¡Hola! Welcome to this little guide where I will endeavor to show some of the variety in one of the world’s most spoken languages. Sure, everybody’s been exposed to a little Spanish in their lifetime, usually through American TV clichés. If you have a local Latinx community near you, you probably have already heard a myriad of different Spanish accents.
And that’s not even the start! With over 400 million native speakers, it’s the world’s second most spoken language, second only to Chinese. For reference, there are only 360 million native English speakers in the world, and that’s considered the lingua franca.
Just as with English, there are a plethora of countries where Spanish is spoken. As it happens with any language that is spread far and wide, countries and regions have adapted it over time. That means that whatever version of Spanish you use will be virtually unrecognizable in another country. While the basic structure, grammar, and syntax remain, a lot of conventions are turned upside down when you switch regions.
It’s not quite as bad as having to learn another language, but it can make you feel as if you’re in a different world. Just think about the switch from Tennessee to Cork, Ireland. The culture shock can make your head spin. That analogy works just as well is Spanish; accents, slang, idioms, colloquialisms, and phrases can change a lot even by traveling a few hundred miles.
But don’t worry. It’s not as bad if you know what to expect, and how to adapt. Even more importantly, if you have any project that requires communicating in Spanish, you must know about different Spanish accents.
¡Vamos a empezar!
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
A little history
As you know, Spanish is a widely spoken language. Regaled with positive connotations, like being “one of the languages of love”, it’s taught all across the world. Clichés aside, it’s an extraordinarily rich, complex, and captivating language. With its many virtues spread across the planes of the human, artistic, geopolitical, and business, Spanish of the utmost importance.
So, where and when did it all start? What are the origins of this language? Spanish is an offshoot, or dialect of spoken Latin, as are many languages. After the Second Punic War (the War Against Hannibal, starting 210BC), it was brought to the Iberian Peninsula. It continued to evolve in the center of the Peninsula long after the fall of the Roman Empire.
As time continued its forward march, a written standard was developed in the cities of Madrid and Toledo. (By the way, if you ever get a chance to visit any of those, don’t miss it. They are absolutely unforgettable.)
Between the 13th and 16th centuries, this written standard continued to crystallize. The language solidified its thousand-year expansion with the inclusion of the Spanish colonial empire. There, it spread like wildfire throughout the Americas. Nowadays, you can hear Spanish far and wide across the whole American continent; its extension prompted the existence of many different Spanish accents.
Today, Spanish is spoken in over 20 countries. It is one of the official languages in the United Nations, among other international bodies.
Some characteristics of Spanish
Spanish has several phonological characteristics that differentiate it from other Latin-derived languages.
- Diphthongization, or vowel breaking — when a sound changes from a fixed-vowel sound to a gliding, multi-vowel one; think of the words tierra, and huevo, for instance. In Spanish, the second vowel sound is stressed.
- Devoicing and sibilance — in simple terms, some words like caja and gente get softened. Sibilance exists mostly in Castilian Spanish. Words like lazo have a stronger interdental sound. It’s important to note that this is not true across all different Spanish accents. Various Latin American Spanish versions have less devoicing and nearly no sibilance.
- Debuccalization (sound changes in consonants) — this can be evidenced in the silent h of Spanish words like hablar, hacer, hedor, etc.
- The J sound became more pronounced — instead of words ending with the drop-down iu or Io into harder J sounds. Contrast the word ojo with its counterpart olho in Portuguese, which retains the older, softer sound. The jota sound in Spanish is referred to as a velar /x/, produced with the tongue in the back palate.
- The Latin initial /j/ remains before most words with the letter y— yacer, yeso, haya, yermo. It disappears though in unstressed syllables, but remains in other languages. Contrast janeiro in Portuguese with enero in Spanish.
- Development of the ll — Words like piorare in Latin became llorar gradually. This is the phonetical sound /ʎ/.
More Spanish characteristics (true across all different Spanish accents)
There are three verb conjugations in Spanish, down from the Latin four. Spanish also still carries many morphological and syntactical structures from Latin.
The Spanish language also continues the use of the eñe (ñ). A few other languages continue its use as well. Some are Galician, Asturian, the Aragonese, Basque, Chavacano, and some Philippine languages, among others. Unlike the Ü, which is u with a diacritic mark, the ñ is an independent letter.
Spanish also assimilated, and was modified by, prolonged exposure and contact with other cultures. The Spanish lexicon contains a multitude of loanwords from Vulgar Latin languages, and indigenous American populations. This includes Hispano-Celtic, Basque, Iberian, Gothic (Germanic), Arabic, Quechua, Guaraní, etc. One authority even suggests that more than 4000 Spanish words may be of Arabic origin. Most Spanish nouns beginning with –al have are of Arabic origin.
Recognizing different Spanish accents
Finally! As you can probably tell, Spanish is spread over a multitude of territories and affected by various cultures. When you’re spread that wide, some far-reaching differences form. The pronunciation, articulation, and intonation of phrases can vary wildly — not to mention colloquialisms!
If you’re not used to it, different Spanish accents can almost seem like different languages. Don’t fret, though! The important thing is to know your audience and to be assisted by professionals who are acquainted with the target culture of your projects.
For example, let’s take a look at some common Spanish variations. These are bound to be the bulk of your exposure to these accents, thanks to their presence in pop culture.
Let’s take a look!
This is what most US-born people will think of as actual Spanish. Unfortunately, this accent has been incorrectly portrayed as being the Spanish accent due to TV and movie portrayals; even if the character is from another country, Mexican actors are hired, and stereotyping ensues. In fact, movies often even get Mexican Spanish wrong!
Like all accents on this list, Mexican can be identified by a particular slang and intonation, with a collocation that’s slightly nasal. You can identify which part of Mexico people are from by their word choices, for example. Mexican Spanish conjugations can make it a little off-putting to even native Spanish speakers! This goes to show how different Spanish accents vary greatly.
In general, the use of diminutives, slightly different tenses, and slang, make Mexican Spanish sound wonderfully musical and distinctive.
This fun primer is a pretty good starting point that comments on some cultural norms as well. That whole channel is a pretty good guide to Mexican Spanish.
This is what everyone would refer to as Spanish Spanish. Castilian comprises the areas of Madrid and Northern Spain. It’s the accent most commonly used in their dubs. What identifies this the most to the outside listener is the characteristic s and th sounds. The peculiar way of pronouncing the letter c with a between-the-teeth sound is a hallmark of the accent. Different areas of Spain do this differently, with the sound nearly disappearing in regions like Andalucía, for instance.
This is a very good primer about this accent.
The rapid-fire Spanish of Caribbean and coastal regions can be a challenge! This laid-back speech has the typical hallmark of dropped s sounds at the end of words. This is one of the characteristics that give it its typical “chill” vibe to onlookers. Its slang also varies wildly. It’s not quite the same thing to be listening to Spanish from the Dominican Republic than from Venezuela. Also, words can have letters replaced according to regions. An example is how r can be replaced by l in Puerto Rican Spanish; Santiago Dominicans generally replace it by i. Some regions can also tend to breathe the s out with an h sound.
As you can probably tell, things can get confusing quickly!
This Puerto Rican YouTuber will give you a serious breakdown of some of the variations within this accent.
This one is the nearest and dearest to my heart, as I’m an Argie myself. Now, Argentina is a pretty big country — the eight largest in the world — with a vast territory. The sing-song quality of the typical Argentinian accent is largely attributable to Porteño Spanish. That is, hailing from the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. Travel 50 miles, and people will start noticing your accent fast!
Still, as a general rule, Argentinian Spanish is heavily influenced by Italian. The ll is pronounced like a sh (which also applies to Uruguay). Another characteristic is the typical Argentinian voseo, which is a replacement of the informal tú form. You can immediately tell apart someone who hasn’t been in Argentina long by them referring to people as usted.
A small primer here.
Another widespread, wonderfully versatile accent. The Bogotá accent is seen as one of the most neutral forms of Spanish around. The reason is due to its clarity and relatively slow speed. Of course, with its geographical variety, there are many, many variations on this accent. The Medellin accent is also pretty well-known. They sometimes have an intonation of the s similar to Castilian (but softer, looser).
As an aside, I’ve always found that people from Colombia are exceptionally adept at learning and speaking English proficiently.
Colombian Spanish, like Argentinian, is also notable for its use of vos instead of tú.
Check out how it sounds here.
Why is knowing about different Spanish accents important?
The long and the short of it is that if you’re directing your efforts at the Spanish market, you must know your audience. Check out this funny video. Do any of those accents sound remotely the same? Unless you’re completely tin-eared, you’ll tell the differences immediately.
Imagine the following scene, then: you’re directing a marketing campaign to people in the Midwestern US. Images about your app start popping up in your YouTube ad. The music ramps up, people start listening… and an Edinburgh accent, slang and all, pops up. You’re on a fast-track to alienate your readers, ridicule your brand, and possibly come off very offensive.
Target your Spanish efforts at the local market. Get talent that speaks the particular accent you’re aiming for. Have natives inspect and touch-up your scripts so they read naturally. If you can, focus-group your work! You can even do this informally with a small selection of natives of the country you’re trying to reach. See how they react, if they think your content is something that at least appears normal.
If you want, you can also try different versions of neutral Spanish, if you want to target your campaign to a very broad Spanish-speaking segment. Still, try to learn how your audience tends to react to non-localized content.
If not, all of your efforts could backfire quickly and make you lose both your marketing budget and valuable sales!
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It’s good to at least know the basics about different Spanish accents. You want your audience to know you’re speaking to them directly and you took the time to localize your content. If you do, they’ll feel that they’re being spoken to directly by one of their peers. There’s beauty in diversity, and it’s always a net positive for your campaigns to reflect that.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little about the richness and variety of this wonderful language!