Issue 2 |

Linguistic variation in the Spanish-speaking world

by on February 12, 2015

In the modern and advanced world of the 21st century, a world that knows not only globalisation, but incredible advances in science, technology and media, in an era when everything is as easy as pressing a single button, we cannot help but ask ourselves: What would the effects of these developments be on interpersonal relations, and in language and linguistic variation within these languages?

In order to begin to answer this question, the concept of linguistic variation needs to be clarified. Variation supposes the existence of differences between languages, or variants within the same language. Just as mathematical equations have variables that can have a number of different values, language too has variables. Linguistic variables (words, expressions, any linguistic element), too, can have a certain number of variants. Thus, speakers of a language choose one of these variants when expressing a concept.

Human beings have the need to establish and maintain social relationships with others. Starting at infancy, a person’s personality, manner of being, thinking and behaving, develop as a result of social contact. In other words, language (both verbal and non-verbal) is the key element in our development as human beings. In other words, society would not survive without language. However, for a person who lives in the 21st century and can travel with ease, experience other cultures, and get along with different peoples, this involves using not only one language, but many, or even using different variants of the same language, and according to the context (using formal and informal registers, different dialects, etc.).

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, spread across the entire planet. And, as you can imagine, when speaking of such a geographically diverse language as Spanish, it is natural that there are differences between the variants of Spanish used in each country. The same thing is often expressed in different ways in the north of Spain, in Argentina, and in Puerto Rico. That is to say, as with many other languages, Spanish has various linguistic norms. We can speak of the norms of Peninsular Spanish and different Latin American norms that oppose those of Peninsular Spanish. Also, as with many other languages, Spanish has diatopical (or geographical), diastratic (or social), and diaphasic (or contextual) variations.

In order to understand it better, imagine that you are a Spanish-speaker, and are travelling. You want to write to your friends to tell them what you’ve done over the last few days. What do you send them? An ‘e-mail’ or a ‘correo electrónico’? What do you use to write your message? A ‘computadora’ or an ‘ordenador’? A ‘mouse’ or a ‘ratón’? Let’s suppose that after sending the message you want to rent a car. What will you ask for? A ‘carro’ or a ‘coche’? The answer is very simple: it depends on the region you are in. Such differences could also exist within the same country. For example, take the Canary Islands (a territory that belongs to Spain), where they say ‘papa’ for potato (just as in Latin America) while in (continental) Spain, it is called ‘patata’.

But is it simply that one word is correct and the other incorrect? Or is it that both variants are correct in their own speech contexts? For example, in colloquial speech in Spain, if you want to say something is extremely good, you use the expression “de puta madre”. On the other hand, if you are in Peru, the equivalent expression would be “de la pitri mitri”. Things get even more complicated when you note that variation can exist not only in words and expressions, but also in grammar. For example, in Spain, a number of tenses are used to express something in the past, including the present perfect tense (he hecho, has hablado). However, in the Canary Islands, this tense is rarely used, and the simple past tense is preferred (hice, hablaste). So, how do we identify the right context for the use of one variant or the other? What is the primary tool we can use? A dictionary, of course! (Or a conversation guide, a language learning book.) But thence emerges the question, what does a dictionary (or a book on grammar, or something similar) do? Does it dictates the correct way of speaking? Or does it describe the actual way people speak?

As is already known, there is a difference between what we call linguistic norms (the correct way of speaking, the model of correction of a language) and the way language is actually used. Nobody is a walking dictionary, nobody knows all the words that exist in their mother tongue, and every one of us makes errors now and then. It is true that some make more errors than others; in such a case, we would say that her idiolect (that is to say, her way of speaking, the way in which she expresses herself) deviates farther from the standard. In fact, linguistic norm or standard often appears to be an abstract concept, closer to an ideal than to reality.

It is nevertheless rather evident that there is a very clear distinction between the correct and incorrect way of speaking in the mind of a native speaker. Nobody can deny that a degree of standardisation is necessary for a better and more balanced diffusion of the language and information; but at the same time, we need to ask ourselves whether the imposition of such a standard influences the acceptance and survival of regional norms with their own peculiarities. Moreover, does standardisation brings with it a tendency towards invariability? If that is indeed true, in what situations is it relevant to speak about language variants or about variation in general? How would we define the linguistic variables within a language and in what situations would they appear? (Here, linguistic variable refers to a unit of the language that can vary, or have various realisations within a language. This could be a word that is written or pronounced differently, a verb form, an expression, or even something as subtle as a prefix.)

The concept of linguistic norms has existed since antiquity, or at least, since the appearance of written language which resulted in the necessity to standardise language in order that it be understood and transmitted in a more uniform manner. The standardisation of linguistic norms has facilitated both language teaching as well as the diffusion of language through media, making it an indispensable factor for its survival.

The standard variety of a language constitutes the medium of communication that is considered more correct than other local varieties. It has a conventional character and is what is taught in schools and spread through media, given that it has a certain prestige within that community of speakers. In this way, speakers would have to try to approach, as far as possible, this standard variety in order to speak in a way that is considered “correct”.

Linguists and researchers have often asked themselves why some linguistic variants become accepted as the standard norm while others do not. In order to understand this, consider the following: if a particular phenomenon (a word, a turn of phrase, a verbal form) is heard more frequently in urban nuclei that have prestige from a social and cultural point of view, will that not often lead to the extension of that feature or phenomenon to more social classes, including the upper class, which will facilitate the inclusion of said feature into the standard variant?

The idea of a prestigious cultural centre is not a new one. In fact, during the colonial era, there was one single prestigious and powerful linguistic centre for the Spanish language: the colonial power that dictated linguistic norms of the colonised territories. The Spanish colonies slowly adopted the norms imposed by the prestigious nucleus, putting their own existing language varieties in second place. This phenomenon could appear complicated at first sight, but it is simple if you consider it logically. First, you have this linguistic centre that offers a standard Spanish variant with a certain social prestige. Is it not logical that each territory would imitate this model in order to benefit from the same prestige? But the problem is that each region already had its own way of speaking Spanish and its own linguistic rules for its variety of Spanish. As the inhabitants of these regions then began to attempt to imitate the standard, these two linguistic varieties (the one that was already present and the one that was being imitated) then began to mix, resulting in linguistic interference between the two.

With the passage of time, we arrive at the present situation, where there is no longer a single prestigious centre and there is no longer a coloniser, but many independent republics and regions, each of them with their own linguistic centre, and each of them with their own prestige. Many speakers are influenced by the prestige that mass media (e.g. radio, television, press, cinema) benefits from. Such media outlets usually have their headquarters in the cities—the urban nuclei that possess certain social, linguistic, and cultural prestige. Consequently, these centres also influence the diffusion of language, imposing its urban linguistic norms.

When it comes to comparing language variants to standard norms, it is difficult to establish the generally accepted limits of one or the other, given that there always has been, and always will be, a problematic conflict between the two concepts. Every language is in a process of constant change. Languages are alive; they do not stop reinventing themselves, they do not stop creating new alternatives for things that already existed in their vocabulary, and they do not stop finding new ways to express the same thing.

Spanish, too, is subjected to constant changes, not least because of the large number of speakers spread out across the world, with very varied historical antecedents and social and cultural experiences. The variation we see in Spanish today is a representation of this cultural and geographic diversity of the Spanish language and the Hispanic cultures, and is therefore something we should do everything we can to preserve.

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