The Spanish of
All Spanish Speakers
by Orly González Kahn
With 483 million speakers in 21 countries — including in the United States, where 41 million people speak Spanish at home — Spanish is the second-largest native language spoken globally. That makes the question of how to approach Spanish an important one for any localization operation with global reach.
For businesses of all sizes, the key to Spanish is an understanding of how its speakers have historically related to their language. With this understanding, managers can set the infrastructure and operations for their translated content properly.
Throughout his career, Professor Raúl Ávila outlined three key points: First, Spanish is a language shared across countries and between continents by its 483 million speakers. It is therefore inaccurate and misguided to conceive of any national Spanish as the sole standard, nor would the speakers of the language recognize it as such.
Second, there are palpable phonological, lexical, and syntactic differences between equally prestigious geographic variations of Spanish that speakers can pick up immediately and can pinpoint to its place of origin.
Third, despite this variation, a linguistic community that favors the unity of the language across national boundaries formed due to historical, political, and cultural factors.
This vast linguistic community allows Spanish speakers around the world to understand each other without communication barriers. Thus, it provides the foundation for the international use of so-called “neutral” Spanish in mass media in the 20th century. This practice has extended online and into the localization industry in the past decades. (For these and various other ideas discussed, I am indebted to Ávila. See, for instance, De la imprenta a la internet: la lengua española y los medios de comunicación masiva. México, El Colegio de México, 2009).
In the 19th century, by the time Latin American countries succeeded in their independence struggles, Spanish was the tongue of 19 more nations. As a part of this history and its contact with native American languages, it evolved. Regardless of the number of options you offer based on your company’s specific needs, Spanish needs to be treated as the multipolar language it is, one that has multiple centers. This involves both how localized content is created and how it is presented.
International Spanish offerings must be produced with an eye toward the shared language and culture’s diversity. Otherwise, their target audiences can feel excluded or — more catastrophic for a business — offended. I was once asked at a conference if a balanced approach to presenting Spanish for a worldwide audience meant weighing between the Spanish spoken in America, on one end of the scale, and the Spanish spoken in Spain, on the other. To state the obvious, such a model would prove unsuccessful, since each one of the 20 national norms on both ends of the Atlantic are regarded as prestigious by its speakers in each country. We need to consider their traits on the same terms.
Discussing such topics with those unfamiliar with linguistics, they are often curious who decides the characteristics of an international Spanish. The answer is “Spanish speakers” — and any other approach is futile. Swayed by extra-linguistic circumstances, such as political or cultural factors, language speakers continuously redefine which linguistic traits are the most extended and would therefore be the most accepted internationally. When a communicator, writer, or translator is asked to use international or “neutral” Spanish, they have a clear, predefined concept of what that is and how they should speak or write, because international Spanish is a collective exercise. Those of us who study the language academically or who are responsible for defining its characteristics when directed at a broad audience can only describe it and would never be able to prescribe it.
Ávila has analyzed and traced the main phonological norms adopted by communicators when addressing global audiences. He cataloged various subtypes, but the principal difference outlined between the first and the second most common norm is that, in the first, the s in a word — like lejos (far) — is pronounced fully instead of as an aspiration and weakened at the end of words or syllables. It sounds like the h in a word like hope, which occurs in the Antilles and some parts of Central America, as well in southern Spain and the Canary Islands. The main difference between these two norms and the third most common is that, in the first two, the s and c in a word like socio (partner) are both pronounced with the phoneme /s/, instead of differentiating them. In the Castille region of Spain, the letter c, before the vocals e or i, and the letter z, are pronounced with the phoneme /θ/, similarly to the th in a word like theater.
As Ávila explains, outside of media, the most common norm corresponds to what can be heard in educated speakers of Mexico City or Bogotá. The second relates to speakers in Caracas or Buenos Aires, to give a couple of examples. The third norm corresponds to the Castile region of Spain and is the most common in the regional media.
In a similar vein, when a translator is asked to employ “neutral” or international Spanish, they are aware of which syntactic traits to use and which to avoid. International Spanish is an existing concept with a defined shape, not only used in translation, but also in texts written originally in Spanish. To give some outstanding examples — traits described and tracked historically by Ralph Penny in Variation and Change in Spanish (2000) — for the second-person singular, they will employ the pronoun tú (you) instead of vos and historically plural verbal forms.
This trait, known as voseo, takes up multiple variations across America with different levels of acceptability, being part of the prestigious norm in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. For formal treatment in this second-person singular, they will use the pronoun usted accompanied by a third-person verbal form (as if they were speaking about a different person from the one they are addressing). This is the most common norm, despite an abundance of variation across America. For the second-person plural they will employ the pronoun ustedes (you) instead of vosotras (feminine) or vosotros (masculine), only seen in Spain. As well, unless conveying a specific aspectual value — a situation that is still in force at the moment of speaking and that may continue or be repeated in the future — they will use a simple-past (hablé) instead of a present-perfect tense (he hablado), also seen in Spain.
While the most distributed phonological and syntactic characteristics of Spanish would already be defined in the mind of a voice actor, script writer, news reporter, or translator, international Spanish vocabulary is a constant act of awareness and balancing. It’s impractical to limit ourselves to the vocabulary common among the 20 Spanish-speaking countries. That’s prone to fail by reducing the quality of the message in semantic omissions or inaccuracies or wordy and absurd explanations. For comparison, imagine if we weren’t able to name the platform used to move people and things up and down buildings because we were trying to avoid the nouns elevator or lift or, if in a restaurant, we had to order deep-fried allumette or batonnet-cut potatoes instead of simply being able to ask for french fries or chips. It ought to be a democratic exercise that considers all geographic variations in the 20 countries. This is necessary so the message can fully realize its goals.
A fitting example for the industry is the noun computer. It can be translated into Spanish as ordenador, computador, and computadora — the first, a calque from the French ordinateur and the last two from English. Using Google Trends (trends.google.com) or specialized corpora integrated so specialists can study the linguistic characteristics of Spanish such as the Corpus of Reference of Contemporary Spanish, CREA, we can confirm that ordenador is predominantly used in Spain, computador is used in Chile and Colombia, and computadora is the most distributed geographical variation. While the three variations are equally legitimate and prestigious uses of Spanish, computadora would be the best choice for addressing an international audience.
During my day-to-day, it is not uncommon for me to hear from translators who advise against the use of certain lexical choices that carry unintended connotations in their countries. In sum, a full awareness of the language is essential. For international Spanish offerings — either regional or global — both the localization agencies and their clients need to, respectively, set up networks of both translators and stakeholders that can linguistically and culturally represent the markets being addressed.
If anyone is privy to the implications that word choices have, it is translation and localization professionals like us, who are in the business of rewording. Entire libraries speak to the translator’s meticulousness in deciding where they place the emphasis and what interpretations, echoes, and conventions they favor. In a similar vein, the strategic decisions made when supporting Spanish and the options we provide to users speak about ourselves and the brands we give voice to.
Regional offerings like “Spanish (Latin America)” are good solutions, offering a straightforward recognition of the three facts about Spanish mentioned at the outset. These options are an acknowledgment of the language’s diversity and an explicit commitment to honor it through practices where the best linguistic variation is chosen based on distribution. Regional offerings like this embrace the Spanish linguistic community as one that cuts through political borders.
In the context of these regional options — common in the content of the biggest brands — it is useful to plan early on for a consistent technical implementation of Spanish locales. Fortunately, it is now unusual to find language choices aligned with images of flags, but — stating the obvious — such an approach is problematic for any language, especially for a language like Spanish. In a similar vein, if a company initially wants to directly target users in Mexico, to give an example, it is wise to present the option of “Spanish (Mexico)” as opposed to “Spanish.” It sets the right expectation for syntactic and lexical choices. And what’s more, it allows for seamless growth when expanding to users in other countries or regions, such as the Río de la Plata region or Spain, to give a couple of examples.
Paradoxically, in the localization industry as elsewhere, the unity of the Spanish language can’t be realized without an acknowledgment and appreciation of its diversity and richness. The Spanish spoken in the 20 Spanish-speaking countries are all variations of a shared language. Spanish is a pluricentric language, and it needs to be addressed technically and operationally for localized content to realize its potential. From the strategic to the operational, decisions about reaching its extensive user base should be informed by linguistic and demographic information.
Orly González Kahn holds a BA in Modern Language and Literature from the UNAM and an MA in Translation Studies from El Colegio de México. She has published work on the history of translation and cultural identity in Latin America. She currently works at Google, where she is responsible for the content localized for Spanish-speaking Americas.