Why does the Spanish language vary within Latin America?

Latin America encompasses a group of nations where the vast majority of their population speaks romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

As a result, it is a much broader category than Ibero-America or Hispanic America. The term was first coined by the Chilean politician Francisco Bilbao in 1856. Since then, we use it to refer to 20 counties and 14 dependent territories covering an area that stretches from Baja California to Tierra del Fuego. 

Millions of people live in Latin America — 626 million, to be exact. And out of those 626 million people, 422 million speak predominantly Spanish. But, it would be wrong to assume that they all speak the same Spanish. In Latin America (LATAM), there are many Spanish language variations and dialects. The differences in Latin American Spanish stem from three key elements:

  1. Territory 
  2. History 
  3. Migration 

Below, we will explain in depth each of these elements for you to have a better understanding:

1. Territory

Geographically speaking, Latin America starts in Monumento 206, located in Baja California (Mexico) and ends with Tierra del Fuego (an archipelago shared by Chile and Argentina.) It covers a massive territory of 7,412,000 square miles or 19,197,000 km2.

Throughout this extensive land, we find 33 nations, including Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Co-operative Republic of Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Santa Lucia, Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela (also known as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.) 

Therefore, the variations in language are closely related to the magnitude of the territory. 

2. History

We have first to know its history to understand the subtle (and not so subtle) differences of the Latin American Spanish language.

It all dates back to the 15th century when the European explorer Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. As a result of what historians call “hispanization,” Spanish was established as the primary language in the region. But, despite the efforts of the Spaniards to eradicate all other languages, they were outnumbered. Consequently, Spanish blended with many indigenous dialects spoken by the natives. 

There are over 37 indigenous language families and more than 448 languages. These vary from region to region and affect the way Latin American Spanish language is perceived on each region. Some of the most popular dialects include Quechua, Wayuu, Nahuatl, Guarani, Aymara, Arawakan, Macro-Ge, Panoan, and more. 

3. Migration

Another significant factor was migration. Latin America is considered the world’s melting pot. Here, many different cultures came together. Apart from the strong Castilian influences with some Andalusian and Canary inflections, Latin American Spanish has also some traces of French, Portuguese, and even Italian. 

Why? The answer is simple: migration. Between the 1830s and 1950s, many Europeans migrated to LATAM in search of a better future. And after World War I and World War II, it intensified. During this time, there was a massive exodus where millions of Europeans made their way to countries in Latin America. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Venezuela were some of the most sought of countries. 

As a result, most LATAM countries’ Spanish adopted colloquialism and words from other romance languages.

Additionally, we need to consider the 14 dependent territories that are in the area and how that has also created subtle differences in the Spanish of each region. 

Variations of Spanish 

Now that we understand the main reasons as to why these variations exist, we can move on to the most common types of Spanish or “variants” found in LATAM:

• Amazonic Spanish – sometimes referred to as Amazonian Spanish or Jungle Spanish. It is spoken in the depths of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, Peru, and the southern parts of Venezuela and Colombia. 

• Caribbean Spanish – it encompasses most of the territories in the Caribbean, hence its name. It is native to countries like Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto. However, it is also found in the coastal areas of Venezuela, Colombia, and eastern Panama. It has a lot of influence from the Spanish of the Canary Islands in Spain. 

 Central American Spanish – it encompasses many countries as it is the name given to the Spanish spoken in all Central America, which includes Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and some parts of Panama. 

• Andean Spanish – spread through the Andes region, this variation of Spanish is very similar to the Castilian Spanish. However, it has a strong indigenous influence. It is spoken from western Venezuela and Southern Colombian to the northern region of Chile and the northwestern region of Argentina. 

• Ecuadorian Spanish – it is mostly spoken in Ecuador, but it extends to certain parts of Colombia and Peru. Ecuadorian Spanish is considered by many to be a blend between Caribbean Spanish and Andean Spanish. 

• Mexican Spanish – the Spanish language spoken in Mexico has a heavy indigenous influence, especially from the Nahuatl dialect. Many indigenous, words are still used every day (i.e. “cuate” or “chocolate”.) Mexican Spanish is the most widely-known dialect, given that Mexico is the largest Latin American country (after Brazil). According to recent data, over 126.2 million people speak this language. 

Other smaller variations could be considered a dialect or type of Spanish in itself, such as Peruvian Spanish, Chilean Spanish, and Puerto Rican Spanish. Nonetheless, these could easily fit within one of the broader categories mentioned above. 

Thus, it is safe to say that Latin American Spanish is a vibrant and complex language that cannot be limited or generalized. But do not worry! It doesn’t matter if you are speaking to someone from Bolivia or Venezuela or if you are traveling to Mexico or Costa Rica. The great thing about LATAM Spanish is that natives will understand what you are saying even if you are not speaking their dialect. Although Spanish varies from one country to the next, all dialects (as we mentioned before) come from the same romantic root, same historical influences, and the same migration patterns.

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