other times they are variants within a single dialect or even within the speech of a single person.

The variations have mostly to do with where people place the tongue and whether they arch it or not. When arched it starts to sound more like a weak SH sound in English, when flat it is like the English S in “say”. In historical Spanish, this variation was particularly strong and was often represented by different letters.

When the Spanish came to Peru they also had to deal with the variation in these sounds in indigenous languages such as Quechua and figure out how to represent them in writing. Many scholars, such as Jorge Flores Ochoa, argue that the historic spelling of the city’s name (Cuzco) was to represent a sound that was different from the S with the flat tongue which is the standard sound of the letter S in Spanish at least as understood in Cuzco

However, a different difficulty presented itself. Sounds like S represented in the Spanish of Latin America by a C or a Z have changed in the dominant dialect of Spain. People in Cuzco were taught that a Z always should be pronounced like a voiceless TH in English, as they do in Spain,

As a result you will hear people in Cuzco say doe-thay (for doce) and tray-thay (for trece. Although they are not consistent and in many other cases, such as the Z in conozco or voz, they use the sound of the S, I hear something more in Cuzco or Cusco. I hear the sound of the city’s name pronounced differently than other S sounds such as conocer o saber. I hear the same sound in the word conozco unlike conocer, its infinitive form.

If this is right, it suggests the old distinction in sounds mentioned by Jorge Flores Ochoa and represented historically in the graphic difference between Z and S may continue in Cusco’z dialect. Part of the offense may lie, therefore, in the coastal dialects missing the distinction between one s, that is changeable, and the other that should invoke a different sound.

This issue really needs a phonological study of the speech of the people of Cuzco, but there still may be at least two different S sounds in the city, one more like the historical one and hte other more like the standard S.

* P.S. It should be noted, as we have discussed earlier, the issue of the S or Z spelling is a hot button one in Cuzco for many.

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