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How Did Latin American Spanish Develop?

When I was doing my M.A. in Latin American Studies at Tulane University, my most interesting class was about the dialectology - or the study of dialects - of the Spanish language. I always knew that Mexicanos spoke very differently from Argentinos, who spoke differently from Cubanos...but this course helped explain why. There are many fascinating aspects to this subject, but here I'll share just a few of the tidbits I've picked up.

The Spanish language comes from the Castile region of Spain, which is why in some countries you hear it referred to as "castellano" (other languages still spoken in Spain include Catalan, Galician and Basque). The Castilian language became the official language during the reign of King Alfonso X in the 1200s, where traditional Spanish became mandatory for all government documents (it's been suggested that the reason Spaniards even today use the lispy TH sound when pronouncing the /z/ is because King Alfonso had a lisp!) The speech in the Andalusian region of Southern Spain evolved distinctly with a sing-song quality and a notable under-pronouncing of the final /s/ at the end of words. As the conquest of the New World occurred from the late 1400s up until the 1800s, ships departed from Southern Spain, and passed through the Canary Islands. Consequently many of the deckhands spoke with Andalusian style dialects, and carried this style of speech into their new communities in places like Santo Domingo, Cuba, and elsewhere.

Northern Spaniards who later emigrated to the colonial administrative centers in places like Lima and Mexico City brought with them the more traditional dialects spoken by government officials in Madrid. Even today, the speech in Mexico city sounds more like the other former colonial center of Lima than the speech of Mexico's Caribbean coastal region of Yucatán. The speech throughout the Caribbean has retained many of the features found in Andalusian and Canary Island Spanish.

"It was, however, the massive immigration of Canary Islanders to Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that left the deepest Canary Spanish footprint, to the extent that Cubans and Canary Islanders frequently mistake one another for compatriots when meeting for the first time. Originally working in the countryside, Canary Islanders or isleños as the Cubans called them eventually moved to the cities, comprising nearly 25% of the Cuban population around the turn of the 20th century" (Lipski pdf below, pg. 11).

But Latin American Spanish also evolved in completely new directions, and in ways unique to each country or region. According to linguist Dr. John Lipski, author of Latin American Spanish, there are 3 main factors in the development of Spanish in the New World.

    • the varieties spoken by Spanish settlers from Spain
    • contact with other languages
    • linguistic drift, spontaneous changes which occur in all languages across time

Among the strongest influences in the formation of modern day Latin American Spanish were the African slaves in the Caribbean, the Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century in Buenos Aires, and the indigenous groups throughout Mexico and South America.

"The arrival of tens of hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires and Montevideo beginning towards the end of the 19th century completely transformed the phonetic and lexical patterns of Rio Platense Spanish. To give an idea of the magnitude of this immigration, nearly 2.3 million Italians emigrated to Argentina alone between 1861 and 1920, with more than half arrived after 1900, making up nearly 60% of all immigration to Argentina" (Lipski pdf below, pg. 11).

"By far the largest extra-Hispanic demographic and linguistic influence to reach Latin America was carried by the hundreds of thousands of African slaves who for nearly four centuries provided much of the labor force in colonial and post-colonial Spanish America...Following the abolition of slavery in the second half of the 19th century, many former slaves moved to urban areas, where their speech patterns gradually influenced the lowest sociolinguistic strata, and ultimately percolated up to provide vocabulary items and possibly even subtle pronunciation variants to the Spanish Caribbean population as a whole." (Lipski pdf below, pg. 12).

I could fill up dozens of newsletters exploring the variations of Latin American Spanish! For anyone who wants to learn more, I suggest the book Latin American Spanish by John Lipski, and the book The Spanish Speaking World by Clare Mar-Molinero.

Quiz: Development of Latin American Spanish

Short article on the history of the Spanish language in Spain

Number of Spanish speakers in different countries

Academic Article by Dr. John Lipski (pdf) - not exactly easy reading but contains a wealth of fascinating historical and linguistic information
The role of the city in the formation of Spanish American dialect zones
cien = 100 doscientos = 200 quinientos = 500 mil = 1,000 cien mil - 100,000 un millon = 1,000,000 click to hear numbers hear Spanish pronunciation for numbers 1 through 10 hear numbers 11 through 20

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