How Many Varieties and Dialects of Spanish Are There in The World?
Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world in terms of native speakers, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Over 500 million people speak Spanish as their native language and that number is growing.
Spanish is the official language of 20 countries and one territory, namely: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico (a territory of the United States). Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela.
In addition, millions of individuals speak Spanish as a second language. Because of its relevance, Spanish is commonly taught in schools and universities worldwide. According to the 2022 Duolingo Report, Spanish is still one of the most popular languages to study among language learners, contributing to the growing number of non-native speakers.
Varieties and Dialects
Spanish features a huge range of varieties and dialects. But it would be very difficult – if not impossible – to determine how many “versions” of Spanish are spoken across the globe. In order to categorize varieties and dialects, it would be necessary to adopt specific linguistic criteria, and these could, still, fail to provide definite answers.
It is important to mention even though both “variety” and “dialect” are terms used to describe the different regional patterns of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation that exist within a language, they are not synonymous with one another.
A linguistic variety – isolect, or lect – is a form of a language that is used by a specific group of speakers. A variety can be defined by regional, social, cultural, ethnic and other cultural aspects. For example, Peninsular Spanish is a linguistic variety that comprises several dialects, such as Andalusian Spanish.
A dialect is a more specific term and refers to a particular form of a language spoken by a group within a geographical location or social region. Dialects vary in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, and distinctive features that set them apart. A dialect is a subset of a variety.
Different Varieties and Dialects of Spanish Around the World
Traditionally, Spanish is split into two main varieties, namely Peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish, and an indefinite number of dialects. This division is not official and is open to debate. Here are some of these varieties and dialects:
- Peninsular Spanish: This is the variety of Spanish spoken in Spain. It includes several regional dialects such as Andalusian, Castilian, Catalan, Galician, and Basque.
- Latin American Spanish: This encompasses the varieties of Spanish spoken in Latin America. Latin American Spanish includes numerous regional dialects, influenced by indigenous languages and varying historical developments. Some prominent dialects within Latin America include Mexican Spanish, Colombian Spanish, Argentine Spanish, Peruvian Spanish, Chilean Spanish, and many more.
- Caribbean Spanish: This refers to the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean region, including countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other islands. Caribbean Spanish has its own unique features and influences, including Afro-Caribbean elements.
- Rioplatense Spanish: This is a dialect spoken primarily in the region of Rio de la Plata, which includes Argentina and Uruguay.
- Canary Islands Spanish: This is a variety of Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands, which are an autonomous community of Spain.
- Equatorial Guinea Spanish: Equatorial Guinea is the only African country where Spanish is an official language. The Spanish spoken there has its own features influenced by local languages.
These are just a few examples. There are many more regional varieties and dialects of Spanish worldwide. Because of the local cultural and historical influences on the language, each dialect has its own distinctive characteristics in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
Differences in Vocabulary
Just as it happens across the different varieties of English, Spanish also presents variances in vocabulary depending on the country (or state, city or even neighborhood). Let’s see some examples:
- camiseta (Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Mexico);
- camisola (Nicaragua);
- chemas (Costa Rica);
- franela (Venezuela);
- playera (Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico);
- polo (Peru);
- polera (Bolivia, Chile);
- remera (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay).
- chupete (Argentina)
- chupa/chupo (Colombia)
- chupeta (Costa Rica)
- tete (Cuba)
- chupón (Ecuador, Mexico)
- pepe (Guatemala)
- bobo (Dominican Republic)
Spanish vs. Castilian
The words “español” and “castellano” are frequently used in Spanish to refer to the same language. The Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas, a language guide published by the Spanish Royal Academy, that aims to to provide answers to the most common doubts related to the Spanish language, whether they are of a phonographic (pronunciation, accentuation, punctuation, spelling, etc.), morphological (plurals, feminine, derivatives, conjugation forms, etc.), syntactical or semantical nature, explains:
“To designate the common language of Spain and many nations of America, which is also spoken in other parts of the world, both terms ‘Castilian’ and ‘Spanish’ are valid. The controversy about which of these denominations is more appropriate is now overcome. The term ‘Spanish’ is more recommendable because it lacks ambiguity and is the denomination used internationally (‘Spanish’, ‘espagnol’, ‘Spanisch’, ‘spagnolo’, etc.). Although also synonymous with ‘Spanish’, it is preferable to reserve the term ‘Castilian’ to refer to the Romance dialect born in the Kingdom of Castile during the Middle Ages, or to the dialect of Spanish currently spoken in this region. In Spain, the name Castilian is also used when referring to the common language of the State in relation to the other co-official languages in their respective autonomous territories, such as Catalan, Galician or Basque.” (free translation).
The Kingdom of Castile was a powerful kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. The language used in Castile at the time was often referred to as “romance”, a term that derives from the Vulgar Latin adverb romanice, meaning “in Roman”, that is, in Latin vernacular. “Romance” later became “romance castellano”, or simply “castellano”.
On the other hand, the word “español” (“Spanish” in Spanish), according to the Royal Spanish Academy, comes from the Occitan word “espaignol”, which itself is derived from the Vulgar Latin term “hispaniolus”. “Hispania” was the Roman designation for the Iberian Peninsula during the Ancient Roman times.
External Influences on the Spanish Language
Throughout the centuries, Spanish borrowed words from various languages, including Latin, Arabic, English, French, as well as indigenous languages of the Americas.
Words of Arabic Origin
During the period of Moorish rule in Spain (from the early 8th century until the late 15th century), Arabic had a significant influence on the Spanish language. Many words of Arabic origin entered the Spanish language, including:
- azúcar (sugar);
- algodón (cotton);
- naranja (orange);
- sandía (watermelon);
- zanahoria (carrot).
Words of Indigenous Origin
Of all the indigenous languages, those that had the greatest influence on Spanish were Guarani, Nahuatl (Aztec, or Mexicano), Mayan, Quechua and Aymara.
- aguacate (avocado).
- yacaré (caiman/cayman, alligator) (used in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay).
- cóndor (condor);
- palta (avocado) (used in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Uruguay).
“Scramble for Africa”
Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Africa saw a rapid colonization by European powers. This process of expansion into Africa, which started with the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, became known as “Scramble for Africa” (“The Partition of Africa”, or “The Conquest of Africa”). As a result, many European languages were incorporated into the colonized areas, and are spoken in Africa to this day, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.
Spanish is spoken in several countries in Africa. These include Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea (formerly known as Spanish Guinea). The latter is the only African country to hold Spanish as an official language.
Spain acquired Equatorial Guinea from Portugal in 1778 in exchange for American territories, along with the islands of Bioko (previously Fernando Pó). The colonization process lasted until the end of the 19th century, and on October 12, 1968, Equatorial Guinea attained independence.
Spanish is both the national and official language of Equatorial Guinea and is spoken by the majority of the population in the country. French and Portuguese are also official languages of the nation. The country also speaks fifteen other languages, including Fang, Bube, Pidgin English and others.
Equatoguinean Spanish is regulated by the Equatoguinean Academy of the Spanish Language, an association of academics and experts on the use of the Spanish language in Equatorial Guinea, established in 2013. Since 2016, Equatorial Guinea has been a member of the Association of Spanish Language Academies.
Translating to Spanish can be tricky and challenging for translators. This is because such a task involves not only translating words, but also adapting the text so it resonates with a certain audience. This includes adapting tone, style, level of formality plus the use of regional vocabulary, which often results in a translation that is not universally accepted.
On the other hand, a client may need a translation that is suitable for mass marketing, sometimes targeting large areas such as an entire continent so as to reach as many Hispanic consumers as possible. In this case, something called neutral Spanish is used.
Neutral Spanish refers to an attempt to use only words and expressions that are universally understood and accepted across the Spanish-speaking community, avoiding any regionalisms. If the target, for example, is Latin America, a neutral form of Latin American Spanish is used.
I Want to Learn Spanish. Which Spanish Dialect Should I Learn?
There is no such thing as a “standard” Spanish, only dialects. Even a “standard variety” is, by nature, a dialect. And each dialect will have its own peculiarities, such as distinctive pronunciation, intonation patterns, rhythm, vocabulary, etc.
Broadly speaking, there are two major varieties of Spanish, namely Peninsular (or European) Spanish and Latin American Spanish, with dozens of dialects within each variety. Deciding on one of these two major varieties before electing a dialect could be a good starting point.
In the end, deciding on a dialect will depend solely on your personal preferences, cultures you relate to, and the countries you might be planning to visit.
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