Happy New Year! As the first blog of 2020, we will explore one of the most common questions we receive as a localization studio: what is the difference between Spanish from Latin America and Spanish from Spain (also known as Castilian Spanish)? We will dig into the historical influences of the Spanish language and then look at the linguistic differences of Latin American Spanish and Castilian Spanish such as pronunciation and vocabulary. Let's explore the beautiful variety of español and see what type of Spanish may fit your localization needs.
[Average read time: 4 minutes]
Historical Context and Influences
As a result of expansion and conquest by the Spanish Empire from the 15th to the early 19th century, the Spanish language spread to Latin America, and has grown to approximately 442 million speakers in 2019. Spanish is a Romance language (like French, Italian, and Portuguese) that has its roots in Common Latin, aka Vulgar Latin, that was spoken by the commoners of ancient Rome. Spanish as we know it today arose from a dialect from Old Castile, in north-central Spain on the Iberian Peninsula in the 9th century. This is where the terms "Castilian" and "Iberian" Spanish come from and both refer to the Spanish spoken in Spain.
Latin America refers to Mexico and countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America where Spanish, Portuguese, or French are the predominant language. Latin American countries, being many miles away from Europe, developed their own regional dialects and accents as well as "colonial lag". Colonial lag, coined by linguist Albert Marckwardt, refers to terms that fell out of use in the language's country of origin, but may still be used in the colonies. One example is the second-person singular pronoun vos (you) which is still used in parts of Latin America but fell out of use in Spain before the end of the Spanish colonial period.
What is Neutral Spanish? Pronunciation Differences
As we discussed in a previous blog, what is considered "neutral Spanish" is unclear. When a client asks us to localize content in neutral Spanish, we make sure to clarify their target audience. We've found that they generally mean Latin American Spanish.
Most of the world's Spanish speakers are from Latin America and thus Latin American Spanish has become the de facto neutral Spanish. However, even this has its issues, as Latin America is vast and full of linguistic variety. For instance, in the Caribbean the letter "R" is pronounced with the English "L" sound, and in Argentina the "LL" in Spanish (generally pronounced with a "Y" sound) is pronounced with a "SH" sound.
However, Spanish translators and voice talent know that when localizing content for Latin America, where no specific Latin American country is defined by the client, they will avoid using slang, regional vocabulary, and thick regional accents.
A major distinction between Latin American Spanish and Castilian Spanish is the pronunciation of the letters "Z" and "C". Throughout Latin America, any "Z" has a "S" sound; this is also true for "C" followed by "E" or "I". However, in Spain, those situations produce a "TH" sound. So for example: zapato and gracias in Spain would sound like "THA-pa-to" and "gra-THEE-as", respectively. Another difference is the use of ustedes and vosotros, the plural forms of "you". Ustedes can be used both in Latin America and Spain, but it sounds very formal in Spain where vosotros is more commonly used. Vosotros is not used in Latin America. Also, make note that using either ustedes or vosotros will impact how one conjugates the sentence.
Differences in Word Use and Vocabulary
Much like how Americans say "elevator" but the British say "lift", vocabulary between Latin American Spanish and Castilian Spanish is for the most part the same except for some key terms. We will use ES-LA to refer to Latin American Spanish and ES-ES for Castilian Spanish:
- Coger: In Spain, coger is the verb "to pick up" or "to take", like "to take the bus" (coger el autobús). However, be VERY careful in Latin America where coger is slang for "intercourse". In Latin America, the verb tomar is used instead (tomar el autobús).
- Computadora (ES-LA) and ordenador (ES-ES): Computer is computadora in Latin America, but in Spain it's ordenador which is closer to the French term ordinateur. Some have theorized that this is a good example of geographical influence on a language: due to Latin America's proximity to America, certain terms may take on American influence whereas Castilian Spanish takes influence from its European neighbors. Also see the terms below.
- Departamento (ES-LA) and piso (ES-ES) mean "apartment". Piso literally means floor (like the floor in a building) and here we see how the British English term "flat" may have influenced Castilian Spanish (or vice versa).
- Celular (ES-LA) vs móvil (ES-ES): another possible American and British English influence where the terms "cell phone" and "mobile" are used respectively.
These are just a few of the main vocabulary differences. If you know some more, feel free to share some in the comments below!
Which Spanish Should You Localize In?
As you can see from the above, Latin American Spanish and Castilian Spanish are different, therefore content should be localized specifically for one or the other. If you want voice-over for a more specific audience, say Peru, it would then be best to find Peruvian Spanish voice talent for the recording.
However, if the audience is all of Latin America, be sure to let your translator know and also cast Latin American talent. Let the director know it is for the broad Latin American audience so that he/she is able to direct the talent away from any strong regional accent.
The two main forms of Spanish are mutually intelligible, much like American English and British English, however, to make your audience feel that the content was made just for them, it's important to localize specifically for Latin America or Spain.
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