Spanish Language Varieties

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Why Spanish Accents Can Be So Different
Accents speak to variety of Hispanic world

by David Johnson

If after years of Spanish classes, some people still find it impossible to understand some native speakers, they should not worry. This does not necessarily mean the lessons were wasted. Millions of Spanish speakers use neither standard Latin American Spanish nor Castilian, which predominate in U.S. schools.

The confusion is partly political—the Spanish-speaking world is very diverse. Spanish is the language of 19 separate countries and Puerto Rico. This means that there is no one standard dialect.

Latin American Spanish

The most common Spanish dialect taught in the U.S. is standard Latin American. It is sometimes called "Highland" Spanish since it is generally spoken in the mountainous areas of Latin America.

While each country retains its own accents and has some unique vocabulary, residents of countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia generally speak Latin American Spanish, especially in urban centers.
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This dialect is noted for its pronunciation of each letter and its strong "r" sounds.

This Spanish was spoken in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was brought to the Americas by the early colonists.


However, the Spanish of Madrid and of northern Spain, called Castilian, developed characteristics that never reached the New World. These include the pronunciation of "ci" and "ce" as "th." In Madrid, "gracias" (thank you) becomes "gratheas" (as opposed to "gras-see-as" in Latin America.)

Another difference is the use of the word "vosotros" (you all, or you guys) as the informal form of "ustedes" in Spain.

Castilian sounds to Latin Americans much like British English sounds to U.S. residents.

French, on other hand, is a highly centralized language, with the Parisian accent setting the standard for the world. If other French-speaking political entities had risen to rival France, the situation might be different. If for instance, Quebec had remained a separate country, or if Haiti had been a larger country, then perhaps other French dialects might have become more accepted.

"Trade Winds" Spanish

The third major type of Spanish is spoken in the Caribbean, coastal areas of Latin America, and in some cases in southern Spain. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the accent in Seville, Cádiz, and other cities in Andalusia, in Southern Spain, began to change. Speakers began to drop the final "s" on words.

The settlers and traders of southern Spain took this dialect with them to the Caribbean and other coastal areas. Today Caribbean or "Lowland" Spanish is characterized by its relative informality, its rapid pace, and the dropping of "s" sounds, allowing people to talk more quickly.

A fourth type of Spanish has developed in and around Buenos Aires and in parts of Uruguay. It is characterized by some out-of-date grammar, and a vocabulary and pronunciation heavily influenced by Italians who settled the area in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Generally in the Spanish world "tú" is the singular way of saying "you." In Buenos Aires, however, "vos" is used instead. It is accompanied by a modified old Spanish verb form. It is as if part of the English-speaking world still used "thee" and "thou" in everyday speech.

For instance, they pronounce the "ll" as an English "zh," while most other Spanish speakers pronounce "ll" as an English "y."

The Buenos Aires accent is instantly recognizable throughout the Spanish world. Gaucho poetry and twentieth-century Buenos Aires novelists have preserved this speech as a literary style.

The influence of Italian has even led to the development of a separate language, Lunfardo, which blends Spanish and Italian. Argentine intellectuals have produced Lunfardo dictionaries and books in an effort to keep the language alive.

Sample the Diverse Hispanic World

Language teachers often try to expose their students to various Spanish accents and cultures. While it may sound quite different, it's all still Spanish!

More Hispanic Heritage Month features!

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