Spain vs Latin America: How does Spanish vary around the world?

It is estimated that around 360 million people speak Spanish as their mother tongue, which places it among the top four languages in the world in terms of numbers of speakers. Less than 12% of Spanish speakers live in Spain; the rest are spread from the United States in the north (where 40 million people have Spanish as their native language) to Tierra del Fuego in the south. While the Spanish spoken in Spain is by no means uniformly homogenous, regional differences within the European country pale into insignificance when compared to the extraordinary variety of Latin American dialects of Spanish.

“Unidad en la diversidad” was the main theme of a recent international conference on the Spanish language. This slogan reflects not only the rich diversity of Spanish but also the fact that it is one language, with a strong basic common core supported by a common cultural and literary tradition. There is a kind of neutral, standard Spanish that is used and understood by all educated Spanish speakers and ensures that people throughout the Spanish-speaking world can communicate with each other as easily as people from Britain and the United States can. 

Spanish is rich in regional terms to refer to an urban bus: you may hear colectivo in Argentina and Venezuela, ómnibus in Perú and Uruguay, micro in Chile, camión in Mexico and parts of Central America and guagua in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but every Spanish speaker knows what an autobús is. In the same way, there are many colloquial terms to refer to a boy: pibe in Argentina, cabro in Chile, chaval in Spain and chavo in Mexico and Venezuela, but the words chico and muchacho are understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. 

Dialects differ more widely in the more colloquial registers, but even at this level of language the popularity of Latin American music and TV soap operas has helped to familiarize speakers with other varieties of their language. This does not prevent the occasional misinterpretation--a Spaniard would be very surprised to get a black coffee and a piece of guava jelly from a Colombian speaker who had offered him un tinto y un bocadillo, in the same way as an Argentinian might get the wrong impression on hearing the European currar (a colloquial word meaning “to work” and not “to rip somebody off”)--but these misunderstandings are rare.

Differences between the various linguistic regions in the Spanish-speaking world occur in three main areas:

  • pronunciation
  • vocabulary and
  • grammar

Spain vs Latin America

Some uses distinguish the American continent as a whole from the European norm. These are just a few examples:

TypeSpainLatin America
pronunciation• use of the interdental fricative/∆/ (as in English thanks) in zapato, zócalo, gracias, cena, cigarro, etc.• use of /s/ throughout
vocabulary• patata• papa
 • competición (deportiva)• competencia (deportiva)
 • nata• crema
 • hora punta• hora pico
 • cualificado (obrero, profesional, etc.)• calificado (obrero, profesional, etc.)
grammar• use of vosotros and corresponding verb endings for the second person plural (familiar)• use of ustedes for the second person plural, regardless of whether formal or familiar
 • use of le as the masculine direct object pronoun (Le vi ayer).• use of lo as the masculine direct object pronoun (Lo vi ayer).

Vocabulary continues to diverge in some areas, as Latin American tends to borrow new technical terms from American English (celular, computadora/computador), while European Spanish tends to borrow them from British English (móvil) or French (ordenador).

Sometimes it is more a question of regional preferences rather than mutually exclusive uses:

EnglishEuropean SpanishLatin American Spanish
to angerenfadar (with enojar used far less frequently and in more formal contexts)enojar
to driveconducirmanejar (with conducir generally reserved for more formal contexts)

Some differences can also be observed in the use of certain idiomatic phrases:

EnglishEuropean SpanishLatin American Spanish
to announce sth with great fanfareanunciar algo a bombo y platilloanunciar algo con bombos y platillos
it makes my mouth waterse me hace la boca aguase me hace agua la boca

Differences within Latin America

Latin American varieties of Spanish resist classification and contemporary national boundaries do not coincide with the boundaries between the different linguistic areas. We can, however, talk about certain characteristics common to the countries of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) and within this group distinguish the dialect of the River Plate (Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the surrounding area) as having its own particular distinguishing features. In the same way, Andean Spanish exhibits certain common characteristics, while many Mexican uses extend into its neighbouring Central American countries.

The influence of the indigenous languages on dialect differentiation has been relatively modest (the influence of Nahuatl on Mexican Spanish being perhaps one of the strongest) and can be seen mainly in the area of the flora and fauna of the region. For example, the word for avocado is aguacate (from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs) in Mexico, Central America and the north of South America but aguacate is replaced by palta as one travels south into the area of influence of Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire. But many of the differences are hard to explain, as for instance in the following examples. The basic every-day term light bulb in English is bombilla in Spain, but can be foco in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru; bombillo in Central America and Colombia; bombita in the River Plate countries; ampolleta in Chile; and, as another alternative, bujía in Central America. Similarly, depending on where you find yourself in Latin America a variety of terms are used to refer to the humble green bean: judía verde in Spain, but habichuela, ejote, chaucha, poroto verde or vainita in different parts of Latin America.

It is interesting to note that certain “general Latin American” uses have not been adopted in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay), where the European or universal term is used. This is the case with pena meaning ‘shame’ (SC uses vergüenza), jalar de (= to pull, SC uses tirar de), directorio (= telephone directory, SC uses guía) and the use of radio as a masculine noun (it is feminine in SC, as it is in Spain). In other cases Chile aligns itself with the rest of Latin America while the River Plate keeps to the European norm and uses carne picada instead of carne molida (ground beef), atar instead of amarrar (to tie), tirar instead of botar (to throw away), son las cinco menos cuarto instead of son cuarto para las cinco (it's quarter of five/to five).

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