The Best-Traveled Language in the World

June 15, 2011 by Lauren Kerr
Category: "Spot" on Language

When our clients ask us to translate or localize into Spanish, the first question we ask is "Which kind of Spanish do you want?"

That’s because Spanish is the official or de facto language of 23 countries, from the obvious (Mexico) to the surprising (Antarctica — the Argentinian and Chilean sections, that is).  It’s spoken by half a billion people on five continents. Yet those 500 million speak many different varieties of this most diverse Romance language, from the original Castilian and Andalusian of Spain to the distinctive trade route Spanish of Cuba and Puerto Rico.  

puerto rican day parade

Español traveled from the ports of Spain along with Spanish explorers, spreading out all over the world to Mexico, Central America, and most of South America (the exception is Brazil). The language even arrived in Equatorial Guinea.  Along the way, Spanish grew and changed in unique ways with every culture it encountered, adapting to a multitude of indigenous tongues, each country creating its own unique vocabulary and accent.

In the Philippines, for instance, Spanish morphed into a Creole tongue called Chavacano. Argentinian Spanish contains 9,000 words that are spoken nowhere outside of Argentina. The Spanish spoken in Peru has embraced and enfolded common Japanese and Chinese words from its huge Asian immigrant population.

Caribbean Spanish, also known as trade route Spanish, is also unique. Cuban Spanish owes much to the island’s indigenous Taino tribes, to enslaved Africans, and to immigrants who came from the Canary Islands in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Cuban word for “twin” isn’t the standard “gemelos” but the West African “jimagua”. Cubans say the “guagua” is coming (a Canarian word), rather than the “autobus”. British and American English have influenced the language, too — Cubans say “pullover” when they’re talking about a t-shirt, and “blumers” when they mean underwear (say it out loud and you’ll understand).

Spanish is spoken in a global rainbow of accents, too. Castilians sibilate their “c” and "z" sounds. Argentinians say their “ll” and “y” sounds like the “s” in “treasure”. The singular pronunciation of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican Spanish can be hard to understand even for native speakers of other countries. They’ll drop the “s” and consonants at the ends of words, and the pace can be so quick that words slur together. Some Caribbean Spanish speakers are said to talk as though they “have a sweet potato in the mouth.”

There is a Spanish variant known as neutral, or universal Spanish, which is closest to how television or radio announcers deliver the news. To a native Spanish speaker from nearly anywhere, this dialect doesn’t have any obvious idioms that tie it to regional Spanish.

But there are some pitfalls in translating to this neutral Spanish rather than considering the unique requirements of each Spanish-language market. For example, in Mexico, “ahorita” means “right now”. In Cuba, “ahorita” means “later”. Verbs are particularly treacherous because of multiple meanings. Not to mention that what’s polite in one Spanish-speaking country might be considered vulgar in another. For example, the verb “coger” in most Latin American countries simply means to grab or to catch. But in Mexico, using the verb in any form is unbelievably rude!

We appreciate all the many ways that the Spanish language traveled, survived, thrived, and changed as it made its way from Cadíz and Tenerife to Cartagena, Havana, Manila, and beyond. It’s fascinating to see how it’s evolved in the United States as well, with Mexican and Central American immigrants coming together to bring their own special flavor.

We hope we’ve shown here how important it is to respect this well-traveled language in all its many forms as you consider translating and localizing in global Spanish-language markets. If you have questions about how to make your journey into Spanish all smooth sailing, feel free to contact us here at Acclaro. Buen viaje!

Photo attribution: Oquendo

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