S and a Z Stir Controversy, or Not

The line of people wound through the hall. Two men with American passports who were mostly speaking in Russian stood next to me as we waited to board our flight. I was not paying attention to them and further do not speak Russian. But I did hear them slip into English to wonder why their tickets listed their destination as “Cuzco” while the sign at the gate said “Cusco”.

At first it seemed they were wondering if they were in the right place. Then they shifted and wondered if the ” spelling were in English and the “s” in Spanish. Then they started talking about other weird English spellings and I lost them in their continent of Russian.

Spying on other people’s conversations is not cool. But sometimes you cannot help it.

Still, that difference between the “z” and the “s” is one I am sensitive to from years engaged with “Cuzco, Cusco, Peru” as Facebook lists it.

As the complexity faced by the airline shows, two spellings exist, the one historical and the other preferred by a recent Mayor of Cusco who then helped create an enormous mythology about the different spellings, as we shall see.

City Government Promotes a Spelling
City Government Promotes a Spelling

Both spellings still exist and are used, creating complexity and contradictions galore.

While the bureaucratic issues resolved themselves and the Russian-speaking Americans and this Spanish-speaking one were able to board their flight and arrive safely in the Imperial City, still the issue is not without tension.

First, though, if you look at Google NGRAM, you will notice that in Spanish the S spelling is most common although the z is far from absent, while in English it is the converse.

One justification for the focus on the s spelling in the city of the Incas remits to the pronunciations of Spain and the influence it has in the Spanish speaking world, even if often misunderstood. People will say that Cusco is not pronounced with the th sound, called theta, that a z normally receives in much pronunciation in Spain. Another letter is similarly pronounced in much of Spain, the c before an e or i.

That theta is on the mind of people in this city, since unlike most Latin Americans they often pronounce some words involving a c before e, such as doce, twelve, or trece, thirteen. Doce, especially can easily be confused with dos, without that pronunciation.

Notice though that this is not a z, but a c. Nevertheless it brings Cusqueños to be aware and sensitive to the theta , even if they do not understand it much.

They are especially sensitive on the name of the city. Many elites here still insist on the historical accuracy of Cuzco and recognize its historical memory of a different quality of sound from the current Spanish s in Peru. However most people feel the z spelling is an insult, since it suggests maybe they are dogs, one of the dictionary definitions of Cuzco in Spanish. Unfortunately they do not check the dictionary beyond that because Cusco with s has the same meaning.

This is an historical wound of the conquest, re-opened daily by the interactions of a Cusco claiming Imperial status and remembering it was the capital of greater Peru every time they interact with a national media and bureaucracy that is Lima centric. Their claims to glory and existence are tacitly denied to their eternal frustration.

The City if Cusco from Above
The City if Cusco from Above

The issue is sensitive. Nonetheless, it is not primarily one of the relationships of sound to letters in Spanish.

Right now when people chat, especially teenagers and twenty-somethings, they will often substitute the z for the s in many words, although I have seldom seen the converse.

Thus ves, you see, can become vez, or the vos that I use as a familiar you because of living many years in Bolivia, becomes voz when written back to me.

Substitutions like this are fascinating for what the communicate in the ephemeral moment of a conversation as they locate people in social space and in relationships to each other. However, they also point out an inherent instability of the s, z distinction in local Spanish, even though it has been useful for politics and channels an emotional edge.

Who knows what the future will bring, either for spelling or for sounds. For the meantime, though, we can predict that the confusions will continue and the issue will not go away.

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