The Spanish Dialects — a Crash Course in Linguistic Differences

Have you ever heard someone from Britain or Australia say something, and had to stop and think about it for a minute?

Aspire Students at the Plaza Mayor, Salamanca

Dialects can throw you for a loop now and then, and that’s not unique to the English language.  There are some pretty big differences in Spanish, depending on which side of the Atlantic the speaker is from.  The proper name for what you might call “Spanish Spanish” is actually Castilian Spanish, or castellano, because its linguistic roots came from the Castile region of Spain.  The Spanish spoken in Latin America, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to as español (although certain Latin American speakers also refer to their dialect as castellano).  Many classrooms in the United States teach the Latin American dialect because it’s more practical considering their location, so it’s important to take note of some of the major differences between the two before you embark on a trip to Spain for a summer or a semester.  Here are some quick tips (and yes, you may want to take out your notes from Spanish class while following along, but I promise it’s worth it!):

– When a Z or C are followed by an I or E in a word,  many Spaniards often pronounce a th sound (as in “thin,”) while many Latin Americans pronounce the s sound.  This “th” sound is known as the “ceceo”—and whatever you do, DO NOT refer to it as a lisp!  It actually has to do with the way the language evolved over time, and is more common in the north of Spain.   So, in Spain (particularly a city such as Barcelona) you will likely hear someone respond “gra-thee-as” when they are thanking someone (gracias), while in Costa Rica the same word is pronounced “gra-see-as.”  It’s the same for “cinco,” “zapato,” and “cerca.”

– In Spain, the vosotros form is usually used as the second person plural (familiar) pronoun, while in Latin America, it is more common to use ustedes.  It can actually get even more complicated—in some countries, including Costa Rica, the pronoun vos replaces the formin certain social situations.

– Spaniards commonly use the indirect object pronoun “le” as the direct object pronoun for both male and female nouns, whereas Latin Americans use the word “lo” for male nouns and “la” for female nouns.   Technically, the Castilian usage (known as “leísmo”, and more common with male nouns than female) is incorrect, however it’s still accepted by the Real Academia Española (the Royal Spanish Academy), which has the final say on all things grammar-related.

– Latin Americans tend to use the ir + a + the infinitiveconstruct in order to express an idea in the future tense (“Yo voy a comer”).   In Spain, castellano speakers generally prefer to use the future tense construct (“Yo comeré).

Of course, like English-speakers, Spaniards and Latin Americans use different words to describe the same thing.  Here are just a few common examples:

  • computer: ordenador (Sp.) vs. computadora (LA)
  • potato: patata (Sp.) vs. papa (LA)
  • peach: melocotón (Sp.) vs.  durazno (LA)
  • to get angry: enfadarse (Sp.) vs. enojarse (LA)
  • to bring up, raise: criarse (Sp.) vs. crecerse (LA)

One word in particular that you’ll hear all the time in Spain but never in Costa Rica is “vale,” which is the equivalent of saying “OK,” “I understand,” etc.

A good phrase to know in Costa Rica!

In the end, Spanish speakers around the world can communicate no matter what dialect they are using, and that’s the key.  So, if you are studying in Spain or Costa Rica, try to remember these major differences—however, if you slip up, it’s no big deal!  The fact that you are making the effort to learn another language is what’s important.

If you’re interested in learning more about these linguistic differences, take a look at the following websites:

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  1. Nice entry! Not to nitpick but you’ve got a typo there on “enfedarse”.

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