Tag Archives: Latin America

An update, an anecdote, an apology

The most-viewed post on this blog, with more than 11,000 page views, is “The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries”. I wrote this post almost three years ago. Many visitors find it via Google (or other) searches such as “top 5 Spanish speaking countries”, “best Spanish speaking countries”, or even “coolest Spanish speaking countries”.

I based the post on the language statistics in the CIA World Factbook. This is an excellent website, rich in content and also user-friendly. As an American taxpayer I’ve been funding the CIA for years, and I liked the idea of getting some non-lethal return on my (involuntary) investment.

The post reported that, according to the Factbook, there are more first-language speakers of Spanish in the United States than in Spain, because more than a quarter of Spaniards speak Catalan, Galician, or Basque as a first language instead of Castilian Spanish. In the years after writing this post, I came to doubt this “fact”. Both the 2001 national census of Spain (the most recent census to ask about languages) and the Ethnologue database give lower numbers for the non-Castilian languages. Ethnologue, a widely cited resource, reports that 8% of the population speaks Catalan as a first language, 5% Galician, and 1% Basque.

Earlier this year, while editing the relevant chapter of my book, I decided to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. I emailed the CIA, using the contact information on the Factbook website, and asked why their numbers for non-Castilian languages were so high. I heard back promptly from Molly Hale (the “public voice of the CIA”, not the Pokemon character):

Thank you for your interest in The World Factbook.  Our information on languages in Spain is, unfortunately, extremely dated.  We are currently in the midst of a long-term project to update our fields on language, religion, and ethnic groups, but have not yet found any new language data for Spain.  Spain’s last two national censuses in 2011 and 2001* did not ask a question about primary language used at home or mother tongue, and we have not found another source of information.  Ethnologue, as you mention, has some estimates for each language used in Spain, but they are based on different sources, dates of information, and methodologies, which complicates using them together to construct an overall breakdown.  Nevertheless, this may be your best option, if a better data source cannot be found.

*No, there is 2001 census data (see link above)

Accordingly I have now updated my 2013 post using the Ethnologue data. I apologize for leaving the inaccurate data up for so long. The moral of the story? Never trust the CIA!

The geography of voseo

When I was relatively new to Spanish, one of my teachers explained to our class that voseo was a special feature of Argentinian Spanish. Voseo is the use of vos, with its associated verb forms, instead of standard Spanish tú, as an informal pronoun meaning “you”. So “you speak” is vos hablás instead of tú hablas, “you are” is vos sos instead of tú eres, and so on.

Years later I learned that voseo isn’t limited to Argentina, nor to its neighboring countries in South America. It’s found in several countries in South America, and also in parts of Central America, including El Salvador. (I seem to be running into a lot of vos-using salvadoreños lately, both at home and out of town.) Below is a map showing where vos is used in Latin America.

Reproduced by Creative Commons license. Medium (or dark) blue indicates spoken (and written) voseo.  Light blue indicates tu/vos alternation. Grey indicates tú only.

By the way, this is my second-favorite voseo map. My favorite is on p. 156 of Christopher Pountain’s Exploring the Spanish Language; do a “Search inside this book” with the phrase “distribution of voseo” to find it. It’s under copyright so I can’t reproduce it here.

As you can see in either map, the distribution of voseo doesn’t tidily follow country borders, or even continental borders. The controlling factor is, rather, historical. As I explained in my very first post on this blog, travel between Spain and Latin American was restricted during the colonial period because of rampant piracy on the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, settlements close to the two colonial capitals of Mexico City and Lima, or to the major ports of call en route such as Veracruz and Portobelo, had much more exposure to the latest linguistic developments from Spain than those in the “boondocks”.

For your convenience, here is the map of colonial trade routes I included in that first post.

Colonial trade patterns

Adapted from Sagredo 2007 under the GNU Free Documentation License

Voseo is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. At the beginning of the Colonial period,  and vos were both current in Spain. Eventually, of course,  won, but only those parts of Latin American that were in regular contact with Spain followed its lead. That’s why, if you compare the two maps, the all- areas (grey on the voseo map) roughly correspond to the colonial trade routes (red on the second map). Argentina was about as boondock-y as you could get since it could only be reached by crossing the Andes, by foot and/or by mule, from Lima. That’s why its voseo is the strongest in the continent.

¿Vos entendés?

Multilingualism in Latin America

We all know that the conquest of Latin America was a disaster for its indigenous peoples and languages. Between war, slavery, and disease, the native population was reduced, absorbed, or eliminated in much of Latin America. At the same time, the native languages gave way to Spanish.

Argentina is an extreme example of this tragic pattern. According to the CIA World Factbook, only 3% of Argentina’s population is indigenous or mestizo (mixed). Mapudungun and Quechua are still spoken, but less than Spanish, Italian, English, German, and even French.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Peru are at the other end of the demographic and linguistic spectrum. Their populations are largely indigenous or mestizo, and their indigenous languages are still widely spoken, and in many cases recognized as co-official with Spanish. I’ve put together a summary table (below) using data from the CIA Factbook and, where indicated, the U.S. Department of State.

Latin American countries with widely spoken indigenous languages
(Source: CIA Factbook unless otherwise indicated)



*indicates data from U.S. Dept. of State

Indigenous languages

Linguistic status

Official status

Bolivia 85% indigenous or mestizo Only 60.7% of the population speaks Spanish. Quechua and Aymara are co-official with Spanish.
Ecuador 90% indigenous or mestizo* Quichua and Shuar are widely spoken. Spanish is the only official language.
Guatemala Majority indigenous or mestizo* Only 60% of the population speaks Spanish. 23 indigenous languages are co-official with Spanish.
Paraguay 95% mestizo Most of the population is bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní. Guaraní is co-official with Spanish.
Perú 82% indigenous or mestizo 15% of the population speaks Quechua, Aymara, or another indigenous language. Quechua is co-official with Spanish.

The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries

At some point during the first couple of weeks of a beginning Spanish class, I like to have my students pair up and, together, write down what they think are the top five Spanish-speaking countries by population. This is a partly an excuse for them to have a good look at the maps of their textbook and realize how just how widespread Spanish is. (I like to point out the Spanish areas in Africa while we’re at it!)  Country names are also a great way for beginning students to practice Spanish pronunciation: for example, the clear vowels, guttural x, and accented é of México. The same exercise works for a more advanced class if I have the students also estimate the countries’ populations, so that they can practice saying numbers in the millions.

It’s always remarkable to see the mistakes that students make. Every year, several kids think that Brazil is a Spanish-speaking country. Or Haiti. Haiti, of course, would be too small to make the top five even if it were Spanish-speaking, but American students seem to have the impression that Caribbean islands are just teeming with population: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic routinely come up in this exercise, too. (In reality, Cuba is the most populated island, clocking in at #10.)

Here, for your benefit, are the actual top five, based on the numbers in the Ethnologue database and the 2015 U.S. Census:

  1. Mexico (103 million) — Thank goodness, most kids usually get this one right.
  2. Colombia (41 million) — A dark horse. No student in the USA would ever predict that it is ahead of Argentina.
  3. Argentina (39 million) — Someone always puts Argentina in the top 5.
  4. Spain (38.4 million) — This is after subtracting for minority languages (mostly Catalan).
  5. United States (37.6 million) — 12.8 % of the population.

The rest are up to you.

[Post updated April 16, to fix problems described in this post.] 

No se habla español – Spanish not spoken here

Living in the United States at a time when Spanish is increasingly ascendant — as of 2007, 12% of Americans aged 5 or older spoke Spanish at home — it’s easy to forget that Spanish has actually lost ground dramatically, here and elsewhere, since its zenith during the Age of Exploration. Much of the United States, after all, is former Spanish territory: the Louisiana Territory and large parts of the West, Southwest, and Southeast. Elsewhere in the Americas, Spain used to control Jamaica, Trinidad, and Belize. All three are now officialy English-speaking, although Spanish is still the predominant spoken language in Belize.

[As an aside, can anyone explain why English, the official language of Belize, is its fourth most spoken language? According to the CIA World Factbook less than 4% of the population speaks English, compared to 46% for Spanish, 33% for Creole, and 9% for various Mayan dialects.]

The Philippines haven’t been Spanish since the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Spanish influence lingers in Filipino place names (Manila, San Juan, etc.) and last names, and the country has its own branch of the Spanish language Academia. However, Spanish has completely vanished as a spoken language in favor of Filipino (Tagalog) and, again, English.

While Spanish retains some presence in Africa, it is no longer spoken in Western Sahara, nor in Morocco outside of Ceuta and Melilla.

All the above doesn’t change the fact that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, behind Chinese and ahead of English. But it’s a reminder that nothing is permanent: empires crumble and languages fade. Just not yet.


Latin American country names as historical shorthand

When we lived in New Mexico, back in the 1990’s, our kids used to get a kick out of the names of some of the local towns. There was Truth or Consequences, the town that voted to change its name from Hot Springs in 1950 to win the privilege of hosting the radio show’s 10th anniversary special (the TV show came later). Elephant Butte was named for a volcanic rock formation that looks like you-know-what (the whole beast, not just its tuchis). Santa Fe’s Amtrak station was located out of town in Lamy, named for an early local archbishop, and pronounced “lay me”. You can imagine how that went over with our pre-teen boys.

Little did they realize that toponyms, or place names, can be a serious object of study. Like fossils, toponyms are revealing artifacts, vestigial clues to history. This is certainly true in Latin America, where the various country names are practically a mnemonic shorthand for the key aspects of the colonial period: Continue reading

Puerto Rican r

[This is the English version of an earlier post in Spanish (in celebration of “Spanish Friday”).]

I’ve previously written about several aspects of the Spanish r sound: its pronunciation and linguistic identifyits origin, and the difficulties that some adults (and many kids) have pronouncing it. Today we’ll consider a dialectal variation, the r of Puerto Rico.

In parts of Puerto Rico, it’s common to hear a French-style, back-of-the tongue, unusually long r in place of the normal Spanish trill. Puerto Ricans see this pronunciation as a distinctive marker of island identity, and therefore a source of either shame or pride — or both. Author Magali García Ramis described this love/hate relationship in her essay “My Father’s R”. This was her inaugural lecture when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española in 2009, and is also the title essay of her 2011 book:


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La erre de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican r)

En celebración de “Spanish Friday” este aporte es en español. [In celebration of “Spanish Friday”, this post is in Spanish (English translation will be posted separately)].

Les presento hoy un aporte más sobre la erre española. Ya colgué un aporte sobre su pronunciación e identidad, uno sobre su origen latino, y uno sobre las dificultades que tienen unas personas pronunciándola. Hoy consideramos una variación dialectal, la erre de Puerto Rico.

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Piracy and Latin American Spanish

Colonial trade patterns

Adapted from Sagredo 2007 under the GNU Free Documentation License

My blogging guru, Tris Hussey, warns that a blog’s first post is always terrible. Nevertheless, I can’t resist devoting this post to the most interesting tidbit I know about the history of Spanish: the relationship between piracy during the Spanish colonial period and today’s Latin American dialect patterns. The following is based on Ralph Penny‘s discussion of the topic in his Variation and Change in Spanish (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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