Spanish language in Spain and Latin America

The Spanish language in Spain and Latin America
Languages & More is frequently asked about the differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish of Latin America. While there are distinctions between the varieties of Spanish, all Spanish speakers can understand each other, whether in Santander, Madrid, or Seville, whether in Cuzco, Santo Domingo or Santiago de Chile. It’s similar to the differences between American, British and Australian English. As probably in any other country, you will also find differences amongst the different areas in both Spain, and Latin America.

Castellano (Castilian, after the Castile region) is the official language of Spain and Latin America. In Spain you will also find regional languages, such as Catalán (widely spoken in Cataluña, the area around Barcelona), Gallego (area of Galicia) and Euskera (País Vasco and part of Navarra).

Why are there differences?
When the Spanish colonies were founded, the colonisers took with them the Spanish that was spoken in Spain at that time, along with elements of their local dialects. The Spanish spoken in the colonies then started to develop in slightly different directions as there was limited communication with Spain (telephones and the internet didn’t exist). Some elements of older Spanish were kept, others dropped.

One of the clearest examples of that process is the use of vos, primarily in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Originally a second-person plural, vos came to be used as a more polite second-person singular pronoun to be used among one’s familiar friends. It was commonly used in Spanish when the language reached the southern cone of the Americas. It fell out of use in Spain but stayed in use in many countries in Latin America. Nowadays, just like 150 years ago, in Buenos Aires you are much more likely to be asked “de donde sos?  than “de donde eres?”

Usted or tú
In Spain, over the last 20 years, it has become more common to use “tú” instead of “Usted”, the polite version of “you”. In Latin America “Usted” is still commonly used. Importantly, people will understand you all over the world if you use tú or Usted.

Ustedes or Vosotros
In Spain people use vosotros (you, plural, informal) but in Latin America people use the formal ustedes instead. For example, in Spain, you will speak in a different way to friends Cuál fue el último restaurante dónde fuisteis? (what was the last restaurant you went to?), than to people you don’t know very much, in which case you would use ustedes, and say Cuál fue el último restaurante dónde fueron?  In Latin America (and sometimes in the Canary Islands), you would use the second form for both, formal and informal. If you only use the Latin American form, you will be understood perfectly well in Spain. In fact, people will probably just consider you polite!

Different vocabulary
The vast majority of Spanish words are universal; however, there are some differences, such as:

Spain / Latin America :
teléfono móvil  /  celular
ordenador  / computadora
boligrafo  /   lapis pasta (Chile), lapicera (Argentina)
coger (to catch, grab, fetch)  /  coger (vulgar: act of love)

As you can see, the differences between the Spanish language in Spain and Latin America generally don’t affect the mutual understanding.

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