Why There Are Regional Differences in the Spanish Language

Updated on May 10, 2019
Christina Dunn profile image

Christina has studied Spanish for five years, including a year of IB Spanish SL.

In general, languages always change depending on the geography, history, and the politics of a location. Despite the United States and the United Kingdom both speaking English, the language in the two countries contain different vocabularies and spellings for various words. Spanish is no different; Spanish in rural Mexico is very different than the Spanish in Argentinian cities. To answer what creates these differences, one must study the origin and transmission of the language.

The Iberians and the Celts

The linguistic history of Spain is very diverse because the country has been influenced by many countries and their commerce and invasions. Although the Roman and Arabic invasions are the most important, other countries and cultures contributed. For example, Spain's history starts with the Iberians in 218 when they migrated to Northern Africa (Arabic). In Spain, they developed three writing systems: an alphabet used in the south with a Phoenician origin, another alphabet used in the south with a Greek origin, and yet another alphabet used in Cataluna after 425 AD (Iberians). While the Iberians were mostly in the east parts of the peninsula, the Celts, on the other hand, were in the the north and west (Celts; Palomino). It is believed that between the borders, the two tribes were combined in the center of the peninsula to create another culture: the Celtiberians (Celts, Iberians). Despite the doubt about this idea due to the strong identity typically in a tribe, which would potentially prevent the combination, the name Celtiberian remained because it was used by the Romans (Celts).

The Greeks

The Greeks came to the peninsula around 100 B.C. and brought their scientific knowledge with them (Monografías). There are so many words of Greek origin in the language of sciences, such as biológica (biology) and química (chemistry), that it's recommended that scientists study Greek instead of Latin. In addition, words about the soul and leisure activities also have Greek origins; this includes democracia (democracy, from demokratia in Greek), comedia (comedy, from the words komos and odé), and teatro (theater, from theatron) (Anders; Marisol).

The Carthaginians

Before the Romans were the Carthaginians, the great authority in the Mediterranean Sea until the 2nd century BC. (Medina) Like the Phoenicians, the Carthaginian language originated in the Phoenician Semitic language and as a result they grew in influence in Spanish (Medina). The Roman Empire conquered the Carthaginians in 218 BC and they gave the Iberian Peninsula the name hispania (Gahala, Romans). With the empire, the Romans brought their roads, bridges, government, and language as well (Gahala). Meanwhile the Romans began to fail, the Vandals and Visigoths began to invade (Gahala, Visigoths)

The Visigoths

The Visigoths had control over most of the peninsula except the southeast and declared the territory Catholic (Visigoths). While they didn't have a big influence in the art, they united the peninsula via religion and politics; this benefited the whole country in the years to come (Visigoths). The Spanish language received its words the war of the Visigoths as well, for example the words la guerra (war), la espuela (spur), el heraldo (herald), and tregua (truce) (Visigoths).

Muslim Spain and Spain's First Monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella

After the Visigoths were the Muslims, who came from North Africa (Envoy). Muslim Spain created advances in science, crafts, agriculture, and writing (Gahala). The Muslims had an attitude of tolerance too. The Islamic religion brought Muslim and combined with the Christianity culture already present in Spain. The cultures combined, leading some people to practice Christianity and write in Arabic (Monographs). The opposite was true during the Reconquista after the Arab invasion (Gahala).

When the Muslim Spain fell, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile rose to rule in their place (Catholic). During the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, there was "a unique moment in the history of the world"; in Spain, there was political and territorial unity (Gahala). While the unity was good for the country, it was not good for the Jewish people; Catholic kings want only their religion among their land. As a result, Jewish Spaniards had two options: convert or leave. Another consequence of the Catholic kings was Christopher Columbus received the money for his trip to the New World. This event, of course, began the colonization of the Americas and the growing reach of the Spanish language. As a consequence, in Spanish there are linguistic elements of the primitive Iberians, of the Phoenician, Carthaginian and Greek merchants, and the Roman, German and Arab invaders, and the very early presence of the Jews.

Arabic Influence

There is a great Arabic influence in the vocabulary of agriculture due to them being the origin of agriculture techniques. The words atarjea, acequia (irrigation ditch), noria, arcaduz, and zanja (trough) all have an Arabic origin (Nadeau). The words naranja (orange), arroz (rice), y hasta (until) have the same origin as well (Arabic). For some words, the Arabic article al was combined with a noun to form the corresponding Spanish word; for example the Arabic word al-qutun became the Spanish word algodón (cotton) and the Arabic word al-sukkar became the Spanish word azúcar (sugar) (Arabic). The expression ojalá evolved from the Arabic phrase wa sa llah, which means "if God is willing" (Nadeau). In addition, the Arabic word ash shatranj is the origin of the word ajedrez (chess) (Arabic). The Arabic influence can be seen in the cultural too; bullfighting began with the Arabs (Nadeau).

The Taíno

In the New World, the Taíno, a Caribbean language, was the native language with the most influence in American Spanish because Spanish was limited to the Caribbean by the first twenty-five years after the discovery of America (Cristobal). Also, the Taino has words for describing experiences outside their land (Nadeau). According to Professor Humberto López Morales, sixty three of the sixty six words of Spanish chronicles with Taíno origin could describe experiences outside the Caribbean (Nadeau). Examples of Taíno words include maíz (maize), mamey (an evergreen tree) and manatí (manatee) (Fandiño, Anders).

El Yeísmo, El Leísmo, and Regional Vocabulary Differences

There are many differences in the vocabulary between the twenty-one Spanish-speaking countries. The word fresca (strawberry), which is used in Spain and Colombia means the same as the word frutilla, which is used in Argentina and Chile (Sergi). Bananas are called cambur in Venezuela and banana in Argentina (Sergi). In addition, the word bañador in Spain and malla enteriza in Argentina both translate to swimsuit (Sergi). The majority of diminutives are formed by adding -ito or -ita to the end of the words while the diminutives in Costa Rica are formed by adding -tico (AP). As a result, the dimunitive of the hermano, the word for brother, is hermantico, not hermanito. In addition, there is the el yeísmo and el leísmo, the former means the lack of distinction among the letters ll and y while the latter means the opposite (Erichsen). El yeísmo is used in most of South America, Mexico, Central America, and parts of Spain as well (Erichsen).

The Flag of Spain
The Flag of Spain | Source

The Languages of Spain- Basque

The twenty countries with Spanish as the official language are spread between two sides of the Atlantic Ocean and one side of the Pacific Ocean. Of course, each country has been influenced by the language of Spain, indirectly or directly, because of the role the Spaniards had in the exploration of the New World. As a result, to understand the difference in Spanish between Latin America must understand the language in Spain. Spain has many main languages, including Basque, Catalan, Galician, Valencian, and Castellano (Towanda). The latter was the language with the most directive influence in the New World, but it was not the only language that influences Spanish in the Americas (Towanda). In the old Euskera, the language of the Basque Country, it did not have the sound f (Lengua). This affected the Castilian; when the other Romance languages have the sound f in a Castilian word spell the word with the letter h (Lengua).

For example, the Latin word fames means faim in French, fame in Italian, but hambre (hunger) in Spanish because the spelling pattern of the rest of the Romance languages does not apply to castellano (Language). However, apart from that connection, Basque does not have many similarities with castellano at all; Unlike Spanish, Basque is not part of the Ibero-Romance language group (Langfocus). Basque is a unique language; it is believed to be the last preceding language of the Indo-European languages in eastern Europe still in use (Langfocus). While much information about the Basque language is unknown, there is no doubt that the Basque people were isolated for thousands of years by the result of the mountains; this made invasion by others rather difficult (Langfocus).

The Languages of Spain- Catalan and Gallego

Catalan is the dominant language of Catalonia, and is used in the Balearic Islands and parts of Valencia as well (Regional). French has influenced Catalan, which can be seen by the words automòbil (car), metre (meter), and princesa (princess) (List). It has very similar with Valencian, but the two languages have enough differences to be considered separated (Regional). Gallego is one more official language of Spain, specifically in the region Galicia (Regional). This language is close to Portuguese (Regional). Galician and Castilian were thought to be the same language until the eleventh century because the two are the Romance language group (Nadeau).

The Languages of Spain- Castellano

Castellano is the most well-known language outside of Spain (Towanda). The name is of the Castilla region and also the reign corresponds (Nadeau). This language is from vulgar Latin. The words castellano and español can be used as synonyms, but that is not always the case. Some Spanish speakers have a strong preference for one word or the other. The people of Catalonia, Basque Country, Galicia, El Salvador, and Argentina prefer the word castellano shows the difference between them and Spain (Lipski, Nadeau). On the other side, Central Americans, Mexicans, Colombians, and Spanish speakers of the Caribbean prefer the word español because it signifies unity of the Spanish speakers to them (Lipski).

Castellano vs Español

From now on, I will use the word castellano specifically for Spanish in Spain and the word español for Spanish in Latin America. A prominent difference between castellano and español is the use of el voseo (Erichsen). El voseo (the second person singular form of pronouns and verbs) is frequently used in Spain. However, the only Latin American countries to use el voseo are Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay (Erichsen). The other Latin American countries prefer to use the singular (informal you) forms of verbs (Erichsen). The vocabulary and spelling is different between castellano and español as well (Erichsen). For example, the word for operating a vehicle is manejar in castellano and conducir in español (Erichsen). Also, the word for computer is el ordenador in castellano yet la computadora in español (Erichsen). The places Mexico and Texas are spelled with the letter x in español while in castellano they are spelled with the letter j (Erichsen). In addition, to describe something in the recent past, the present perfect is used in castellano while the past tense is used in español (Erichsen).

Latin American Spanish has many characteristics similar to Andalusian Spanish (Nadeau 129). For example, both locations have regions that utilize el seso and el yeísmo (Erichen). El seseo is when the letters c and y are pronounced like th while el seseo is when the letter ll is pronounced like y (Erichen). This is the result of European ships before leaving for the New World left from the port of Seville. Here, the mariners were exposed to the Andalusian accent (Nadeau 129).


The differences in the language do not only exist across oceans. In each Latin American country, there are differences depending on its specific location. Spanish in cities usually is distinct than the Spanish in rural areas. There is a Náhuatl influence, an Aztec language, in the Spanish spoken in Mexico (Mexico). In addition, the great Náhuatl influence in Mexico resulted in the country not being affected by the changes in Spanish made in Spain during the 17th and 18th century (Nadeau). For example, in the 17th century, the words México and Texas changed to have a stronger sound in Spain while the same words in Mexico maintained the same smooth sound (Nadeau). Besides that, Spanish in Mexico has many similarities to Spanish in Spain due to Mexico being used as a administrative center while it was still a colony (Nadeau).

Guatamala, Honduras, and Nicaragua

Like Mexico, Central American countries have influences from Native languages in their locations. Guatemalan Spanish has many borrowed words, like the word pisto (money), because a large percentage of their population is native (Guatemala). In fact, a native language is usually the first language people learn in Guatemala, with Spanish being the second (Guatemala). Honduran Spanish is similar to Nicaragua and El Salvadoran Spanish (Honduras). On the coasts, Spanish has been influenced by the British, Africans, and Native Americans (Honduras). In addition, Honduran Spanish has a smoother accent compared to the coast. Like Honduras, Nicaraguan Spanish also has an African influence, and as a result, Spanish in the two countries is very similar (Nicaragua). However, in Nicaragua, the Spanish is influenced by the Náhuatl, specifically in the syntax and vocabulary (Nicaragua). In addition, Nicaragua is known for being the center of the use of el voseo (Nicaragua). Nicaraguan Spanish has an interesting vocabulary; for example, arpení, not hermano, means brother and billuyo, not dinero, means money (Nicaragua).

Panama, Cuba, and Argentina

Despite its location being closer to Central America than the Caribbean, the Spanish in Panama is more similar to Caribbean Spanish. The Spanish here was influenced by English, African languages, and the native language ngabere. In addition, the voseo is only used south of the Azuero peninsula. Panama has a nasal pronunciation and frequently omits the last syllable or consonant. Typically, the jardon switches two syllables around in the words. For example, "¿Qué pasó?” is changed into “¿Qué sopá?” (Panamá). Another interesting characteristic of the Spanish in Panama is the vocabulary; it's more common to say buena leche instead of buena suerte for good luck and the word peleo is more common than niño for child. Typically, in Cuban Spanish, the last sound of the word gets omited; for example, estamos estupendos sounds like estamo’ estupendo (Nadeau). In addition, the trill rr sounds like an singular r, or the letter h (Havana). Moving south, the large immigrant population in Argentina affects what verb tense is used most often (Argentina). To describe events in the near future, using ir+infinitive is preferred over using the future tense because it's easier for foreigners to understand (Nadeau).

Effects of the Real Academia Española

Despite all the differences among the countries, Spanish is generally universal. The grammar is very consistent among all parts of the Spanish speaking world. This is the result of the Real Academia Española, an organization that made and standardized the rules of the language (Nadeau). Established in 1713, later than the majority of the academys for other langauges in Europe, the Real Academia Española worked effectively and rapidly (Orígenes). They always made conservative rules because the people who most likely reject major changes; this is a logical explanation to why the language isn't completely phonetic. In addition, the organization established the spelling of some words; in 1726, the first volume of Diccionario de Autoridades decided which words had Greek etymologies, like the words theatro and patricarcha, and which words had Latin etymologies, like the words doctor and perfecto (Nadeau). Later, the word theatro was converted into teatro (Nadeau).


Memorization is not the only part of learning a language. To learn a foreign language well, one must do more than just take a class in school or complete an online program; those things can help develop universal grammar vocabulary, but a language is more than just grammar and vocabulary. There's history. In each region, the location, politics, and cultures combine. In the preference in Argentina to use ir + an infinitive over the future tense, one can see the grand immigrant population in the country. En El Salvador, one can see the freedom the people won almost 200 years ago in the preference to call their language castellano, not español. One can see how terrain can shape a language in the case of the Euskera language. There's no doubt that there is always history behind a language, and the history of Spanish is quite an interesting one.

Works Cited

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© 2019 Christina Garvis


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