Due to its vast geographical reach and large number of native speakers, Spanish, like English, has diverged in many different ways as it has come under a variety of influences. These influences are sometimes the result of Spanish or “proto-Spanish” moving into an area where other languages were previously spoken and adopting some local words; sometimes the result of other languages moving into areas where Spanish is spoken; and sometimes due to relative isolation between different Spanish speaking regions and different trends among them.
Even though there are some traits that the various flavours of Spanish have in common, particularly within the usual, very broad categories of Spanish from Spain and Latin American Spanish, the language as a whole has differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary that make its different varieties distinctive. This post will first quickly look at the origins of the language before moving on to examining the varieties of modern Spanish within both the Old and the New worlds and some of their defining features.
The origins of the Spanish language
The Spanish language originated in the South Western corner of Europe, in the Iberian Peninsula, where present day Spain and Portugal are located. The Iberian languages of the Iberian peoples, identified by the Greeks first and the Romans later as they explored the Iberian Peninsula, were the first known paleo-hispanic languages spoken in the area. When the Romans took control of what they called Hispania after first invading in the 3rd Century BC, they imposed their language, and by the time they left around 700 years later, all of the original Iberian languages except for Basque in the North had been replaced by various forms of Vulgar Latin. The various forms of Vulgar Latin, also known as Common Latin, were the bastardised local versions of Latin resulting from it mixing with local languages and would become the backbone of modern Spanish, much like modern English is mostly derived from Germanic languages.
The successive invasive waves of Germanic tribes that overran the Western Roman Empire also influenced the languages spoken in the Iberian peninsula to a certain degree, but the next major mark on the way the peoples living there spoke was left by the Moors, North African Arabic speaking peoples, who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 A.D. and occupied and ruled a large part of modern day Spain and Portugal until the 15th Century.
First major external influences
Under Islamic rule in Iberia, which lasted around 9 centuries in the South of Spain, most people adopted some form of Arabic as their main language, and the Vulgar Latin dialects were confined to the very north of the Peninsula along with Basque. During the Reconquista, as the various Christian Kingdoms pushed south and brought their dialects with them, these mixed with the Arabic and Mozarabic dialects that had been previously been spoken by the locals. The largest of these invading kingdoms was Castile (Castilla) where the Vulgar Latin dialect had begun to change to Castilian, Castellano, which is another name for what is known to most of the world as simply Spanish.
Arabic also influenced the other Iberian languages that were offshoots of Vulgar Latin, but due to Castille’s predominant role in the “reconquest” of Islamic Spain, its rise in influence within Iberia, and its deeper push into lands that were under Muslim rule for longer, Castilian Spanish (Spanish) received and incorporated the greatest influx of Arabic words. In fact, about a 10th of words in modern Spanish are of Arabic origin.
Examples of this in any Spanish dictionary range all the way from A to Z and include almohada (al-makhada, pillow), alquiler (Al kira’, rent), barrio (barri, neighbourhood), bellota (belluta, acorn), hasta (hatta, until)…the list is long and encompasses things from all walks of life.
Modern Spanish and expansion
In 1492, on the very same year that the “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula was complete with the fall of Granada to the Castilians (that had united with Aragon after the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragon to create what would eventually become Spain), Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.
This would be the beginning of the spread of Castellano to the New World and the root of what today is known as Latin America. Because of this event, and those that followed, modern Spanish is now a richer and more varied language with many dialects. It is also the second most spoken language in the world, in terms of native speakers, with an estimated 480 million of them (second only to Mandarin).
Differences between the different kinds of Spanish can be found in pronunciation, common grammatical forms and vocabulary. Whereas vocabulary can often be much more place-specific, the others are more widely spread.
The easiest differences between the various kinds of Spanish to hear are those in pronunciation. These fall into 3 main categories, although there are others as well.
Distinción, Seseo and Ceceo
A major differentiation amongst different Spanish dialects is the way that the sounds represented by the letters S, C and Z are said and whether they pronounced /s/ (like the s in sensible) or /θ/ (like the th in thought). Some dialects make a distinction among them, usually assigning the /s/ sound to the letter S and /θ/ to Z and where C is followed by either E or I (ce, ci). This is known as “distinción” (distinction) and is a defining trait of European Spanish, from the centre and north of Spain, that is not present in Latin America. Other dialects assign the above phonemes the exact same sound. Where this is the /s/ sound, this is known as seseo. Where it is the /θ/ sound, it is known as ceceo.
Another phoneme that presents a distinction for some Spanish speakers and not for others, is the one that is represented by the “ll” (/ʎ/) and the “y” (/ʝ/) sounds. This leads to a difference in the standard pronunciation of calló and cayó. In many dialects, however, there is a tendency to pronounce them both in almost the same way, usually as variants of (/ʝ/) known as Yeismo.
Aspiration of the “S”
The aspiration of the letter S (and also sometimes of the letter Z in dialects also affected by seseo that don’t make the distinction) before consonants and at the end of words is another dialectical trait. Where this takes place, words like basta (enough) and sabes become something sounding like “bahta” and “sabeh”, with the S aspired to the point that it is not heard.
The most obvious grammatical differences between the various different flavours of Spanish are to be found in the choice of the 2nd person personal pronouns (you singular and you plural) and the conjugation of verbs in these instances. Spanish, like French and also like German makes the distinction between a formal and an informal “you”, both in the singular and in the plural - in some of its varieties at least. But unlike French or German, there is no universally formal or informal way of addressing people. Instead, this varies from place to place depending on the dialect spoken. This can sometimes lead to some minor confusion with some people appearing to be more formal in their way of addressing others than they actually intend to be.
“Old world” vs “New world” Spanish
When thinking about the different kinds of Spanish, many people fall into the trap of only thinking about “European” Spanish, as in the Spanish spoken in Spain, and “Latin American” Spanish, as in the Spanish spoken in Latin America. Lately, and given the huge size of the Spanish speaking population of the United States (second only to Mexico’s), some have begun to consider a third kind of Spanish; “American Spanish”.
Given the huge geographical span of “Latin American Spanish”, ranging from Mexico all the way to Patagonia, the assumption that there is “one” Latin American Spanish is obviously a misconception, albeit one that is understandable. Nevertheless, there are certain traits that are common to all forms of Spanish spoken in the New World. But even the comparatively much smaller, both in terms of geography and population, Spanish from Spain, is far from being the single block that some believe it to be.
Spanish from Spain
Spanish from Spain can be broadly divided into Northern, Central, Southern and Canarian variants. Continental European Spanish uses the personal pronouns tu and vosotros in the second person singular and plural respectively as the informal ways of saying “you” and makes the distinction between formal and informal, with the formal versions being usted and ustedes. This, of course, is also noticeable in the way that verbs in the second person are conjugated and in their imperative forms.
In northern and central varieties, there is a tendency towards distinción, whereas Southern dialects often tend to exhibit either seseo or ceceo in Andalucia. Canarian variants are closer in terms of pronunciation to their Latin American cousins and usually use mostly seseo.
Southern and Canarian dialects also have a marked tendency towards aspiration of the S and reduction (that is the dropping some vowel sounds and sometimes whole syllables) and have a whole set of slang that can be hard to understand for people from other regions.
Because of its wider diffusion within Spain due to the influential role of Madrid in broadcasting both of television and radio, the central and northern varieties of Spanish are considered to be “standard” Spanish, with the Spanish dialect spoken in and around the town of Valladolid, deemed by some as the “purest” form of Spanish within Spain (we won’t go into that particular debate here though!).
Latin American Spanish
Due to its enormous size, it is no surprise that there are many variations within the Spanish in Latin America.
The one common feature that they all share is the use of seseo which makes for easier learning, in terms of speaking, but harder in terms of writing. This is because there are fewer sounds to say, but precisely because of this, there are also no spoken clues about how words are written.
In Latin American Spanish, seseo can make spelling troublesome for some people. Take, for example, hicimos (we did). Since seseo doesn’t differentiate the sound, someone who has never seen this word but learned some form of Latin American Spanish is just as likely to spell it “hizimos” or “hisimos” and not realise their mistake until it has been pointed out to them.
Yeismo is another aspect that is often present in various ways in many forms of Latin American Spanish, and one that is gaining ground. Argentina and Uruguay have their own version of yeismo with the letters y, ll and even j being widely pronounced [ʃ] (like the sh in the word shell).
In its more widespread form elsewhere, both ll and y are pronounced the same, somewhere between them, approximately as a [ʝ̞] which tends to lean towards a y sound. This is the case all along Chile, up along most of the coast of Peru, Ecuador, most of Colombia and Venezuela and up Central America and Mexico. It is less common in Bolivia, Paraguay where the distinction between the different letters is clear, and in some inland parts of Colombia although in the case of the latter, this is quickly changing and yeismo is gaining ground. A similar situation of change is also taking place in Spain, where the difference is being lost as well as yeismo becomes more and more dominant.
Aspiration of the S is also a widespread phenomenon in Latin American Spanish, but one that is particularly common and noticeable in Caribbean dialects spoken in Central America, the Caribbean Venezuela and the Northern Costeño Colombian, but also common elsewhere.
In terms of grammar, a general distinctive feature of Latin American Spanish is the exclusive use of ustedes as the personal pronoun in the second person plural. Whereas in Spanish from Spain this is considered to be the formal version of “you”, in Latin America such a distinction is not made. This means that whenever speaking in the second person plural, anyone from Spanish speaking Latin America will conjugate verbs in a way that sounds formal to Spanish people, or that they might mistake for the third person plural if it is out of context.
In its singular form, the personal pronoun in the second person sometimes serves as a major marker to be able to easily tell whereabouts in Latin America a speaker is from. In Argentina and Uruguay, for example, Rioplatense Spanish is spoken using the dialectical variant called voseo which involves the use of the pronoun vos and a unique way of conjugating that goes with it. In this way, what in Spain is tú tienes becomes vos tenés with voseo. Similarly, tú eres becomes vos sos.
Although it is most widely used in Argentina and Uruguay, where it is the standard form, along with Paraguay and some parts of lowland Bolivia,voseo is also a feature in some other parts of Latin America with minor some use in Chilean Spanish and quite frequent use in some other places such as parts of Colombia (most noticeably in Antioquia and the Coffee Axis and Valle del Cauca), Ecuador and in Central America.
In other parts of Latin America (outside of the strongest voseo regions), vos sometimes coexists with other personal pronouns, namely usted, which can be both formal and informal in nature depending on the place (unlike Spain where usted is always formal), and tú. In most cases, conjugation of the verb follows the form of the pronoun.
The reason for these many forms is that in the past there were three pronouns and three different ways of conjugating verbs. These were tú, vos and vuestra merced. Tú and vuestra merced (which would eventually become usted), where less formal, and vos reserved for people with authority. In Spain, vos eventually disappeared and usted became formal. In Latin America, however, tú, vos and usted remained and began coexisting in different ways.
Long story short, when in doubt, if you want to be polite, it is safest to use the usted form. If you happen to be somewhere where the vos is the preferred form, or people think you are being too formal and would rather you use tú, they will most likely let you know soon enough, but the first impression you will have made is that you are courteous!
The last major difference between the various Latin American Spanish variations is in the use of vocabulary. On the one hand, in specific regions, Spanish has adopted words that were there before. This leads to words like polola/o, pololeo (girlfriend/boyfriend / to fool around romantically in Chile, from Mapuche), arrarray and achachay (to be very hot and cold in Ecuador, drawn from Quichua), popote, aguacate (drinking straw and avocado in Mexico, although this latter one was exported elsewhere as well, from Náhuatl), and many many others like cancha, pucho and guano from Quechua.
On the other hand, the same word can mean completely different things in different places. Regardless of the type of Spanish chosen to learn, other varieties will always contain some elements that are unfamiliar. Don’t worry though, this is also something that happens to natives. In fact, one of the most common sentences when people from different people meet and get talking is often “¿Así le dicen ustedes?” (This is what you call this?).
As exemplified above, something that makes Spanish interesting is that there can be multiple meanings for the same word and many different ways to say the same thing. For the most part, however, most educated speakers know about many of these and are forgiving with mistakes, so as a learner you shouldn’t have many problems. If you use the wrong one in the wrong place, the most likely response will be a broad smile or a laugh, as has been known to happen when someone speaking Spanish from Spain is looking for a bus stop in Argentina (hint, in South America, particularly in Argentina, try to use tomar to say get, catch or take).
For more examples of what Spanish sounds like around the world, be sure to check out our selection of Spanish speaking media learning resources.