Regional Differences in Spanish

Differences from country to country aren't extreme

Globe of Earth with South America facing viewer
Spanish varies across the globe in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

 Ian Cuming / Getty Images

In general, the biggest divisions in Spanish are those between Spain and Latin America. But even within Spain or within the Americas you'll find differences, especially if you go to more remote areas such as the Canary Islands or the Andean highlands. With a few exceptions—some local accents can be difficult for outsiders—people in Spain watch movies and TV shows from Latin America without subtitles, and vice versa. Here are the most significant grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary differences you should be aware of.

Key Takeaways

  • The most significant regional differences in Spanish usage are those between Spain and Latin America.
  • In most of Latin America, vosotros (the plural "you") is replaced by ustedes, even when talking to close friends and family.
  • Within Latin America, the most significant differences can be found in Argentina and some areas nearby, which use vos instead of .
  • In most of Latin America, the c before e or i and the z are pronounced like the s, but the sounds are different in most of Spain.

Pronunciation Differences

While regions have countless small differences in pronunciation, the following differences are some of the most significant and noticeable.

Pronunciation of Z and C

The most noticeable difference in pronunciation of European Spanish and that of the Americas involves that of the z and that of the c when it comes before an e or i. In most of Spain it has the sound of the "th" in "thin," while elsewhere it has the sound of the English "s." Spain's sound is sometimes incorrectly called a lisp. Thus casar (to marry) and cazar (to hunt or to catch) sound alike in most of Latin America but are pronounced differently in most of Spain.

Pronunciation of Y and LL

Traditionally, the y and ll represented different sounds, the y being much like the "y" of "yellow" and the ll being the "zh" sound, something the "s" of "measure." However, today, most Spanish speakers, in a phenomenon known as yeísmo, make no distinction between y and ll. This occurs in Mexico, Central America, parts of Spain, and most of South America outside the northern Andes. (The opposite phenomenon, where the distinction remains, is known as lleísmo.)

Where yeísmo occurs, the sound varies from the English "y" sound to the "j" of "jack" to the "zh" sound. In parts of Argentina it can also take on the "sh" sound.

Pronunciation of S

In standard Spanish, the s is pronounced much like that of English. However, in some areas, especially the Caribbean, through a process known as debucalización, it often becomes so soft that is disappears or becomes similar to the English "h" sound. This is especially common at the end of syllables, so that ¿Cómo estás?" sounds something like "¿Cómo etá?"

The J Sound

The intensity of the j sound varies considerably, ranging from the "ch" heard in the Scottish "loch" (difficult for many native English speakers to master) to the English "h."

Accents

Accents found in Mexico City or Bogotá, Colombia, are often considered to be neutral Latin American Spanish accents, just as in the United States the Midwestern accent is considered neutral. As a result, it is common for actors and television personalities to learn to speak using those accents.

Grammar Differences

The most common grammar differences are ustedes vs. vosotros, vs. vos, the use of leísmo, and preterite vs. present perfect tenses when referring to the recent past.

Ustedes vs. Vosotros

The pronoun vosotros as the plural form of "you" is standard in Spain but is nearly nonexistent in Latin America. In other words, while you might use ustedes to speak with strangers in Spain and vosotros with close friends, in Latin America you would use ustedes in either situation. Latin Americans also do not use the corresponding conjugated verb forms such as the hacéis and hicistes forms of hacer. For Spaniards, it's unusual but entirely understanable to hear ustedes used where they are expecting vosotros; the same goes in reverse for Latin American Spanish speakers.

Tú vs. Vos

The singular formal pronoun for "you" is usted everywhere, but the informal "you" can be  or vos can be considered standard and is universally used in Spain and understood throughout Latin America. Vos replaces  in Argentina (also Paraguay and Uruguay) and can also be heard elsewhere in South America and in Central America. Outside of Argentina, its use is sometimes restricted to certain types of relationships (such as especially close friends) or to certain social classes.

Preterite vs. Present Perfect Tenses

The preterite, such as comió for "she ate," is universally used for actions that took place in the distant past. However, in Spain and a few parts of Latin America, it is fairly common for the present perfect to substitute for the preterite when the action happened recently. For example, in Latin American Spanish, you would say: Esta tarde fuimos al hospital. (This afternoon we went to the hospital.) But in Spain, you would use the present perfeect: Esta tarde hemos ido al hospital.

Leísmo

The standard pronoun for "him" as a direct object is lo. Thus the usual way to say "I know him" is "Lo conozco." But in Spain it is very common, even sometimes preferred, to use le instead: Le conozco. Such use of le is known as leísmo.

Spelling and Vocabulary Differences

These are the most common spelling and vocabulary differences in Spanish-speaking regions.

Names of Fruits and Vegetables

Names of fruits and vegetables can vary considerably with region, in some cases because of the use of indigenous words. Among those with multiple names are strawberries (fresas, frutillas), blueberries (arándanos, moras azules), cucumbers (pepinos, cohombros), potatoes (papas, patatas), and peas (guisantes, chícharos, arvejas). Juice can be jugo or zumo.

Slang and Colloquialisms

Every region has its own collection of slang words that are seldom heard elsewhere. For example, in some areas you might greet someone with "¿Qué onda?" (similar in meaning to "What's happening?"), while in other areas that might sound foreign or old-fashioned. There are also words that can have unexpected meanings in some areas; a notorious example is coger, a verb that is used routinely to refer to grabbing or taking in some areas but that in other areas has a vulgar meaning.

Spelling Differences

The spelling of Spanish is remarkably standardized compared with that of English. One of very few words with acceptable regional variations is the word for Mexico, for which México is usually preferred. But in Spain, it is often spelled Méjico. It also isn't unusual for Spaniards to spell the U.S. state of Texas as Tejas rather than the standard Texas.

Other Vocabulary Differences

Among the everyday objects that go by regional names are cars (coches, autos), computers (ordenadores, computadores, computadoras), buses (buses, camionetas, pullmans, colectivos, autobuses, and others), and jeans (jeans, vaqueros, bluyines, mahones). Common verbs that vary with region include those for driving (manejar, conducir) and parking (parquear, estacionar).

The biggest class of vocabulary differences you'll come across is in the use of suffixes. A lápiz is a pencil or crayon everywhere, but a lapicero is a pencil holder in some areas, a mechanical pencil in others, and a ball-point pen in still others.

There are also a fair number of blatant differences, such as a computer being un ordenador in Spain but una computadora in Latin America, but they are probably no more common than the British-American differences. Names of foods can also vary, and it isn't unusual in Latin America for the indigenous names of vegetables and fruits to have been adopted.

Travelers should be aware that there are at least a dozen words, some of them of local usage only, for a bus. But the formal word autobús is understood everywhere. Of course, every area also has its quirky words. For example, a Chinese restaurant in Chile or Peru is a chifa, but you won't run across that word in many other places.