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How Many Spanish Varieties Exist and How Do They Compare?

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.

A Bit of History

Before delving into the differences between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish, let’s go back in time for a moment and find the starting point of so much language variation.

Has Spain always spoken Spanish? Actually, no.

As we all know, Spanish is a language of Latin origin, like so many others. However, if we research it more carefully, we will find that it is composed of features of the most diverse origin.

The Old Iberian Peninsula

If we were to go a few centuries back in time and walk the streets of the Iberian Peninsula of the 11th century BC, we would be able to observe that Ligurian, Celtic, Iberian and even Phoenician languages cohabited in this region. The Phoenicians advanced from the powerful city of Cártago, in Africa, towards the south of the Peninsula. On the island of Ibiza, they established a colony.

However, in 218 BC, a Roman army landed in Ampurias to fight the Carthaginians. This battle was an event of vital importance for the development of our current Spanish because the Carthaginians were defeated and the territory now in the hands of the conquerors was impregnated with the culture and language of the Roman Empire.

The Iberian Peninsula was declared a Roman province under the name of “Hispania”, and its conquerors colonised most of the territory and exploited its human and natural resources. Although the old pre-Roman languages of the Peninsula fought for survive for many years, they were gradually weakened by the progressive imposition of the official language of the Romans, Latin. Only one of them has stayed alive since then, Basque or Euskera, the official language -together with Spanish- of the Basque Country and the northwest region of Navarre. A peculiarity of the Basque language is that, despite its longevity, it still retains its original grammatical characteristics.

The Influence of Other Languages on Spanish

We can find traces of the contact of this language with Spanish in words like izquierdo (left), boina  (beret), aquelarre (coven) and pizarra (board). We can also find morphological relics in the Spanish language taken from the languages that were displaced, such as the endings -ez, -az and -oz present in surnames like Martínez, Díaz, and Muñoz, and everyday words such as perro (dog), manteca (butter), balsa (raft), páramo (moor), barro (mud), and losa (slab). Geographical designations such as Asturias, Álava, Huelva, Córdoba, Soria, Salamanca, and Zamora, as well as those of the rivers Duero, Tajo, and Jarama also make up this heritage. Cádiz, Málaga, Cartagena, Mahón, Ibiza and even Hispania, on the other hand, are of Ligurian origin.

The Spread of Latin and Its Impact on Spanish Varieties

In contrast to the progressive weakening of the old languages of the Peninsula, Latin started spreading exponentially. It is believed that the survival of Latin over other languages that constitute part of the Indo-European heritage is the result of the establishment of the Christian pontiffs in the city of Rome and the consequent implementation of Latin as the universal language of the Catholic Church. Such was the strength of this unstoppable instrument of evangelisation that, even after the Germanic invasion of the fifth century, it was the conquerors who were forced to abandon their mother tongue. Of the varieties of this linguistic code, it was Vulgar Latin that spread until giving birth to our current Romance languages. Nouns such as guerra (war), sala (room), jabón (soap), tapa (lid), parra (vine), ropa (clothes), ganso (goose); adjectives such as blanco (white), rico (rich); and verbs such as ganar (win), ataviar (dress), agasajar (entertain) y guardar (save) are a legacy of the Visigothic people.

The Birth of Romance Languages

It was during the post-war period that the decline of the socio-cultural level and the isolation of a crushed society contributed to cultural dissociation and to the manifestation of different dialects that would become our current Romance languages several centuries later.

The first literary texts written in Romance languages were the jarchas. These works were written in Mozarabic, the official language of the Andalusian territory. However, this code gradually disappeared as its speakers were incorporated into the Christian kingdoms of the North, where Galician-Portuguese, Asturian-Leonese, Spanish, Navarre-Aragonese, and Catalan coexisted. All of them, sooner or later, would spread out towards the south of the region.

Initially, Spanish was considered a barbaric language spoken in a small territory in the northeast of Burgos. However, the political and military initiative of the Castilian spirit played a leading role in the early conquest of the León and Navarre-Aragon territories. The revolutionary character of this community and its geographical distance from the rest of civilisation endowed this dialect with a personality that set it apart from its brotherly counterparts. One of its distinguishing features was the replacement of the initial f of the word with an h sound that resembles that of a laxly realised j. Little by little, this sound started losing its tension until it disappeared. Currently there are traces of it only in writing. Some examples are the voices humo (from Latin fumum), hecho (from Latin factum) and hijo (from Latin filium).

Spanish Gains Prestige

Spanish was established as a language after the production of the first songs of deeds, of verbal diffusion, like The Song of My Cid, where the matter of inherited honour and nobility are approached in contrast to conquered nobility. Later, during the reign of Alfonso X the Wise, the composition of the first literary and scientific works codified in a language other than Latin began to emerge. This fact constituted the vindication of the Castilian language and the conquest of the respect of all learned people.

Castilian or Spanish?

Last but not least, in 1492, the year of the conquest of America, the first Spanish grammar was published by Antonio de Nebrija. From this moment on, the terms Castilian and Spanish begin to be used interchangeably. Some of the authors of the great classics of literature immediately following this event are Garcilaso de la Vega, San Juan de la Cruz, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Góngora and Quevedo, whose works are testimonies of the history of humanity.

After this brief overview of the history of Spanish, we can say that the richness and complexity of this Romance language lie in the mixture of its essence and in the socio-cultural events that have taken place over thousands of years. That is why trying to resist linguistic change in an attempt to preserve its purity through normative moderation is tantamount to failing to realise that it is not institutions but speakers who create language from their experience in the world in order to construct new meanings and realities.

Can Speakers of All Spanish Varieties 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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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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