The Nuances Of Spanish Dialects Around The Globe

Spanish is spoken by over 500 million people and is the official language of 20 different countries. With all of these speakers, there are bound to be differences! Here’s how to keep them all straight.

The other day I was having a drink with a group of friends when one shared a story that the Spanish accent (you know, the one that pronounces “Barcelona” like Barthelona) developed over 500 years ago from a Spanish king who had a lisp. Because of this, the Spaniards across the country decided to imitate him as a form of respect — leading to the accent we hear today. I was astounded and skeptical in equal measure: How would this Spanish dialect have trickled down to the majority of Spain — in a single king’s lifetime — during a period when there was no mass media?

After not much research, I confirmed the theory was a myth. Historians and linguists argued there was no evidence that King Ferdinand (the specific king in question) had a lisp. In fact, the only Spanish king recorded as having a lisp is Pedro of Castile, and the “Castilian lisp” didn’t develop until 200 years after Pedro died. But perhaps the most surprising piece of information will be that the [th] sound you hear in Castilian Spanish speakers is actually not a lisp at all.

This got me thinking: What are the some of the distinguishing factors of Spanish dialects across the globe? Here are some of the biggest differences (although it is by no means an exhaustive list!).

Spanish dialects | Babbel

Illustration by Victoria Fernandez

Pronunciation And Accent

The Spanish language is derived from a dialect of Vulgar Latin that formed in the north-central part of the Iberian Peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. The language then expanded south to the Mediterranean Sea and eventually to the Spanish colonial empire — most recognizably, the Americas.

From there, there are three distinct categories used to describe the differences in Spanish dialects and accents, all of which happen to rebut the idea of a “lisp.” If you look up what it means to have a lisp, you’ll find that it’s pronouncing the sibilants [s] and [z] imperfectly, but this is not what’s happening in these dialects:

1. Distinción is a dialect that makes a distinction between the sounds [θ] and [s], (where θ represents the Greek letter theta and can be compared to the English [th] sound). In these dialects, the words casa (house) and caza (hunt) are pronounced differently. Distinción is found in most Spanish dialects in Spain.

2. Seseo doesn’t make a distinction between the way casa and caza are pronounced and will sound the words with an English [s] sound. Seseo is generally associated with Spanish dialects spoken in Latin America and the Canary Islands.

3. Ceceo also doesn’t make a distinction between casa and caza, however, this dialect typically pronounces all instances of S and Z with a θ sound, and the same goes for C when it comes before E or an I. This means that the pronunciation of ceceo is something like [thetheo]. This dialect is found mostly in Andalusia in the south of Spain.

Additionally, some dialects of Spanish, like Uruguayan and types of Argentinian, pronounce the LL combination as a [sh] sound. That’s right, they would say lluvia (rain) as [shuvia]malla (bathing suit) as [masha]rodilla (knee) as [rodisha], and so on. 

 Grammatical Differences Between Spanish Dialects

A couple of notable differences arise when looking at Spanish spoken in Spain compared to Spanish in Latin America. In Spain, Spanish speakers tend to use present perfect tense while Latin Americans are more likely to use the simple past (much like the divide with the past tense in British versus American English). This practically looks something like:

Spain Latin America
He ido al médico esta mañana. Fui al médico esta mañana.
(I have been to the doctor this morning.)  (I went to the doctor this morning.)

There are also differences when it comes to personal pronouns. In Spain, a Spanish speaker will use vosotros to refer to the plural “you” informally, while in Latin America, this is never used. Instead, they will say ustedes to refer to both the formal and informal plural “you.”

Of course, there are some exceptions to this divide, as language can also be country-specific. In some countries, speakers say vos instead of to refer to “you” in the singular. This practice is called voseo, and it has different functions in different countries. In Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, where it’s very common to use vos, they even conjugate the verb differently from pretty much everyone else in the Spanish-speaking world.

Dialect-Specific Spanish Slang

A trap for new learners is almost always vocabulary. Generally speaking, Latin American Spanish uses more words that derive from English because of its proximity to North America. Not so many that you won’t get stuck, though. Because in Spanish, many words or phrases often have a completely different meaning.

Here are just a few of the more awkward variations to help you avoid confused faces:

coger maraca fresa pico
General to take an instrument strawberry beak, peak
Latin America to get laid
Chile prostitute (vulgar) penis (vulgar)
Mexico snob

Of course, there are hundreds, so simply remember to be open and take some reactions with a grain of salt, as you could be talking absolute absurdity to another Spanish speaker.

Influence Of Other Languages On Spanish Dialects

During the Spanish colonial period, it probably goes without reminding anyone that Spaniards claimed land that was already inhabited by indigenous people. For this reason, many Spanish dialects in South and Central America were heavily influenced by the local, native languages.

For example, Paraguayan Spanish is strongly influenced by Guaraní, the language of the indigenous people of the region. Guaraní is actually one of the few native languages that survived colonization and is the second official language of Paraguay. In fact, most of the population of Paraguay is bilingual and both languages are taught in schools. Some classic examples of this influence are in words like ñembo (it’s a bit like saying “kind of”) or Gua’u, which is a word used to show disbelief about something. Listen here:

  • Mati está ñembo dormido esta mañana.”
  • Gua’u que vas a levantarte temprano esta mañana.”

Similarly, modern Mexico was built on the ruins of the Aztec empire, so many Nahuatl (the larger Aztecan language family) words entered the Mexican Spanish dialect. This is evident in many landmark names, as well as local phrases. It’s safe to say that wherever you learn in Spanish in Latin America, you can be sure that it was influenced by another language and culture before the Spaniards arrived.

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