Standard Spanish

By Germán Garis | 2016-11-12

Spanish, as any other language, has diverse variations and “standards” or linguistic norms that usually pertain to a specific geographic area. Every country has its own national standard (for example, “Iberic Spanish” or Castilian is a standard), and there is also a pan-Hispanic norm particularly in written educated language and academic or formal language. This supra-regional variation is appropriate to certain text types that are published in mass media such as Internet, where the audience is not limited to a specific Spanish-speaking group.

Spanish language at the world
   Countries where Spanish has official language status.
   States of the United States, Provinces of Canada and countries where Spanish has no official status but is spoken by 25% or more of the population.

   States of the United States, Provinces of Canada and countries where Spanish has no official status but is spoken by 10-20% of the population.
   States of the United States, Provinces of Canada and countries where Spanish has no official status but is spoken by 5-9% of the population.
   Countries or regions where creoles of Spanish origin are spoken, with or without official recognition.


Spanish is spoken by approximately 572 million people, making it the world’s fourth most spoken language by total number of speakers after Mandarin, English and Hindi. Global internet usage statistics for 2007 show Spanish as the third most commonly used language on the internet after English and Chinese. The situation of Spanish is unique due to its geographic distribution in over 20 countries, from Spain to Peru. Spanish is also spoken as a second or third language in many countries or regions such as the US, where more than 12% of the population speak it.

The Spanish language has many variations, though only two major variations are usually recognised: Spanish (or Castilian) from Spain and “Latin American Spanish”, which covers the 20 Spanish-speaking countries of America. This distinction is made even though the ratio of Latin America to Spain is 9:1 in terms of population. Spain, however, is still in a way la madre patria (the motherland) of Latin American countries and there are historical, cultural and political reasons for the status of the peninsular variation (Spanish from Spain). Castilian is the standard dialect of Spain but variations do exist. For example, the lisping of z and c before e and i is considered a characteristic feature, but this pronunciation is not found in Catalonia. So what are the main features of “LA Spanish”?
It is worth mentioning that LA Spanish is usually defined in contrast to the Spain variant. Castilian has been historically considered the “correct” variant of Spanish and, consequently, American variations were considered a deviation from this standard. Now this situation has changed. Besides the Real Academia Española from Spain there are 21 national Spanish language academies and Spanish is no longer considered a monocentric language.

One of the main pronunciation features of LA Spanish is undoubtedly the absence of a voiceless dental fricative (/θ/ as in the English thing) before e and i (the lisping of c and z). Each Spanish-speaking country and region, however, has its own distinctive pronunciation that identifies it. Pronunciation is of special interest to teachers of Spanish as a foreign language and dubbing studios but is not a major concern to translators, for obvious reasons.

Grammatical features of LA Spanish include the use of the subject personal pronoun “ustedes” instead of “vosotros” (used in Spain) in informal address. The general use of the direct object pronouns lo/la and los/las (loísmo) in place of the indirect object pronouns le and les (leísmo) is also a distinctive feature of LA Spanish.

Regarding lexical differences, there are terms common to all of Latin America that are different in Spain, such as computadora vs. ordenador (computer). There are also differences in some phrases and idioms. For example, the idiom “estar aburrido como un hongo” (to be bored stiff) that is used in Latin America is “estar aburrido como una ostra” in Spain. Of course, there are also many variations of the same term or expression within Latin America. Lexical variations grow if colloquial language is used. LA Spanish is also characterised by the use of borrowings (mainly from English) such as “email”, “performance” and “default”. There is a tendency to keep some terms in English instead of spelling them in a Spanish way as is usually done in Spain. Even some verbs are different between Latin America and Spain, such as “concientizar” (to make aware), which is “concienciar” in Spain.

Apart from a very few texts where a more familiar or colloquial language is used (such as personal correspondence or marketing or publicity material, where there is an intention to create closeness with the reader), most texts we translate have a formal tone. This means differences become blurred. Scientific or academic Spanish, for example, is homogeneous for the whole Spanish-speaking world. As there is no pronunciation, no use of “vosotros” in the case of text from Spain and, more importantly, no colloquial vocabulary, only a few regional marks remain in the form of some grammatical structures and terms. It is therefore possible to adapt or “localize” a text to a specific Spanish-speaking region by making minor adjustments. The mass media help us to learn more vocabulary from other countries and regions, which contributes to mutual understanding and to the creation of “passive vocabulary”, that is, words you can understand but may not use when conversing.

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