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Spanish Varieties: How Many Are There and Why Does It Matter?

In the same way that English in the United States is not the same as in the UK, Australia, South Africa, etc., the Spanish language also varies a lot depending on the region where people speak it. Before delving into the many differences among Spanish varieties, let’s define what “variety” means:

A variety is a specific set of “linguistic items” or “human speech patterns” (sounds, words, grammatical features, etc.) which we can connect with some external factor, like a geographical area or a social group. Examples: Canadian English, London English, Standard English.

Hudson, 1996; Ferguson, 1972 and Wardhaugh, 2006

Spanish Varieties Around the World

Spanish is the official language (or one of them) in more than 20 countries and a significant minority language in another four. Each of those groups of speakers makes up a different language variety, which will differ from others in terms of vocabulary, grammar, idiomatic expressions, and more. There are also different varieties among different regions in the same country.

Can All Spanish Speakers Understand Each Other?

Yes, all Spanish speakers can understand one another (which is amazing!). In other words, all Spanish varieties are pretty much mutually intelligible. You will, of course, find a few cases of misunderstanding due to differences in vocabulary (e.g., if you say “retar” in Spain, they will understand “to challenge”; if you say it in Argentina, they will understand “to tell off”). But hey, that makes the whole thing even more fun! (At least for us, linguists).

Latin American Spanish vs. European Spanish

If there are as many varieties as countries or even regions within a country, why do we often hear about “Latin American Spanish” and “European Spanish”?

The answer is that we use these terms to mark a general difference between the Spanish spoken in the Americas and the Spanish spoken in Spain. This is for practical purposes, mainly. Even though this distinction fails to account for other areas where the use of Spanish is also extended (such as parts of Asia and Africa), it is a distinction that people in the language industry use a lot.

In Latin American countries, the different varieties present fewer variations with respect to one another than they do as a whole with respect to Spain.

Note: You may have heard some people refer to European Spanish as Castillian Spanish or Peninsular Spanish. Some others call it “Spanish from Spain”, too.

What is Neutral Spanish?

Although it’s been proving that localisation (using the local variety) is the way to go for companies to sell abroad, many opt for “neutral Spanish”. While there is actually no such thing as “universal” variety from a linguistic point of view, it is possible to choose the words that are most recognisable to the greatest number of speakers around the world.

Because the emphasis is on intelligibility rather than on cultural appropriateness, this option is not always the best one in terms of ROI. In Marketing, especially, it may play against you. This is because people who speak different varieties of a language search in different ways. Therefore, SEO efforts will not achieve their full potential! Besides, you run the risk of your audience perceiving your texts as too foreign (which may deter them from buying what you offer).

Explaining the Differences Between Spanish Varieties

So why is there such a pronounced difference between Spain and Latin America? We like the way this blog explains it:

When Spanish colonisers travelled the world, (…) they brought with them a language that was in the process of changing back at home. A linguist called Marckwardt came up with the term “colonial lag”. Colonial lag is when the language spoken in colonies does not keep up with language innovations in its country of origin. An example in English would be the use of fall in the USA and autumn in Britain. When British colonisers went to America, fall was more common than the Latin version in British English. The older, Germanic word fall later became obsolete in Britain but has remained in common use in the USA. This process happens with vocabulary but also with grammar.

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US Spanish and Language Access

Did you know that there are around 41 million native Spanish speakers in the US? That’s more speakers than Spain! Also, more than 52 million can speak the language (if we count non-native speakers).

Even more impressive is these speakers’ purchasing power. Take a look at the infographic below:

MotionPoint United States and Spanish

What caught our eye the most was the combined purchasing power of US Hispanics being 10 % of the total purchasing power in the country. Pretty significant, huh? Still, many businesses don’t see the importance of such a figure for their marketing.

Are Some Spanish Varieties “More Correct” Than Others?

No, no, and no. We could (and probably will) write a whole new article about this. Communities assign special value to certain varieties, but that doesn’t make them better. Society regards the ways of speaking of social groups with the greatest amount of prestige, power, and (usually) wealth as being “the proper” ones. In sociolinguistics, this derives in a distinction between a “standard” variety and “non-standard” ones. Put simply, standard varieties are the ones you find in public communication, education, and writing. Or, if you want to identify the standard more easily, it’s basically anything that laypeople refer to as “the correct way” of speaking, writing, or pronouncing something.

This site beautifully explains why the standard is not “better” than the non-standard:

It is due to social attitudes that people label some varieties as “better” or “proper,” and others as “incorrect” or “bad.”

Recall Language Universal 3: “All languages are systematic, rule driven, and equally complex overall, and equally capable of expressing any idea that the speaker wishes to convey.”


Why are Language Varieties Important for Businesses?

We’ve talked of Emotional Marketing before. The marketing of all major brands appeals to feelings to convert customers, that’s a fact. Well, chances of emotionally resonant messages getting to customers’ hearts are higher if you do it in their language. And in their language variety, especially. It’s as simple as that, and there’s plenty of evidence that localisation is the way to go.

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