5 most important differences between Spanish in Spain and Mexico

Jul 14, 2016

GUEST POST FOR LANGUAGE TSAR

By José Luis Palos Ávila. YouTube: Chicago Polyglot.

Hi everyone! Today we are going to analyze the 5 most important differences between Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Mexico. The 2 varieties are mutually intelligible but there are differences in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

In this article, we are going to learn about the differences in vocabulary, the use of vosotros/ustedes, the distinción/el seseo, the leísmo and nahuatlismos which make Mexican Spanish unique. ¡Empecemos!

Why are there differences?

When the Spanish colonies which founded in Mexico, the Spanish language was undergoing some changes in Spain and the pronunciation was not homogeneous in all the regions of Spain. Therefore, it’s possible that the colonizers in Mexico were from Andalucía where there was a distinctly different pronunciation from the region of Castile.

The Spanish used in Mexico also adopted many words of náhuatl origin (language of the Aztecs) that are in common usage today. When we take into account these facts, it’s not surprising that Mexican Spanish has developed different characteristics than the language spoken in Spain.

Vocabulary

Between Spain and Mexico there are differences in vocabulary. Different words are used to refer to the same object and different verbs are used to refer to the same action. For example, in Spain one says “conducir a coche” but in Mexico it’s “manejar a carro” (“to drive” a “car“).

In Spain you will find a gaseosa in the nevera while in Mexico you’ll find a soda in the refrigerador (“soft drink” in the “fridge“). Confused already? Don’t worry! Here we’ll give some more vocabulary that differs between the countries:

Spain: Un ordenador (“computer”)
Mexico: Una computadora

Spain: Unas gafas (“glasses”)
Mexico: Unos lentes

Spain: Un bolígrafo (“pen”)
Mexico: Una pluma

Spain: Una patata (“potato”)
Mexico: Una papa

Spain: Un melocotón (“peach”)
Mexico: Un durazno

Another important difference is the use of the verb “coger“. In Spain the verb is used to mean “to take”. For example, it’s common to say “voy a coger un taxi” (“I’m going to take a taxi”) but in Mexico we say “voy a tomar un taxi”.

In Mexico coger is a colloquial expression to describe having sex so it’s not used in the sense of “taking” something. I recommend that you pay attention to this in order to avoid any misunderstandings. 😀

Guadalajara Fountain

A fountain in José’s hometown of Guadalajara

Nahuatlisms / Aztequisms

In Mexican Spanish there are also many words of Nahuatl origin. These words are identified as nahuatlisms or aztequisms. Spanish lexicon began to mix in words from Nahuatl in the 16th century when colonized the peoples of Mesoamerica.

The use of nahuatlisms is a distinct characteristic of Mexican Spanish. For example, in Mexico there are lots of toponyms (place names) Nahuatl origin. Moreover, nahuatlisms are often used to refer to objects, fruits and animals that are of Mexican origin.

Below are such examples of nahuatlisms in Mexican Spanish:

Toponyms

Chapultepec: “grasshopper mountain”, from náhuatl chapolin (grasshopper) y tepetl (hill or mountain).

Mazatlán: “place with lots of deer”, from náhuatl mazatl (deer).

Michoacán: “place of the fishermen”, from náhuatl michín (fish).

Zacatecas: “people from the place with lots of grass”, from náhuatl zacatl (grass).

Guadalajara 2011

Guadalajara, Mexico

Animals, fruits y objects

Spain: Una lechuza / un búho (“owl”)
Mexico: Un tecolote, from náhuatl tecolotl.

Spain: Un saltamontes (“grasshopper”)
Mexico: Un chapulín, from náhuatl chapolin.

Spain: Un pavo (“turkey”)
Mexico: Un guajolote, from náhuatl huexólotl.

Spain: Un tomate (“tomato”)
Mexico: Un jitomate, from náhuatl xitomatl.

Spain: Un amigo / un tipo, un fulano (“a thing”)
Mexico: Un cuate, from náhuatl coatl (serpiente / mellizo).

Spain: Una cometa (children’s toy)
Mexico: Un papalote, from náhuatl papalotl (mariposa).

Spain: Un niño (“child”)
Mexico: Un escuincle, from náhuatl itzcuintli (perro).

Spain: Una pajilla (“straw”)
Mexico: Un popote, from náhuatl popotl (name of a dry branch).

Here are more words of Nahuatl origin in Mexican Spanish: chocolate, aguacate, chipotle, guacamole, cacahuate, chile, elote, nopal, chicle, coyote, ocelote, mapache, zopilote, tlapalería, molcajete, mecate, petaca, chapopote, achichincle, tocayo y apapachar. Do you recognize any of the words in the list?

NYC selfie

Conor Clyne (left), creator of Language Tsar, at the NYC Polyglot Conference with Kris Broholm and Shana Thompson

Vosotros / Ustedes

One of the big differences between Spanish in Spain and Mexico is the use of vosotros and ustedes. In Spain vosotros/vosotras is used with a group or speak with your friends in an informal way. Ustedes is used to speak with your grandparents or with a group in a respectful or formal manner.

On the other hand, in Mexico always use ustedes to speak with your friends or a group in a respectful manner. Here are some examples:

Spain: ¿Cuál fue el último libro que leísteis?
Mexico: ¿Cuál fue el último libro que leyeron?

Spain: ¿Sabéis a qué hora cierran la farmacia?
Mexico: ¿Saben a qué hora cierran la farmacia?

Spain: ¡Hola, chicos! ¿Cómo estáis?
Mexico: ¡Hola, chicos! ¿Cómo están?

Spain: ¿Ya os conocéis?
Mexico: ¿Ya se conocen?

Spain: ¿Cuántas veces habéis ido a la biblioteca esta semana?
Mexico: ¿Cuántas veces han ido a la biblioteca esta semana?

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is another distinct difference between the 2 varieties of Spanish. In Spain there are 3 types of pronunciation; distinción, el seseo y el ceceo. Most of Spain uses distinción while in Mexico only seseo is used.

In the map below you’ll see the regions of Spain where each type of pronunciation is used.

Map Spain Seseo Ceceo

A map of Spain with the division between distinción, seseo and ceceo

The letter “s” is pronounced /s/ and the letters “c” and “z” is pronounced as /θ/, therefore as “th” in the word “thing” in English. For example, the words “casa” and “caza” is pronounced as /kasa/ and /kaθa/.

In the seseo the letters “s”, “c” and “z” are pronounced the same as /s/. The words “casa” and “caza” is pronounced as /kasa/ and /kasa/. Both are pronounced the same with no differences.

In ceceo the letters “s”, “c” and “z” are all pronounced the same as /θ/.

Therefore, in Spain the word “gracias” is pronounced as /graθias/ and in Mexico is pronounced as /grasias/. Both pronunciations are correct but seseo is used in all countries in Latin America as you can see in the map below.

Map of Latin America Seseo & Ceceo

A map of Latin America with the division between distinción, seseo and ceceo

Leísmo

The leísmo means the incorrect use of the indirect pronoun “le” when it’s used to refer to a man. The correct form to use should be the direct pronoun “lo”.

In Spain the leísmo is very common but in Mexico and the rest of Latin America the direct pronoun “lo” is always used. Here is an example to clarify the situation:

Spain: A Santiago no le vi ayer. (indirect pronoun – incorrect use)
Mexico: A Santiago no lo vi ayer. (direct pronoun – correct use)

It’s also necessary to say that the leísmo is never used to refer to a woman or to refer to a group of people, the direct pronoun “la” or “los” is simply used. Here you can see the three forms of leísmo that are used in Spain.

Masculine use: A Santiago no le vi ayer.
Femenine use: A Gabriela no la vi ayer.
Plural use: A Santiago y Gabriela no los vi ayer.

The leísmo is never used in Mexico. Therefore, I recommend learning the correct use of the direct pronoun “lo” and avoid using the leísmo unless you are traveling in Spain.

Jose Palos in NYC

José Palos is a language coach via Skype for Spanish and English

Which type of Spanish should I learn?

You have just learnt the 5 most important differences between Spanish in Spain and Mexico. Now, which type of Spanish should you learn?

It really depends on where you plan to use the language. Mexico has a unique culture and has the biggest population of Spanish-speakers in the world! However, Spanish culture is really admired and every year there are millions of people who visit its cities. Therefore, I advise you to learn both varieties of Spanish.

Learning about the differences between the 2 varieties is an enriching experience and will help you to understand the culture and the history of both countries. Best of luck with your studies!

¡Leer aquí este artículo en español!

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