Spanish Around the World: An Introduction to Accents

Spanish is a Romance language, which means its foundation is Latin. Some of the other major Romance languages are French, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian, and Catalan. Because the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portu-gal) was also colonized for extensive periods of time by Arabic- and Greek-speaking people, Spanish also includes many words and expressions that are Arabic or Greek in origin.

When Spanish explorers brought their language to the Americas in the fifteenth century, local populations added their own linguistic spice, and Spanish began to acquire new dimensions. The Spanish spoken in Mexico, for example, includes words and expressions from native languages including Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec, and Mixtec, among others. The Spanish spoken in much of South America is influenced by the indigenous languages Que-chua and Aymara. More recent linguistic ingredients color the Spanish of various South American and Caribbean countries, and include influences from African languages, as well as from Italian and German. The Spanish spoken in the United States is heavily influenced by English. Virtually any time languages come into contact for extended periods, some sort of linguistic evolution takes place, and dialects are formed.

The word “Spanish,” or español, refers to the people and the language of Spain. Nevertheless, most Spanish-speakers call the language they speak español. Another term that is sometimes used is castellano.

As a student of Spanish keep in mind that the core of the language is the same, no matter how colored it may be by other influences. You can speak the Spanish you learn in this book in any Spanish-speaking country and you'll be understood. And, if your accent is good, the locals might just assume you're from some other Spanish-speaking country!

Accents

Spanish is a national language of twenty-one countries in the world, and is spoken “unofficially” by large populations in a number of other countries, like the United States As a result, Spanish is spoken with many accents, and has evolved significant dialectal differences between countries and even from one part of a country to another. This is a completely natural occurrence. Just think for a minute about the range of accents and word use in American English from North to South. Then, think about all the places English is spoken, for example, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. English is spoken differently in each place. What's especially important to keep in mind, though, is that English speakers can understand most of what people from English-speaking countries say. There may be some miscommunications and misunderstandings, but communication is rarely completely disrupted by the different accents and vocabulary that English speakers use.

Remember that everywhere a language is spoken, it usually has a particular accent and linguistic features that are unique to that place. Just give your ears time to adjust to the Spanish spoken in different locations, and you'll soon discover that it's still Spanish.

No accent or dialect is better than another; think of them as linguistic signatures of people from a particular area. Some Spanish accents are easily identifiable, just like a Bostonian accent is in the United States Take a look at some of the characteristics of just a few of the distinctive accents in the Spanish-speaking world.

  • Spain: A peninsular accent is easy to identify by the unique pronunciation of the consonants ll, s, c, and z. The letter ll, in Spain, is pronounced high on the palate, rather than behind the teeth. It sounds like the double l in the English word “million.” Speakers from most other countries pronounce ll closer to the English y sound. The Spanish s is typically softer and less sibilant than in Latin American countries. The consonants z and the soft c (ce or ci) are pronounced similarly to the th in the English word “think.”

  • Argentina and Uruguay: One of the most distinctive features of these two southern cone countries is the pronunciation of the letters ll and y, which Argentines and Uruguayans pronounce rather like sh or zh. Speakers from these two countries are also known for their lilting intonation.

  • Cuba and Puerto Rico: Final consonants and, sometimes, whole syllables can disappear when Cubans and Puerto Ricans speak at a natural pace. Many vowels are highly aspirated, which, in turn, makes the consonants following them fade.

  • Mexico: The accent of northern Mexico, in particular, is famous for the sing-song intonation of its residents and their tendency to elongate final syllables.

  • This is just a sampling of the linguistic richness of the Spanish language. Everywhere it is spoken, Spanish has developed a unique rhythm, accent, and vocabulary.

    Sounding Native

    You've just learned that everyone has an accent, so now you can stop worrying about yours. While it's a worthy goal to sound “native,” think for a minute what that really means. Which accent and dialect are you going to use as your model — Castilian Spanish, Paraguayan Spanish, Guatemalan Spanish, or the Spanish spoken in the Dominican Republic? It really doesn't matter. You will ultimately acquire an accent and dialectal touches based on your experience with the language among native speakers. If you travel often to Honduras, for example, you will likely pick up typically Honduran pronunciation and vocabulary. If you then begin to spend more time in Bolivia, your Honduran accent will probably give way to Bolivian rhythms and sounds.

    So, worry less about sounding “native” and focus more on simply speaking clearly, eliminating as much as possible English overtones in your Spanish. Imitate the ways that native speakers say things, and use any resources available to you. The reality is that, unless you live for an extended period of time in a single Spanish-speaking environment, it is more likely that you'll acquire a fairly generic accent in Spanish. That means that, eventually, no one will be able to guess where you're from!

    Imitating native speakers is the best way to refine your own accent. The real key to sounding “native,” though, is to diminish the influence of your own accent in English.

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