Clash of Accents, Dialects, and Civilizations. The World According to Español.


You decide to fly to Spain to learn Spanish. You fall in love with the centuries old Gothic architecture. You notice that modern Spain is a dustbin of all the ancient peoples that once inhabited the peninsula: Greeks, Muslims, Phoenicians, Visigoths, Celts, and Carthaginians. Each civilization adding to the tapestry of Spanish culture. You finally master the lisp (emblematic of Iberian Spain). Every day you become better at rapidly spewing out syllables–a Spanish thing. Despite the Spanish economic downturn, you can’t put a price on the fact that small shops and business close midday for a siesta and a glass of Garnacha.

After months, you decide your next adventure will take you towards the opposite end of the Earth, to the port city of Valparaiso, Chile. You finally know Spanish. Heck, you might even quickly backpack the Andes before heading back! You land, and the jargon on traffic signs, billboards, and the newspaper are still recognizable. You order your first empanada at a street car and cry because you can’t understand the vendor. Chileans have an intonation craze unknown anywhere else in the hispanosphere. Chileans tend to drop their final S’s. They also tend not to distinguish between LL’s and Y’s, pronounced ‘zh‘ and ‘y‘, in Madrid, but both pronounced ‘y’ in Chile. All those months of studying Spanish down the drain. You sardonically agree with the Argentines and Bolivians next door and the Peruvians to the north, who all gawk at Chile’s accent. The rest of South America have a hard time understanding them! YouTube an episode of Infieles “Cheaters” (rated 18+) and you’ll know what I mean.

But I say this as someone who adores Chilean Spanish and every other Spanish dialects. But the phenomenon is true! No swaths of accents is heavily understated by English-speakers (Strine, Cockney, Southern, Kiwi, Black Vernacular, Jersey) than Spanish accents. Someone I knew once compared Chile as the the “Canada of Latin America.” The same way Americans joke that their maple neighbors pronounce out, house, and about as ‘oat’, ‘hose’, and ‘uh-boat’, the rest of South America unfairly gangs up on Chile for their seemingly sing-song talk. Nebrija, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Cervantes–purists from the renaissance–would rush back to their time machines if they listened to Neruda, Allende, Pinochet, or Mistral speak. But that’s how dialects and accents work, and there’s nothing the Royal Academy of Spanish or purists can do about it.

All languages compete between a myriad of coexisting accents and dialects. Imagine every Francophone, Hispanic, or Anglo speaking their respective language one uniform way the world around. There’d be no variety, and that’s boring.

Since I made enough fun of poor Chile, the remaining twenty Spanish-speaking countries are not off the hook. I first came across this dilemma in Spanish class when the interactive Muzzy– a language-learning software for kids–referred to a peach as ‘melecotón’ when I always knew it as ‘durazno.’ Another instance was in algebra class, when my Cuban classmate pronounced a stand alone Y “yeh”, while my other non-Caribbean classmates and I called it “I-griega.” She was equally perplexed.     

Castilian is also the only language that has two names. The other being Spanish. Wait, hold on… Am I saying that? Yes, Castilian = Spanish, and Spanish = Castilian. This brings whole new geopolitical mess. Most of the Americas associate the term español to describe the language. Whereas Castilian (castellano ‘casteyano’) reflects the European Spanish heritage speakers. Castellano derives from the Latin Castellum meaning castle. Of course, Spain, especially in its earlier history, is associated with castles. The Americas not so much. The use of español and castellano is not always interchangeable and is relative to the preconceived political biases of who you ask.  

Argentines and Uruguayans are under fire for their excessive whooshing, not existent anywhere else in the Hispanic world with the exception of a tiny enclave in Sonora. They themselves will giggle at the high-pitched and brogue accents of Central Americans thinking they may be suffocating. But they’ll find a way to meet halfway; an Argentine and Panamanian may agree that Caribbeans heavily drawl vowels and seem to have eliminated rhotics (any consonants pronounced like R). Meanwhile, the same Uruguayans, Panamanians, and Cubans will join forces and agree that Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, and Colombians have a thing for slurs. Venezuela, standing prideful, couldn’t care less what her neighbors think. She already rebelliously broke from the rest of South America and takes diminutives on a new direction: replacing the suffix ‘-ita, –ito‘ with ‘-ica, –ico.’ As far as the rest of the Spanish world is concerned, “little rat” is ratita, not ratica. A Costa Rican Mestizo and a Paraguayan Mestizo with phenotypical similarities, will be able to tell each other apart by the way they say “you”: either or vos.

Latin-Americans, whether of Quechua, Nahuatl, Taino, African, or Italian descent will call a truce between their political and social differences and settle on that nobody likes Spain. Let alone understand them due to the geographical distance.

If accents weren’t enough, vocabulary and slang becomes even more localized. Where Peruvians call popcorn cancha at a cinema, Mexicans would be scratching their heads thinking they called for a basketball court. Where Chileans yell at little rascal as guaguas, Dominicans will duck thinking they have shouted buses. A Nicaraguan wouldn’t be excused at a Spanish Tapas if he / she asked for mantequilla (butter), aguacate (avocado), or albaricoque (apricot), which is manteca, palta, and damasco in Spain.

When it comes to slang, Spanish-speakers can easily become confused trying to talk to one another. The standard verb “to hoist” in Europe is coger, but is considered obscenity elsewhere. Puerto Ricans excuse themselves for calling a bobby pin pinche, but is “the damn thing” elsewhere. A dishwasher in Mexico washes dishes (lavar trastes), but his Argentine dishwasher will quickly write up a HR note thinking his / her buttocks may be in jeopardy.  

Among the clash of dialects and accents, there are lesser-known dialects that are largely forgotten. Judaeo-Spanish–also called Ladino or Judezmo–is one of them. As a result from the Expulsion of The Jews by the Spanish Crown in the fifteenth century, Sephardic people have established communities in Turkey, Bulgaria, Israel, Morocco, Holland, and Egypt. Ladino retains medieval elements. Especially in the voiced / voiceless sibilants. S by itself, and in between vowels would make rose pronounced ‘roza’, while a double SS as in assentarse (to sit down) would be pronounced ‘azentarse’. The F to H shift in the middle ages* is another feature Ladino seemed to not have bandwagoned with the rest of the Spanish world. For example, the standard verb “to do” no matter which country you’re in is hacer. (H is always silent in Spanish by the way). Ironically, this phenomena would later make Ferdinand spin in his grave regretting expelling the Jews from Iberia. Ladino speakers have a speech more aligned to what the medieval kings had. Judeao-Spanish is in grave danger of becoming extinct as it isn’t passed down to succeeding generations, but has recently been experiencing a revival among Musicians.

Not immediately known, but Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation in West Africa of 1.2 million is the only nation on the African continent Spanish as its official tongue. Spanish, a minor force in Africa, is downplayed by the large and stronger French and Lusitanian (another fancy word for Portuguese-related) African nations. This is partly due to the fact that Spain arrived late or didn’t compete effectively in the colonial quest of Africa. Equatorial Guinea has saved much of its ethnic character unlike its Latin American brethren who are ambivalent between a Spanish and an Amerindian past. 95% of Equatoguineans speak Spanish, but it is estimated that 75% speak it as a second language while 13% don’t know their proficiency in the language. The remaining percentage is a marginal group who have the same proficiency of a native speaker in the Americas. The statistics remain highly dubious. However, if you are one of those that struggles with rolling R’s (rr), then Equatorial Guinea is your best bet. If you sat in Spanish class thinking how tedious it was trivializing between masculine el, los or feminine la, las articles, thank an Equatoguinean, because they seemed to have tossed them out. The lisp you may have mastered in Spain (known as the Seseo) will become useful there too. Before you get to comfortable, it is noteworthy to mention that the phonological structure will depend on the ethnic Guinean. The Fang simplify diphthongs, bueno (good) would become bono. The Ndowé have gotten started on a linguistic phenomena called lenition, in which the sound of a consonant is weakened. The Ndowé pronounce muchacho (man) “mushasho’. An Equatorial speaker would most likely pick a Spaniard and a Dominican anytime over a Salvadoran or Bolivian.

The second colonial experimental in Africa is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a complicated mess of diplomacy. It has partial recognition worldwide; several countries have broken ties with the republic. Today, the SADR has been entrenched in a highly messy land dispute between the Sahwari and Morocco. Although no serious dynamics exist here for the Spanish Language yet, the SADR Constitution recognises the African, Muslim, and Arab heritage of its people, making it the only Arab country with Spanish as its official language. Which makes for a hilarious historical juncture.

The ethnic Berbers and Tuaregs in today’s SADR are more related to the same Muslims that established a flourishing empire in Spain in the Medieval Era. The Arabs contributed highly to the scientific advancement in Spain over time, especially in the fields of chemistry, medicine, and music. Miscegenation took place to a lesser degree. This partly explains why the average Spaniard is olive-skinned  and why people assume I am Middle Eastern. Anyway, back to Spanish! The Muslim influence in Modern Spanish is well alive. The Mexican City of Guadalajara is simply a Hispanicized version of the Arabic wahd-il-al-hara, meaning river of stones. Even tiny things like proper names such as Omar have their origin from Islamic Civilizations. Only an expert would pick up on these things. Salma Hayek, although mainly associated with Mexico, can trace her lineage from Lebanon. Arab can be easily spotted. Most words that start in al have Arab DNA: algodón (cotton) al-qutun, álgebra (Algebra) al-jabr, alcalde (mayor), alma (soul), and alba (dawn). The famous bullfighter cry Olé stems from the Arab cry of “To God” wa allah. All history is connected.

Like other Romance tongues: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalán, Provençal, Sardinian, Aragonese, Lombardian, Romansch, Dalmatian, and etc… descend from Vulgar Latin. It is called vulgar because it was what commoners spoke. It wasn’t the language of Cicero, Nero, Trajan, or the other huge Roman giants. They spoke a more sophisticated (oftentimes erratically different) kind of Latin than the rest. If labeling a language vulgar wasn’t demeaning in itself, imagine what the Filipinos go through everyday. The Creole (sophisticated linguistic term that means hybrid) Chavacano, which translates also to “vulgar speech.” Wait? So am I saying that if Spanish is already crude in and of itself, than the hybrid The Filipinos speak is even more rude? Gross at best? Well, no, not inherently. At least that is what my personal opinion says. Historically the movers and shakers of great empires think the contrary in order to achieve their devious political ends.

The Philippines was Spain’s only success in Asia, but the Spanish tongue took too long to actually fully cement like it did in Latin America because the Filipinos resisted it despite it being the official language of commerce, government, education, and the press. The Filipino Revolution was articulated in Spanish. The First Philippine Republic and its first constitution was also in Spanish. The national hero, José Rizal, wrote his works in Spanish. The demise of Spanish can also be attributed to the United State’s of the islands three centuries later, but by the early 70’s, it seemed like Filipinos resented Spanish rule. In 1973, the Philippine government decreed that Spanish be knocked off as official, but would still recognize documents and legislations that weren’t translated. By 1983, it became an optional language. Filipino Spanish is closely related to Mexican Spanish, as the exploration was done by conquistadores already established in the New World, rather than Spain. This doesn’t mean Mexicans can travel to The Philippines and be comfortable and expect no linguistic barrier. In fact there is an entire inventory of words palabras falsas “false words”, when pronounced, sound identical to Spanish but mean totally different things in Filipino tongues. Baho means low in Spanish, but means “bad smell”. Puto is a rice cake, but a homosexual or womanizer in The Americas. Basta is halt in Spanish, but is actually “In condition of…” in various Filipino tongues. I would be the laughing stock if for whatever reason, I shouted ¡Basta puto! with Filipinos scratching their heads wondering what womanizer is in need of what, under what condition? At this point, a Spaniard, an African, an Arab, a Quechua, and an Italian Gaucho will all agree to not venture off to the Philippines in order to avoid making a mockery of themselves.

Back at the ranch in The United States where the third largest Spanish-speaking community exists after Mexico and Colombia. It is also the first European language ever spoken on the landmass. English arrived roughly a century later from the british settlers. Spanish is well alive, and resilient. The statistics show that Spanish is growing and shows no signs of decline soon. This has created the linguistic phenomena of Spanglish, although a similar version exists in Gibraltar which is a hybrid of British English and Andalusian Spanish called llanito. The Royal Spanish Academies and some Spanish-speakers have denounced Spanglish as a crude tool used by lower classes and the uneducated. But for practical purposes, it works. Driving lessons would be an ordeal for many that are used to the formal rules from Spain. To push the brakes translates as “Pisar el freno” for most, but would translate as “puchale la breca” to a Spanglish speaker.  

Over the years, I have befriended many Anglo Americans that speak only English and many Hispanic friends who don’t share my Mexican heritage, but are Peruvian, Argentine, Uruguayan, Salvador, Iberian, and Dominican. Essentially from all over the Hispanosphere. While also juggling a third language, French. My spoken Spanish definitely doesn’t resemble Mexican Spanish. I have had conversations with Mexicans that assumed I was Peruvian! In another social gathering I was also told that I gave off an Iberian accent (European Spanish). Some say it is neutral or unique. My favorite of all time: I speak in an Italian accent with Mexican overtones. 

I am born and raised Utah, but learned to speak Mexican Spanish simultaneously. As an educated individual, I am proud to say I am highly literate in both tongues; at the same level and caliber of both. I can make use of time in a conversation with a neurosurgeon with an American, or with a Murcian philosopher. This is all part of the bi-cultural experience. And while Anglo nationalists sneer with resentment and hate towards the Latino population, I pity them for not having an extra soul. My trilingual and tri-cultural experience gives me a psychological and mental edge. My brain works faster and in sophisticated ways than theirs.       

The conversation between an increasing Spanish-speaking minority and a majority English-speaking is tumultuous. Several political analysts and commentators have warned that a strong Spanish-speaking threatens the social fabric of the United States. Particularly the Anglo-American tradition. This may be partly due to the broader fact that Anglo-Hispanic relations have been a complicated one, if not messy, that dates back centuries. Anglo and Spanish forces recount famous battles in Florida, Louisiana, and not to mention Texas. As well as other famous maritime battles–The Battle of Jenkin’s Ear. Legend has it that Spanish Oceanic trade routes in the 18th century were restrictive and merciless to those who trespassed. A failed attempt of an English ship to destroy a Spanish ship resulted with the English captain’s ear chopped off by the enemy. Of course, the British Crown used Jenkin’s ear to warrant–and wouldn’t be the first time–war.

The reality is that these clashes of civilizations has created a one of the most diverse peoples on the planet, particularly in the Americas. Sure, the British Empire has experience with diversity in the Caribbean, India, Africa, and the Americas. But after the collapse of the Spanish Empire, the descendents of those Spanish-speaking will tilt the cultural and purists attitude away from Spain and towards The Americas. The same can be said about English, once mainly associated with Britain, is becoming more associated with the USA. But Hispanics can boast an even richer heritage. Rhetoric and discourse in Latin American politics today utilize many myths, symbols, and martyrs of their precolonial past. The US would never dream of incorporating Native-American elements into its political discourse (*ahem* Columbus Day). The next time you greet an American born of Nicaraguan descent, you’re probably looking at a millennium of history in the making: Greeks, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Visigoths, Arabs, Amerindians, Celtics, Basques–you get the picture.

Despite the socio-political mess created by colonizers, there are many things Spanish can boast about. The Spanish language ranks third in numbers of total speakers worldwide including third in number of internet users. It produced the first complete novel Don Quixote de La Mancha. Chile is nicknamed “The Country of Poets.” Spanish theatre tops some of the best. The grammarian Nebrija is credited for creating the first completed grammar book in the 15th century. Who would have thought that a language spoken by a handful of shepherds in 14th-century Spain–with its first written record being a list of cheeses–make its place on a hastily built WordPress.    


*The F to H shift in Spanish was a linguistic phenomena which occurred in Spanish in the 16th century. Something similar to the Great Vowel Change in English. Almost all words in Spanish that start with an H hacer (to do), hormiga (ant), and hablar (to talk), were voiced in Old Spanish to render facer, formica, and fablar.

*The stuffed animal in the above image is Juan Carlos Bodoque, a red rabbit from the Chilean children series 31 Minutos. Bodoque is a reporter who has an ecological segment “The Green Note” La Nota Verde. Bodoque is one of the most liked characters of the series. He is described as bohemic, sarcastic, daring, and a gambler. Purchase a Bodoque puppet at Joy Islands, a craft store in Mexico City’s Roma district.

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