Mexican Spanish

1.Defining the dialect area

The territory of contemporary Mexico is not coextensive with the Mexican Spanish dialect area. In the first place, the Spanish of the Yucatán peninsula is similar to the dialects of Central America, as is the Spanish spoken in the areas that border Guatemala (the southern state of Chiapas, for example, was originally part of the Audiencia of Guatemala and only became part of Mexico after the wars of colonial independence). Secondly, the waves of nineteenth- and twentieth-century migration from Mexico to the USA have caused Mexican Spanish to become the most widely spoken variety of Spanish throughout the USA. Thirdly, the speech encountered in the Caribbean coastal areas of Veracruz and Tabasco tends to be different from that associated with the inland regions, the inland varieties being relatively conservative in their consonantism while the coastal ones often show Caribbean-style consonantal weakening in syllable-final position.

Historically, the evolution of Mexican Spanish coincides in a number of respects with the development of Peruvian Spanish. Like Lima, Mexico City was for centuries the hub of one of the great viceroyalties of colonial America, one which stretched from the middle of what is now the United States in the north to Panama in the south (see map below).

The Viceroyalty of New Spain

Map showing the Viceroyalty of New Spain


As a natural result of Mexico City’s prominent role in the colonial administration north of the equator, the population of the city included relatively large numbers of speakers from the centre of the Spanish empire, viz. Castile. Consequently, like Lima within the Audiencia of Lima and the adjacent territories, Mexico City tended historically to exercise a standardizing effect within its own sphere of linguistic influence, a state of affairs that is reflected in the praise showered upon Mexican speech patterns by 17th and 18th century commentators.



2. Phonetics and phonology

A striking feature of Mexican Spanish, in the interior of the country at least, is the high rate of unstressed vowel reduction or elision, as in [ˈtɾastəs] or [ˈtɾasts] trastes ‘cooking utensils’ and [ˈpintʃzɣaˈβatʃs] pinches gavachos ‘damned Americans’. This process is most frequent when a vowel is in contact with [s], and [e] is the vowel that is most frequently affected.


In the same regions – most of the interior of Mexico – syllable-final /s/ is rarely weakened; this fact, combined with frequent unstressed vowel reduction, gives the sibilant [s] a special prominence. (Note that this situation contrasts with the situation in the coastal areas, on both the Pacific and the Caribbean sides, where syllable-final /s/ weakening is a sociolinguistic marker, reflecting the tension between the Mexico city norm and the historical tendency towards consonantal weakening that is so characteristic of coastal areas in Latin America.)


The tap [ɾ] and the trill [r] are routinely assibilated throughout central and southern Mexico , as in [kaʂta] carta ‘letter’, while in the northern states tap and trill articulations predominate.


In terms of the (x) variable, the articulation in inland Mexico is usually [x], as in [kaxa] caja ‘box’. On the coasts the normal articulation is [h], as in most Caribbean and Pacific coast dialects throughout Latin America.



3. Voseo and the associated verbal morphology

Mexican Spanish is fundamentally a tuteante dialect, voseo being confined to some parts oPhoto of Maya temple at Palenque in Chiapasf the state of Chiapas , where the local Spanish belongs to the Central American dialect zone. Where vos occurs in Mexico, the verb forms that go with it are the same as in Guatemalan voseo . In other words, the present indicative and subjunctive have oxytone forms with monopthongal endings (cantás/-és, comés/-ás, subís/-ás), the imperative has no final /d/, there is sociolinguistic variation in the future between forms in -ás and forms in -és/-ís (the latter being the less prestigious of the alternants), and the remaining vos forms are identical to those that go with in standard Spanish.



4. Syntax

Several syntactic patterns that sound very ‘non-standard’ to the Peninsular ear are routine in Mexican Spanish. First and foremost is the more or less conventionalized ellipsis of the negative particle no in clauses containing the preposition hasta ‘until’:


(1)       Será publicado hasta fines de año.
           ‘It will <not> be published until the end of the year.’


(2)       Cierran hasta las nueve.
            ‘They <don’t> close until 9 o’clock .’


(3)      Hasta que tomé la píldora se me quitó el dolor.
           ‘Until I took the pill the pain did <not> go away.’


In each case the sentence only has the sense indicated by the English translation if the main verb is understood as being negated.


A second departure from Peninsular usage involves using interrogative qué in conjunction with the quantifier tan(to), as in (4) and (5) below:


(4)       ¿Qué tan graves son los daños?
            ‘How serious is the damage?’


(5)       ¿Qué tan buen profesor es?

            ‘How good a teacher is he?’


Thirdly, a sequence that is ungrammatical in Peninsular Spanish, viz. mucho muy, is used colloquially in place of the superlative form in -ísimo, as in (6) below:

(6)       Este tipo de tratamientos son mucho muy caros

           ‘That type of treatment is really expensive.’


Note finally that phenomena relating to bilingualism are likely to be encountered among Spanish-recessive bilinguals or in isolated rural regions where the syntactic influence of indigenous languages has been important historically. One of the most discussed of these phenomena is the redundant use of verbal clitics, particularly lo, a tendency that is encountered in language contact areas throughout Latin America.



5. Lexicon

Mexican Spanish retains a number of items which were once commonplace in the Spanish empire but which have fallen into disuse in Spain and hence, from a Peninsular perspective, can be regarded as archaisms. For example, in requesting repetition of something not understood, the most common Mexican response is ¿Mande?, which in origin at least is the 3rd person sing. subjunctive form of the verb mandar ‘to order’.


Other commonly heard Mexicanisms include the following: ándale ‘let’s go/OK/I agree’, bolillo ‘American/foreigner’ (derog.), chamaco ‘small child’, charola ‘tray’, chingadera (used of any unspecified object [vulg.]) , chingar ‘to screw/to ruin’ (vulg.), enjarocharse ‘to get amorously involved’, escuincle ‘small child/brat’, ¿ese? ‘why?’, gavacho ‘American’ (derog.) , güero ‘blond’ , híjole ‘wow!’, huerco ‘small child’, mero (e.g. Le pegué en la mera cabezota ‘I hit him right in the middle of his face’), mocharse ‘to help out’, naco ‘crybaby/in bad taste’, órale ‘OK/come on’, padre ‘brilliant’, pinche ‘cursed/damned’, popote ‘straw’, ya mero ‘almost’ (e.g. Ya mero llegamos ‘We’re almost there’).