Central American Spanish



1. Introduction

The Central American Republics of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, together with the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, have a shared colonial history, the territories in question having originally formed a single administrative unit, the Audiencia of Guatemala, shown in the map below.


Map of colonial divisions in northern half of Latin America


Though nominally subordinate to the Viceroyalty of Nueva España, whose capital was Mexico City, this audiencia in practice enjoyed a good deal of autonomy. Even after the territory became independent from Spain in 1821, the Central American nations remained unified, as the Federal Republic of Central America, for a further seventeen years.


This historical unity, allied to common economic and cultural trends of decline and isolation throughout the colonial period and afterwards, has resulted in a broad linguistic unity throughout the area. Essentially, Central American Spanish is characterized by a combination of archaism and non-standard innovation away from standard Spanish.


Parts of Central America lie outside the pale of Central American Spanish. Thus most of Panama belongs to the Caribbean dialect area, while the Caribbean lowlands of Nicaragua were never fully Hispanized. The latter area was not settled by the Spanish and was only incorporated into the Nicaraguan political and social system some time after the end of the colonial period, with the consequence that Spanish is a minority language there spoken mainly by immigrants from western Nicaragua. The rest of the population in this area speak either an indigenous language – Miskito being the prevailing one – or Caribbean creole English.



2. Phonetics and phonology

Central America is an area of weak consonantism. In the first place, syllable-final /s/ is routinely realized as [h] throughout the area, except in central Guatemala and central Costa Rica, where the tendency is for /s/ to be realized as [s] in all positions. The weakening of syllable-final /s/ appears to be at its most intense in Nicaragua, citizens of which country are sometimes referred to by neighbouring Hondurans as mucos (a term originally applied to cows that were missing a horn) on account of their tendency to ‘cut off’ final /s/.


The debuccalization of /s/ to [h] in syllable-initial position, as in [ˈhanta] santa ‘saint’ and [ˈtõhe] entonces ‘then’, has been attested in El Salvador and Honduras but the phenomenon, a variable one, is likely to have a greater geographical extension. When it occurs, it is often induced by dissimilation vis-à-vis a non-debuccalized occurrence of /s/ in the same word, as in [neheˈsaɾjo] necesario ‘necessary’.


In principle, any syllable-final voiceless stop may undergo some form of weakening in spoken Central American Spanish. Firstly, such consonants may be semivocalized, a process that is associated above all with rural dialects:

[peɾˈfejto] perfecto ‘perfect’
kawsula] cápsula ‘capsule’


Secondly, they can undergo a change in their place of articulation, the most frequent shift being retraction from the bilabial locus to the velar one:

[asekˈtaɾ] aceptar ‘to accept’
sekto] concepto ‘concept’

The converse pattern may occur, however, as a result of hypercorrection:

[opˈtuβɾe] octubre ‘October’

Finally, assimilation to the following consonant may occur, resulting in the production of a geminate:

[konˈsetto] concepto.

Turning now to the sonorants, the main feature is the routine occurrence of the so-called r asibilada, whose distribution in Central American Spanish follows the usual pattern (see e.g. Castilian Spanish). Some linguists have highlighted a tendency in the region to affricate the voiced variant [ʐ] of the assibilated r at the beginning of a breath group or after a nasal/lateral (as in [d͡ʐsaʂ] rezar ‘to pray’ and [ald͡ʐeðeˈðoʂ] alrededor ‘around). This tendency may well, in fact, be typical of all Spanish dialects in which assibilation occurs.


An additional phenomenon relating to sonorants is the velarization of nasals in word-final position, often with accompanying nasalization of the preceding vowel: [basˈtõŋ] bastón ‘stick’, [paŋ] pan ‘bread’. Nasals are also often velarized before /n/, as in [koˈluŋna] column ‘column’, [ˈiŋno] himno ‘hymn/anthem’.


Finally, in terms of the (x) variable, Central America (except Costa Rica) is an ‘aspirating’ zone (i.e. [x] to [h] modification is the norm). As an extension of this phenomenon, there is a tendency in rapid speech to elide the sound, as in [tɾβao] trabajo ‘work’.


3. Morphology

After the River Plate area, Central America is the Latin American region that is most strongly associated with voseo, the use of vos (< Latin vōs) as a second-person singular subject and postprepositional pronoun. As is usual in Latin America, the clitic corresponding to vos is te and the possessives are tu and tuyo. In most parts of the region, vos goes with oxytone verb forms with monophthongal endings in both the present indicative and the subjunctive; thus, for example, hablás ‘you speak’, tenés ‘you eat’ and vivís ‘you live’, with conjugation vowel reversal for the subjunctive (hablés, tengás, vivás). In the imperative, the endings are the archaic (from the Peninsular point of view) second-person plural forms ending in , , . In the future tense, there is variation between forms ending in -ás and forms ending in -és or -ís, the last two being associated mainly with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Elsewhere in the verb paradigm, the vos forms are identical to those that go with in non-voseante dialects Spanish.


The main exception to the pattern just sketched is provided by speech in the south west of Costa Rica (the part the borders Panama), where the vos verb endings are identical in the present tense to those that are associated with Peninsular vosotros, i.e. cantáis/-éis, coméis/-áis, vivís/-áis (often with debuccalization of final /s/).


In rural areas it may still be possible to hear the once common form habís (< habéis) in place of has as the vos form of the auxiliary verb haber ‘to have’.


In contrast to the situation in ríoplatense speech, Latin America’s other main voseante dialect, is not completely absent from Central American Spanish, because in Guatemala and El Salvador at least, that pronoun is often used as an intermediate term of address, indicating solidarity but not familiarity.



4. Syntax

A common feature of Central American Spanish and one it shares with the adjacent Mexican dialect is the ellipsis of the negative particle in sentences involving the preposition hasta. For exemplification, see Mexican Spanish.


In northern Central America, extending into Chiapas and the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico, possessive determiners may be preceded by another determiner, as in una mi hermana ‘my sister’ or esa tu criatura ‘your baby’. Such structures appear to be a residue of pattern that was common in late medieval and early modern Spanish. Sequences such as la mi mugier ‘my wife’, for example, are well-documented in the manuscripts of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (see Mackenzie 2019: 134–135).


Finally, the emphatic es construction may be encountered in southern Central America, as in the sentence shown below below:

Me pegó fue en la mano.
‘It was on the hand that he/she hit me.’

Presumably this usage has spread northwards from northern South America, as it seems to have originated in the Ecuador–Colombia region.



5. Lexicon
Much of the characteristically Central American vocabulary reflects the specialization or morphological adaptation of existing Spanish words, although there are significant borrowings from Nahuatl. In the latter case, there are two vehicles for transfer. In the first place, the Spanish themselves brought Nahuatl loanwords with them as they advanced southwards from Mexico. Secondly a variety of Nahuatl known as Pipil was already spoken in Central America and this seems to have supplied the bulk of the Nahuatl borrowings in the local Spanish. In fact, some Mexican words of Nahuatl origin have slightly different counterparts in Central America. Compare, for example, Mexican guacamole with Central American guacamol, or Mexican cuate ‘twin/buddy’ with Central American cuache.


Among the word-stock of Spanish ancestry are farolazo (also found in Mexico) ‘stiff drink’, marquesote (a diamond-shaped cake), gallo pinto (a dish of red beans and rice), cipote ‘child/little rascal’, patojo ‘child’, pisto ‘money’, zafada (mainly Guatemala) ‘excuse’, chinear ‘to carry in your arms/on your back’, jalar ‘to be dating’, galera ‘shed’, andén ‘pavement’.


Words of Nahuatl origin include cuache ‘twin’ (mainly Guatemala), guaro (spirit distilled from the juice of sugar cane), chele ‘blond’, cuto ‘one-armed’, atol (hot maize drink), chiquihuite (small reed basket [also used in Mexico]), tequio ‘nuisance’, chichigua ‘wet nurse’, tabanco ‘attic’.


6. References

Mackenzie, Ian. 2019. Language structure, variation and change: the case of Old Spanish syntax. Palgrave Macmillan / Springer Nature.