Spanish Language

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Spanish Language

Spanish is spoken by upwards of 300 million people in Latin America, where it is the official language of eighteen countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In spite of the fact that it has been the first language of far-flung communities ranging over thousands of miles for some five centuries, Latin American Spanish is remarkably homogeneous—especially in its morphology and syntax—and all varieties are mutually intelligible.

Carried bodily into southern Spain with the Reconquest, the language of fifteenth-century Castile continued on to the New World during a period of intense intercultural contact and internal linguistic change. Many of the features shared by Andalusian, Canarian, and Latin American varieties are undoubtedly the result of "dialect leveling," whereby tenuous linguistic distinctions tend to be lost. Thus, for example, American Spanish is characterized by seseo (one sound for orthographic s and z where Castilian has two).

Although prestige norms of urban centers (especially national capitals) are more influential than ever thanks to centralized education and media, it remains the case that dialect boundaries do not, by and large, follow political ones. Features may be shared across countries while varying considerably within them. In the Latin American context, the importance of the demographic explosion and rapid urbanization since the mid-1950s cannot be underestimated: What was once an urban vs. rural distinction has given way to marked sociolinguistic differentiation within cities, and speakers from a range of social strata contribute to the national standard.

In phonology, a useful dichotomy can be drawn between the consonant-heavy dialects of highland Mexico and the Andes versus the consonant-weak varieties of the coasts, lowland South America, and the Southern Cone. The latter are characterized by the effacement of syllable-final consonants, most notoriously the aspiration or deletion of s. The so-called trilled r provides another Latin American shibboleth; several regional variants are not trills at all, and these represent some of the few widespread phonological phenomena unrelated to developments in Spain.

Perhaps the most exclusively Latin American morphosyntactic phenomenon is the voseo, or use of the pronoun vos in place of for the second person familiar singular—together with its corresponding verb forms. Particularly robust in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Central America, some vestige of the voseo is familiar to most speakers outside of Mexico, Peru, and the Antilles.

The Latin American Spanish vocabulary has borrowed heavily from indigenous languages, with names for fauna, food, and places most likely to be of local or regional character. Typical are lexical items from Nahuatl (elote, cacahuate, aguacate, ejote), Taino (maíz, maní, batey), and Quechua (choclo, palta, poroto), some of which have spread pan-Hispanically and beyond. Spanish has displaced indigenous languages almost everywhere except in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Paraguay, and it is fast encroaching upon them there (perhaps less rapidly in Paraguay). Still, in the early twenty-first century, far less than half of the Paraguayan population speaks fluent Spanish, and probably just over half of the Bolivian and Guatemalan people claim it as a first language. In these places, as well as in Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, as the work of Carol Klee (2008) shows, there are contact-induced features in the phonology and syntax of local Spanish varieties, but these are most apparent in the speech of adult second-language learners, and most tend to dissipate over successive generations.

Extra-Hispanic influence has also come from African languages, especially in the Caribbean basin where lexical borrowings abound and where arguments have been made for some African contribution to, say, consonant loss in Dominican Spanish. The greatest force in the foreseeable future, however, is undeniably English, due not to any largescale bilingualism in Latin America but rather to its status as a world language of commerce and technology. Contact with English is constant and unstoppable throughout the hemisphere; even so, its effects, though significant, are largely limited to expansion of the lexicon.

National affiliates of the Real Academia Española exist in all nineteen of the Spanish-speaking territories mentioned above, where together they advocate for "el cuidado y defensa del idioma común." The region's largest professional association of linguists is the Asociación de Lingüística y Filología de América Latina. The collection and documentation of dialect data has been the ongoing objective of the "Norma Culta" project, headed by Juan Lope Blanch (1986), and two online corpora with video dialect samples include sites managed by Terrell Morgan (2007) and Carlos-Eduardo Piñeros (2007).

See alsoHispanics in the United States; Indigenous Languages.


Gordon, Raymond G., Jr., ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th edition. Dallas: SIL, 2005. Also available from

Hidalgo, Margarita. "The Emergence of Standard Spanish in the American Continent: Implications for Latin American Dialectology." Language Problems and Language Planning 14 (1990): 47-63.

Klee, Carol. "Migrations and Globalization: Their Effects on Contact Varieties of Latin American Spanish." In Español en los Estados Unidos y en otros contextos: Cuestiones sociolingüísticas, políticas y pedagógicas, ed. Manel Lacorte and Jennifer Leeman. Madrid: Vervuert/Iberoamericana, 2008.

Lipski, John M. Latin American Spanish. London and New York: Longman, 1994.

Lope Blanch, Juan. El estudio del español hablado culto: Historia de un proyecto. Mexico City: UNAM, 1986.

Morgan, Terrell A. Digital Catalog of the Sounds of Spanish. 2007. Online video corpus available from

Piñeros, Carlos-Eduardo. Dialectoteca del español. 2007. Available from∼acadtech/dialects.

                                     Terrell A. Morgan

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