A Guided Tour of Spanish Dialects Across the Globe


We are delighted to welcome a new guest blogger this week!

Meet Paul Mains.

Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free Spanish level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.

In this fascinating and beautifully written article Paul tells us all about Spanish dialects across the globe. Let the tour begin!

Images via Supermac1961, Pixabay, and Ken Walker

With over 400 million native speakers (and some 300 million non-native speakers), Spanish is the third-largest language in the world, and is the official language of twenty countries. As such, it should come as no surprise that there’s a significant amount of dialectical variation within the Spanish language depending on where it’s spoken. But did you know that the Spanish of Spain contains a sound that doesn’t exist in any other Spanish dialect? Or that Argentine Spanish doesn’t use the pronoun tú? In this article, we’ll take a guided tour through three geographically distinct Spanish dialects from three of the most populous Spanish-speaking countries: Spain, Mexico, and Argentina.

SPAIN: ¡Es la caña! “Vosotros” and the Infamous Castilian Lisp

Image of Madrid via Fermín Rodríguez Fajardo / Wikipedia

One of the hardest things about learning Spanish for English speakers is trying to remember all of the verb conjugations that change with every pronoun. If you’re nodding your head in agreement, then beware of Peninsular Spanish (also known as European Spanish), which is spoken in Spain — it’s unique in that it contains a second-person plural pronoun, vosotros, which is roughly synonymous with “y’all” or “you guys” in English. Indeed, vosotros comes with a whole new set of conjugations, which end in -áis, éis, or -is, depending on the base verb. Therefore, whereas speakers of other Spanish dialects would say “ustedes tienen”, Spanish speakers in Spain would say “vosotros tenéis”.

Probably the most well-known aspect of European Spanish is the infamous Castilian “lisp” — properly referred to as distinción — which is used in central and northern Spain, including Madrid, and is commonly heard in Spanish movies. In distinción, when a word contains a “z” before a vowel, or a “c” before an “e” or “i”, it is pronounced not like “s” in “sailboat”, but instead as “th” in “thirsty”. As such, the words “zorro” and “cinta” are pronounced like “thorro” and “thinta”, respectively. Interestingly, this “th” sound is completely unique to Castilian Spanish: it doesn’t exist in any other Spanish dialect!

MEXICO: ¡Qué padre! Diminutiv-itos and Spanglish

Image of Mexico City via Jeff Kramer / flickr

With over 100 million speakers in Mexico alone, Mexico is by far the most populous Spanish-speaking country. As such, it’s hard to isolate one single Mexican dialect. Still, there are several features of Mexican Spanish that differentiate it from other Spanish dialects — namely, its frequent use of diminutives, and its linguistic influence from its northerly neighbor, the United States.

The diminutive suffix -(c)ito/(c)ita is found in all variants of Spanish, though its use is particularly common in Central Mexico. Generally, the diminutive suffix denotes something of small size (e.g. “una casita” is a small house). Notably, however, in Mexico, the diminutive is used more frequently to indicate an endearing or friendly attitude. As such, “un aire fresquito” refers not to the size of the air (which would be preposterous), but rather to a nice, refreshing breeze. With this use of the diminutive, you may also hear humorously paradoxical words such as “grandecito”.

Given their geographical and political proximity, there is a great deal of cultural exchange between the United States and Mexico. This cultural give-and-take has resulted in several Hispanicized English words being introduced into the Mexican vernacular, particularly in border cities or in areas with more English-language influence. For instance, in some variations of Mexican Spanish, you can parquear (park) your car, rentar (rent) an apartment, or even janguear (hang out) with your friends.

[See this previous blog post for more about Spanglish].

ARGENTINA: ¡Qué copado! Voseo and Lunfardo

Image of Buenos Aires via Luis Argerich / Wikipedia

Rioplatense Spanish is spoken primarily in Argentina and Uruguay, and is both phonetically and grammatically distinct from other Spanish dialects. Notably, Rioplatense Spanish differs from other Spanish dialects in its pronunciation of the letters ll and y. Whereas in Mexico and Spain, these letters sound like the letter “y” in “yogurt”, in Rioplatense Spanish, they sound like the “sh” in “shell”. Thus, “yo” sounds like “sho”, and “brillar” sounds like “brishar”.

Another unique feature of Rioplatense Spanish is that it doesn’t use the second-person pronoun . Rather, it features voseo, which means that it uses the pronoun vos instead. (But ojo: “vos” doesn’t have anything to do with the “vosotros” of Peninsular Spanish!) Indeed, “vos” uses a completely different set of conjugations, which are formed by dropping the “r” from the infinitive, adding an “s”, and putting the stress on the final syllable. Therefore, in Argentina, they don’t say “tú vienes”, but rather “vos venís”; they don’t say “tú hablas”, but rather “vos hablás”.

Finally, Argentina — and Buenos Aires, in particular — has its own unique set of slang words, which is called lunfardo. Though it’s used abundantly in the streets of Buenos Aires, it’s rarely heard outside of Argentina, and thus can be confusing to the uninitiated. For instance, in lunfardo, pickpockets and thieves are chorros (and beware of motochorros, who grab cell phones and cameras while atop a motorcycle); young men are pibes and women are minas; and “What a disaster!” translates to “¡Qué quilombo!” (which literally means “brothel”). Popular Argentine music makes great use of lunfardo, and one tango song — “Milonga lunfarda” — actually provides a word-by-word breakdown of several lunfardo terms.

Vocabulary Across Spanish Dialects

In addition to pronunciation and grammar, these different Spanish dialects vary greatly in their vocabulary — from everyday words to more specialized slang terms. Here’s a table that will highlight some of the more notable vocabulary differences.


As you can see, the Spanish that’s spoken in different regions can vary greatly in vocabulary pronunciation, and even grammar! To see which Spanish dialect you understand best, compare your scores with a European and Latin American Spanish listening test — your results may surprise you! And if you’re thinking of traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, do some research before your pack your maletas, petacas, or valijas: it’s good to know if the bus you’re taking is called an autobús, a camión, or a colectivo!

Readers — which dialect of Spanish do you prefer? What are your favorite regional terms? Leave a comment below!

Note from Jim: Really enjoyed reading this Paul. Will you come and write for us another time?? [March 2015 update … He say Yes!!!]