Divided by a Common Language, Part 1: Spain vs. Latin America
The Irish-born playwright, activist, and wit George Bernard Shaw once described the United States and Great Britain as “two countries divided by a common language.” It’s not a surprise that distance, history and culture often combine to create differences even within languages. Spanish provides us with a case in point.
It’s no secret that Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world - in fact, it comes second only to Chinese as a native language, and is used by over 400 million people in more than twenty different countries across four continents. However, like English, there is no single or unified Spanish language that everyone in the Spanish-speaking world speaks. Instead, there is a whole range of regional variations that share the same European Spanish language roots but which have evolved differently over time. One of these variants is Latin American Spanish.
But where exactly is Latin America?
The term “Latin America” describes the parts of the Americas where languages of Latin origin are spoken.
This doesn’t just refer to Spanish, but also to Portuguese, since both are descended from Latin. Latin America is generally understood to mean the areas south of the United States where Spanish and Portuguese are the main languages, and does not include places where other languages such as English, French and Dutch are spoken. But speakers of these latter languages are greatly outnumbered by speakers of Spanish and Portuguese. The biggest country south of the Rio Grande, Brazil (population about 201 million) speaks Portuguese; the second largest, Mexico (118 million), and many other sizeable countries like Argentina, Colombia, and Peru speak Spanish.
Is Latin American Spanish different from Spanish in Spain?
The Spanish conquest of much of the Americas got underway early in the 16th century. Given the great
distance between Spain and its colonies, the long period of time for local peculiarities to evolve, and the
lack of modern forms of communication, it would be extremely surprising if there were not any substantial
differences between European Spanish and its Latin American varieties.
There are quite a lot of differences, and these are pretty wide-ranging, since they occur in the vocabulary,
the grammar and the pronunciation. For instance, if you want to order an orange juice in Spain, you would
ask for un zumo de naranja, whereas in Latin America you would say un jugo de naranja. Likewise, when
using the plural form of tu (you) meaning “you all” or “you guys,” people in Spain usually say vosotros, while speakers in Latin America typically use Ustedes. See the PDF for more examples.
There are also pitfalls to be negotiated in terms of unintended humor, vulgarity or even offence. An example of this is coger. In Spain, this innocent verb means “to get” or “to take”, and is commonly used in sentences such as coger el tren (“to take the train”). But cross the Atlantic, and this word takes on a whole different meaning in Latin American slang (we suggest looking this one up yourself) and is probably best avoided!
To further complicate matters, the pronunciation can also differ. Latin Americans sometimes poke fun at Spaniards for “lisping,” since the letters “c” (before i and e) and “z” (anywhere) are pronounced like the English “th” (as in thing) in most of Spain, while in Latin America they are pronounced the same as “s.” To Latin Americans, a speaker pronouncing the word civilización in the proper Castilian Spanish manner may appear to be suffering from a severe lisp (“thi-vili-tha-thion”).
And how unified is Latin American Spanish?
And that’s not all. Differences don’t only exist between the Spanish spoken on one side of the Atlantic and the form of the language spoken on the other. There are also substantial differences among the various forms of Latin American Spanish. But that’s the topic for our next essay.