Similar to the English language, Spanish can be divided up into several Spanish dialects that vary throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
As a starting point, it is common to compare the Spanish of Spain to the Spanish of Latin America.
But, there is actually much more to consider when categorizing Spanish dialects.
For example, if we look at the use of grammar as opposed to sounds, it makes more sense to compare Mexico to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
Conversely, if we consider sounds other than the stereotypical ‘th’ sound for the letters ‘c’ and ‘z’ in Spain, it makes more sense to compare Rioplatense Spanish (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay) to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
In this article, you’ll learn how to think about regional variations in the Spanish language. You’ll also discover how to group Spanish dialects by their specific characteristics.
How to think about variations in Spanish dialects
When comparing dialects of the Spanish language, it is important to consider variations based on:
- Sounds and accents
With many languages, it is also possible to compare regional variations in spelling. For example, ‘color’ and ‘colour’ or ‘organize’ and ‘organise’ in the English language.
But, Spanish is a phonetic language where the rules of pronunciation are straightforward and consistent. This means that there are very few variations of spelling regionally.
Instead, it is much more common for different regions to use an entirely different word for the same idea.
For example, the word ‘bus’ in Spain is ‘el autobús’. In Argentina, it is ‘el colectivo‘. In the Dominican Republic, it is ‘la guagua‘. And, in Mexico, it is ‘el camión‘.
Since each Spanish-speaking country can have its own words for certain concepts, categorizing the language can be a challenge.
But, there are other characteristics such as sounds and grammar that can be grouped into larger regional dialects.
Regional Dialects of Spanish
If you consider the English-speaking world, it is possible to find variations between places that are very close together.
For example, you can hear accent variations from the east side of London to the west, or from Manhattan to Queens.
Similarly, we can also find many variations in accents and word choice within cities, between towns and sub-regions of countries in the Spanish-speaking world.
But to avoid the complexity of subtle variations in sub-regions, we instead need to focus on larger regional patterns.
Thus, we can group the Spanish-speaking world into 10 regional dialects based on sounds, grammar and vocabulary as follows:
- Central America (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama)
- Andean Spanish (Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, West Bolivia)
- Rioplatense Spanish (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, East Bolivia)
- The Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Caribbean Colombia)
- Northern Spain
- Central Spain
- Southern Spain
- Canary Islands
Spain is the only country we have broken into 4 sub-regions. But, these regions each have separate characteristics that can be found in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world.
Using these 10 dialects as a starting point, we can now explore the characteristics that occur with sounds, grammar and vocabulary that you are likely to encounter if you visit these Spanish-speaking regions.
Distinción & Seseo
The first and most well-known categorization of the Spanish language is the ‘th’ sound associated with the Spanish of Spain. This sound is not heard throughout the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
In Northern and Central Spain, native speakers pronounce the letter ‘c’ when followed by an ‘e’ or ‘i’ and the letter ‘z’ like the ‘th’ sound in the English words ‘thin’ or ‘thought’.
This phenomenon is known as distinción because there is a distinction between the sounds of the letters ‘c’ and ‘z’ and the letter ‘s’.
In other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, where distinción does not exist, the letters ‘s’, ‘c’, and ‘z’ all sound like the English letter ‘s’ in the words ‘so’ or ‘see’. This phenomenon is known as seseo.
Note, we can also find seseo in the Canary Islands which is a sub-region of Spain.
In Southern Spain (Andalusia), it is possible to hear the reverse of seseo which is known as ceceo. This is where the letters ‘s’, ‘c’ and ‘z’ can all sound like the English ‘th’ sound.
The ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sound
After distinción, the next most obvious variation in the pronunciation of Spanish sounds is the ‘ll’ and ‘y’.
Note that, within regions, Spanish natives will tend to pronounce the ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sounds in the same way. But, between regions, these sounds vary quite a lot.
In Rioplatense Spanish (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, East Bolivia), the ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sound is similar to the ‘sh’ sound in the word ‘show’ or the ‘si’ sound in the word ‘fusion’. The key difference between these two sounds is that one uses the voice box and the other does not. Both the voiced and unvoiced ‘ll’ sounds can be encountered in this region.
Throughout the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the double ‘ll’ sound is similar to the English ‘ll’ sound in ‘million’.
In some areas, the ‘ll’ sound can be stronger and resemble an English ‘j’ sound. In other areas, it can be softer and resemble an English ‘y’ sound.
The letter ‘s’
In certain regions, you may find the pronunciation of the letter ‘s’ as an aspirated ‘h’ or a complete loss of the sound. This is most noticeable in the Caribbean countries and in Southern Spain.
For example, the phrase “eso es lo mismo” (that is the same) can be pronounced “eh-o eh lo meeh-mo” with an aspirated ‘h’.
Or, “e-o e lo mee-mo” with no sound where an ‘s’ usually occurs in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world.
This pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, or lack of, can be heard in other Spanish-speaking regions. You’ll likely find this in coastal areas in Central and South America along the Caribbean Sea.
The letter ‘x’
Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the letter ‘x’ is usually pronounced like a ‘ks’ sound.
For example, the Spanish word éxito (success) is pronounced \ˈe.ksi.to\. Note the stress is on the first syllable, similar to the English word ’emphasis’.
In Mexico, the letter ‘x’ can be pronounced like the ‘ch’ sound in the Scottish pronunciation of the word ‘loch’. This phoneme only exists in the English language for natives with a Scottish accent.
That said, the native Mexican pronunciation of the country itself ‘México‘ is generally well-known by English natives. This is due to the prevalence of Mexican influences in popular culture such as music and movies.
The letter ‘j’ or ‘soft g’
Following on from the previous section, while you’ll hear the letter ‘x’ pronounced like the ‘ch’ in the Scottish word ‘loch’ in Mexico, you’ll also hear this sound for the letter ‘j’ and the ‘soft g’ in most Spanish-speaking countries.
Not to be mistaken for the Spanish ‘hard g’ in words such as ‘gato‘ and ‘gobierno‘, which sounds like the English ‘g’ in ‘garlic’ or ‘got’, the sound for the Spanish ‘soft g’ and ‘j’ is again like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’.
This sound is known as a velar fricative and sounds like a throaty ‘h’.
In the Caribbean, this sound can be a lot softer and much closer to the actual English ‘h’ such as the word ‘hen’.
In Chilean Spanish, you’ll often hear this ‘j’ or ‘soft g’ sound is made much further forward in the mouth and is similar to the ‘ch’ sound in the German word ‘ich’, or the ‘h’ sound in the English word ‘hue’ in certain parts of the United Kingdom.
Formal vs informal social interaction (second person singular)
When it comes to Spanish grammar, there are a number of variations to consider regionally.
The first is that the Spanish language has two options for addressing another person. And, this choice is often based on whether the relationship between the two people is formal or informal.
The translation of the English word ‘you’ throughout most of the Spanish-speaking world is either tú which is informal or usted which is formal.
For example, if you want to ask someone “how are you?” in Spanish, there are two options:
Informal: ¿Cómo estás tú?
Formal: ¿Cómo está usted?
And, of course, the choice between these two options varies between Spanish-speaking regions.
In Mexico, if you meet someone new or you are in a formal situation such as dealing with a customer in business, communicating with a distinguished person or a person of authority, then you need to default to usted. If you are communicating with family and friends, then you need to default to tú.
In the Caribbean and all regions of Spain, the formal usted is being used less and less over time. Nowadays, it is common to hear Spanish natives in these regions using the tú form even in formal contexts, with one of the only exceptions being addressing the elderly.
In contrast, for Central America and parts of the Andean Spanish-speaking region, the use of usted can be heard between two people that are familiar with each other such as very close friends or between a parent and a child to denote a closer personal relationship.
In addition to these variations for the second person singular, there is one more consideration to keep in mind.
For the Rioplatense Spanish-speaking region, parts of Chile, and parts of Central America (most notably in Costa Rica and Nicaragua), the tú form that is used throughout the rest of the Spanish-speaking world for addressing someone informally is replaced by vos. This is known as voseo.
For example, if you are in Argentina and you want to ask a friend how they are, instead of asking “¿Cómo estás tú?“, you need to ask:
Rioplantense Informal: ¿Cómo estás vos?
In addition, for verbs other than estar, the vos conjugation can be different to the usual tú form of a verb in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
For example, if you want to ask ‘what are you thinking?’, in most of the Spanish-speaking world, you need to ask ‘¿Qué piensas tú?’ but in Argentina, you need to ask:
Rioplantense Informal: ¿Qué pensás vos?
This can get even more complicated in Chile, where natives will use both tú and vos and combine this with either the second person verb form used throughout the rest of the Spanish-speaking world or a verb form unique to Chile.
For example, if you want to ask ‘do you speak Spanish?’, in Chile this could be 1 of the 3 following options:
Chile Informal #1: ¿Tú hablas español?
Chile Informal #2: ¿Vos hablái español?
Chile Informal #3: ¿Tú hablái español?
To read more about the unique behaviour of voseo in Chile, check this wiki entry on Chilean Spanish. To read more about the behaviour of voseo in Rioplatensen Spanish, check this wiki entry of Rioplatense Spanish.
Formal vs informal social interaction (second person plural)
When you want to address a group of people, with the exception of a few sub-regions throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the only place you have to make a choice is Spain.
If you want to ask a group of people how they are in Spain, there are two options:
Informal: ¿Cómo estáis vosotros?
Formal: ¿Cómo están ustedes?
While this choice is possible in Spain, as mentioned above, the formal usted and ustedes conjugations are used less frequently nowadays. This means you are much more likely to hear the vosotros option.
Throughout the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the vosotros conjugation doesn’t occur, which means Spanish natives will default to the ustedes form when addressing a group of people.
The past tenses
Another important consideration when it comes to how Spanish grammar changes regionally is which past tense to use.
Just like English, in Spanish, there are two options for defining a simple one-time action in the past.
English: I have been to Spain this week.
Español: He ido a España esta semana.
English: I went to Spain last week.
Español: Fui a España la semana pasada.
In English, we can refer to the “I have been” tense as the ‘present perfect’ or sometimes ‘compound past’. And, we call “I went” tense the ‘past simple’.
In general, the choice of when to favor one tense over the other is a spectrum that ranges from the most prominent use of the past simple in Mexico to the most prominent use of the present perfect in Central Spain.
All other regions, sit somewhere between Mexico and Central Spain when it comes to the choice between the present perfect and past simple.
Linguistic researchers at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México provided insight into the use of the past simple as a percentage when compared to the present perfect by city with the results summarized as follows:
|Use of past simple by city|
|Madrid (Spain) – 58%|
|Lima (Peru) – 65%|
|San Juan (Puerto Rico) – 72%|
|Santiago (Chile) – 74%|
|Ciudad de México (Mexico) – 80%|
This means that when comparing how natives talk about a given set of past events, in Madrid 58% of the time you will hear the past simple and 42% of the time you will hear the present perfect. Whereas, in Mexico City for the same set of past events, you will hear natives use the past simple 80% of the time and the present perfect 20% of the time.
Of all of the variations between Spanish-speaking regions, vocabulary is the hardest to summarize in short form.
Every Spanish-speaking country and many sub-regions have varying word use, colloquial expressions and phrases.
For example, it is possible to find a long list of varying expressions between cities in close proximity such as Medellín and Bogotá in Colombia.
In addition, it is also common to find vocabulary from indigenous cultures that has been incorporated into the local vernacular. This occurs particularly in Mexico, Central American and the Andean Spanish-speaking region.
The most troublesome Spanish vocabulary that English natives need to be aware of is the vocabulary that can have a benign meaning in one region and a vulgar meaning in another.
The most well-known example of this is the Spanish verb coger, which can be used to mean ‘to catch’ a train, ‘to grab’ one’s coat, or ‘to pick up’ the phone throughout a large portion of the Spanish-speaking world (specifically Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Spain).
But, then in certain countries (specifically Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela), coger is a vulgar form which means “to have sex”.
There is a lot of emphasis placed on the question of studying the Spanish of Spain versus Latin America.
But, the choice isn’t that simple because each Spanish dialect has characteristics of its own.
Whether you are studying the Spanish language for fun, or you are planning to work as or with Spanish translators, it is important to understand how the Spanish language changes around the world.
What other differences have you noticed between Spanish dialects?