¡Hola! ¿Qué tal? Or should I say, ¿Qué onda?? Or maybe ¿Diay?? Or ¿Cómo estái??
With millions of speakers, Spanish is one of the largest and most-spoken languages in the world, and is an official language in 20 countries. Like with many languages though, the Spanish spoken in one country is often so different to the Spanish spoken in another that it can lead to lots of funny misunderstandings.
Let’s take a little look at some of these differences!
Spanish, or Castilian, has its origins in central Spain, and by the end of the Reconquista in 1492 it was the main language of central and southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula.
Nowadays, Spanish is spoken and understood by almost everyone in Spain, although in some regions such as Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque country, the traditional languages of those regions are still widely used in all areas of society.
Naturally, this mix of different languages makes the Spanish spoken within Spain very diverse. One of the most distinctive features of Castilian Spanish is the ‘th’ sound (with your tongue between your teeth) for ‘z’ or ‘c’, so most Spaniards would say ‘grathias’ rather than ‘grassias’ which is was you’re more likely to hear in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
The dialects spoken in the southern region of Andalusia, however, are very unique and Andalusians are well known for cutting off bits of words, so you might hear someone say something like “‘cucha ‘quillo” (¡escucha chiquillo! / listen up, kid!). Two other features of these dialects are: 1) ‘s’ sounds at the end of syllables becoming ‘h’ or even being dropped completely, and 2) ‘z’ / ‘c’ being pronounced as ‘s’ unlike in most other areas of Spain – ¿Qué hassehh? / What are you doing?
Some places like Seville go the other way with the ‘th’ sound and use it to replace lots of ‘s’ sounds, and so they might say, for example, “Thevilla” (Seville).
Across the seas to America
In 1492, Spain explorers and missionaries started crossing the Atlantic and took the Spanish language with them, setting up colonies and countries often forcing the people they met to learn and speak Spanish through violence and coercion.
Many of the ships that set sail for the New World left from Seville and other cities near the south coast of Spain in Andalusia. At that time, the following words were pronounced like this:
In northern and central Spain:
brazo – bratso (this later became ‘th‘)
decir – dedzir (this also later became ‘th‘)
pasa – passa
casa – kaza (this later became ‘s‘)
In parts of Andalusia, all of these sounds had were pronounced as ‘s’:
brazo – brasso
decir – dessir
pasa – passa
casa – kassa
And this is the main reason why, even today, Spanish-speakers in Latin America still say “grassias” and not “grathias” like in Spain.
Oh, there are people over here – let’s talk to them!
When the Spanish arrived on the American continent, they discovered cultures and empires with flourishing cultures, bustling cities and unsurprisingly, their own languages, such as Náhuatl, Mayan, Arawak, Chibcha, Quechua, Aymara, Tupí, Guaraní, and Mapuche to name just a few.
All of these languages had their own effects on Spanish in the regions where they are (or in some cases ‘were’ 😞) spoken. Not just changing the way that Spanish is pronounced there, but also enriching Spanish vocabulary with their own words and expressions. Take a look at this article to find out more about how Mexican Spanish was influenced by Náhuatl and Mayan.
Paraguay is a country with a very unique linguistic situation in the Americas as it is the only country where the majority of the country still speak a language indigenous to the country itself, Guaraní. In Paraguay, it is very common to hear people mixing the two languages saying things like: De gua’u nomás era (It was just a lie).
Argentina and Uruguay
Besides the influence of native American languages, Argentina and Uruguay also have strong influences from Italian dialects, and if you have ever heard an Argentinian speak, you might have noticed a very distinctive intonation reminiscent of Italian.
A couple of other distinctive features of the Spanish spoken here (but also in many other areas too many to mention) are the word “che” used like “hey!” or “mate/dude” (this is where Ernesto Guevara’s nickname came from!), and the word “vos” for the singular “you”, so instead of “¿Tú qué haces?“, you will probably hear “¿Vos qué hacés?” instead – this is actually a very old form of address that has been kept from Medieval Spanish and still used in a few Latin American countries.
Cuban Spanish has many influences including from the Canary Islands (thanks to historic migration) and the US (due to close proximity). So you might hear a Cuban say “guagua” instead of “autobús”, which is an onomatopoeia describing the sound of a bus horn from the Canary Islands, or “chor” for “pantalones cortos” from the English word “shorts”.
Rob is Memrise‘s English Language Specialist, teaming up with the other language specialists to create language courses that will help you explore the world by unlocking your language superpowers. He also works with Memrise‘s Marketing Team to make fun videos and blog posts to inspire all the language learners out there.
In his spare time, he can usually be found learning languages – currently Hindi & Greek – and exploring the wonders that the London theatre and comedy scenes have in store.