Even Though there are many unbreakable divisions in the world -- the Continental Divide, Republicans vs. Democrats, Cubs vs. White Sox, Marvel vs. DC, the unbridgeable gap between Mac and Windows -- but perhaps not by crossing the Atlantic you will find worthy differences between Spain Spanish vs. Latin America Spanish.
We as teachers of the language are frequently asked about the differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish of Latin America. While there are distinctions between the varieties of Spanish, the first thing to make clear is that Spanish speakers can all understand each other, whether in Madrid, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Caracas or Santo Domingo. It’s like an American speaking English with a Brit and an Australian… normally no problem at all. This said, there are some differences between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish spoken in Latin America. There are also differences between the types of Spanish spoken in different parts of Latin America. And in different parts of Spain!
Why are there differences?
When Spanish colonizers travelled the world to spread the word of god and take precious metals in return, they brought with them a language that was in the process of changing back at home. A linguist called Marckwardt came up with the term “colonial lag” to describe a situation where the language spoken in colonies does not keep up with innovations in the language in its country of origin. An example in English would be the use of fall in the USA and autumn in Britain; when British colonizers went to America, fall was more common than the Latin version in British English. The older, Germanic word fall later became obsolete in Britain but has remained in common use in the USA. This process happens with vocabulary but also with grammar. Later on, immigrant groups from different parts of Europe brought linguistic traditions with them to Latin America. In turn, these groups met different local linguistic traditions, creating variations in local dialects.
More of an issue is that certain words carry different meanings in different areas. Not just Spain vs. Latin America, but region to region. The same is true regarding certain expressions; some are used in one region, others are used in a different region.
The issue of the “Vosotros” conjugation, which is used in Spain, but not in Latin America. When the Spanish colonies were founded by different groups, they took with them the Spanish that was spoken in Spain at that time, along with elements of their local dialects. The Spanish spoken in the colonies then started to develop in slightly different directions as there was limited communication with Spain (telephones were still hundreds of years away). Some elements of older Spanish were kept, others dropped. One of the clearest examples of that process is the use of vos, primarily in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Originally a second-person plural, vos came to be used as a more polite second-person singular pronoun to be used among one’s familiar friends. It was commonly used in Spanish when the language reached the southern cone of the Americas. It fell out of use in Spain but stayed in Rioplatense Spanish. Nowadays, just like 150 years ago, at a bustling Buenos Aires cafe, you are much more likely to be asked “¿de dónde sos?” than “¿de dónde eres?”
The use of vos and its distinct conjugation now appears to be growing in parts of Latin America where it had previously been used by minority groups, such as Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Latin American varieties of Spanish do not use vosotros (you, plural, informal), preferring the formal ustedes. This means that learners in Spain have to remember another verb ending. For example, in Spain you may say “¿Cuál fue la última película que visteis?” (what was the last film you saw?) to your friends, but to your grandparents you would probably say “¿Cuál fue la última película que vieron?”. In Latin America, you would use the second form for both. Ustedes is also used in the Canary Islands; only the Balearics and mainland Spain use vosotros. If you only use the Latin American form, you will be understood perfectly well in Spain. In fact, people will probably just consider you polite!
The vast majority of Spanish words are universal, but some are not. Some examples include teléfono móvil / celular and ordenador / computadora, with the second of each pair being the Latin American form. There are also many more words that vary between dialects. For example, a pen is bolígrafo in Spain but lápiz pasta in Chile, lapicera in Argentina and so on. Overall, the differences in vocabulary are no greater than those between British and American English. A word of caution at this point. In Spain, the verb “coger” (to catch) is used all the time, not just to mean catching, but also grabbing or fetching. For example, “coger al toro por los cuernos”, literally, “to take the bull by the horns”. In Latin America, “coger” is a slang term used extensively to describe, ahem, the act of love.
Perhaps the most notable difference between pronunciation in Spain and Latin America is the “lisp” (although it is not technically a lisp) that is common in Madrid and some other parts of Spain. Legend has it that this pronunciation started with King Ferdinand, whose lisp was copied by the Spanish nobility. As is often the case, legend is probably wrong; the pronunciation is more likely to have come from sounds that existed in medieval Castilian, although that doesn’t explain why it didn’t make it to the colonies. Not all innovations in language are logical.
The bottom line
You will inevitably soak up the local accent wherever you choose to learn Spanish but this will not stop you communicating with all Spanish speakers. Everyone has an accent when they speak and there is no “better” or “worse” accent. If you do pick up a distinctive accent when you learn a language, whether Spanish or any other, it is a part of who you are and your personal experiences. It can also be a good ice-breaker on your travels. I personally believe that too much is made of the differences between Spanish as spoken in various places, and the student need not be overly concerned with this topic. Rest assured, whatever variety of Spanish you learn, you will be understood all over the Spanish-speaking world whether you use “tú” or “vos”.