“Neutral” or Standard Spanish, a Widespread Phenomenon

By Germán Garis | 2019-11-15
standard or neutral spanish

Increasingly requested by companies and organizations, Standard Spanish enjoys wide popularity in the localization industry

Standard Spanish, or “Neutral Spanish” as some call it, refers to the use of a pan-Hispanic norm. Standarization is a linguistic phenomenon that has long been present in many languages. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes a “Standard language” as follows:

Standard languages arise when a certain dialect begins to be used in written form, normally throughout a broader area than that of the dialect itself. The ways in which this language is used —e.g., in administrative matters, literature, and economic life— lead to the minimization of linguistic variation.

The social prestige attached to the speech of the richest, most powerful, and most highly educated members of a society transforms their language into a model for others; it also contributes to the elimination of deviating linguistic forms. Dictionaries and grammars help to stabilize linguistic norms, as do the activity of scholarly institutions and, sometimes, governmental intervention.

The base dialect for a country’s standard language is very often the original dialect of the capital and its environs—in France, Paris; in England, London; in Russia, Moscow. Or the base may be a strong economic and cultural centre—in Italy, Florence. Or the language may be a combination of several regional dialects, as are German and Polish.

In the Spanish-speaking world, there are standards in each country where Spanish is the official language (and even in some regions). According to linguist Wulf Oesterreicher, there are, at least, three regional standards in the Americas: Mexico, Buenos Aires and the Andean countries. Additionally, we have the European standard found in Spain.

Language and the media

Mass media, and in particular the Internet, have revolutionized the way we communicate nowadays. We can instantly share anything with the world. If a company or organization wishes to localize something into Spanish without targeting any specific community or locale, the most appropriate form of the language to use would be an international variation. For the buyer of translations, this presents the clear economic benefit of localizing into a single Spanish variation instead of several. It can also help avoid the use of terms or idioms that can be confusing, incomprehensible or even offensive for some Spanish speakers.


This process of standardization is similar to that rolled out by international organizations such as ISO in that it is based on the consensus of different parties, which include online newspapers, dubbing companies, international organizations with a global presence, users and other stakeholders. There is a clear need for use or translation into Standard Spanish and, in practice, many newspapers and international organizations have been using or shaping this standard variation for years.

The standardization of Spanish is much easier to achieve–and more viable–with written formal language. In a standardized language you try to eliminate regional traits, such as terms, idioms or grammatical structures used locally, favoring instead a general Spanish corpus common to the entire Spanish-speaking population.

When there is no common term, you can always resort to a more general or broader term. For example, “sneakers” can be translated as “zapatillas”, “tenis”, “zapatos” or other names in Spanish, depending on the geographic area where this term is used. However, if you want to avoid using a regional term, you can translate this as “calzado deportivo” (sports shoes), which is a common term for all Spanish speakers.

Neutral Spanish used by international companies

Big international companies, such as Microsoft, have long used standard Spanish when localizing their products and services. Microsoft has specific glossaries and a dedicated language portal for localization in every language, including Spanish. A team of terminologists has developed these glossaries for the purpose of consistency and the use of standardized variations, as in the case of Spanish. “Computer” is usually localized as “equipo” (equipment) instead of the regional or more local terms “computadora”, “computador” or “ordenador” that are used only in certain Spanish-speaking countries or regions.

Standard Spanish is very difficult to achieve when using familiar or colloquial language. However, with formal language, the differences become blurred. Scientific or academic Spanish, for example, is homogeneous throughout the entire Spanish-speaking world. As there is no pronunciation to consider, no use of “vosotros” in the case of text from Spain and, more importantly, no colloquial vocabulary, only a few regional uses remain in the form of grammatical structures and terms.

In addition, mass media help us learn more vocabulary from other countries and regions. This contributes to mutual understanding and to the creation of a “passive vocabulary”, that is, words that you understand but may not use in conversation. Nonetheless, a hot debate exists around the existence of this standard, Neutral Spanish version of the language.

Follow this link to learn more about this animated, long-standing discussion.

This article was originally published in Intercambios, a newsletter by the Spanish Language Division (SPD) of the American Translators Association (ATA).