Does Spanish really change from country to country?
As a Spanish language learner, ever had a “Huh?” moment in a conversation? Even growing up bilingual myself, I find myself chatting with native Spanish-speakers and getting stuck on a word I’ve never heard before.
Don’t stress. It’s likely that you learned a different version of that same exact word. How? Are there multiple words in Spanish for the same thing?
Of course there are. The same way people from England call it a lift while Americans say elevator, there are Spanish vocabulary words that change from country to country.
If you study Spanish online with a teacher from Spain, you may learn words that won’t work when you go travelling around Mexico for example.
The differences aren’t too major. They are mostly limited to local delicacies (food), daily life (transportation), and local slang.
By learning some common words, you will speak more fluently as you travel from place to place. Here are 10 Spanish words that change from country to country.
Local cuisine is unique to each country. From tacos to tlacoyos there are dishes that were invented in one country. The same goes for food vocabulary. Words for fruits and vegetables in Latin America are influenced by indigenous languages, which vary from the Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico to the Quechua people and Inca Empire of Peru.
Don’t forget: food items like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and squash originally come from the Americas. Spain never had words for these foods because they didn’t exist in Europe before Spanish explorers arrived in the New World in the 15th century.
- Potato – Spaniards say patata while Latin Americans say papa. Be careful to use the feminine article la in both cases or you might get confused with el papa the Catholic pope or papá with an accent, meaning dad.
- Sandwich – In Spain, they used to say emparedado but nobody says that anymore. Nowadays you can order a bocadillo or a “small bite” on a baguette for lunch. Many South American countries use the Anglicized words sánguich or sánduche. Mexicans use the word torta, which usually comes in a large size on a flour bolillo roll, piled high with toppings including meat and beans.
- Beans – The word for beans is one the most varied. The word judías is understood in all of Spain, but Spaniards from Andalucía in the south or Salamanca in the center might use the word alubias. Spaniards from Asturias in the north would say fabes grown on the vines which are called fréjoles. Mexicans eat frijoles with their rice while most of the Caribbean countries like Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico say habichuelas. In Chile, the South American country famous for having a non-standard vocabulary, they are called porotos.
- Cake – We’ve talked about this one before, but the Spanish word for a Mexican sandwich torta means a sweet, baked cake in almost every other country. Some countries in Central and South America also say pastel but be careful since pastel de papa in Chile is not a sweet but a shepherd’s pie with mash on top. Pastelito or pastelillo literally translates as “small cake” and is the word for a pastry.
- Corn – As the native cereal to both North and South America, corn is a main ingredient for many Latin American dishes. In most of South America corn is called choclo. Some Colombians call it mazorca while in Venezuela you might hear jojoto.
Mexico has a few different words for corn depending on how it is prepared. Maíz is regular corn. Elotes are hot corn cobs boiled or grilled, and served slathered with mayonnaise, sour cream, butter, lime juice, and chile powder. Esquites is the same snack except the corn is cut off the cob into a cup.
Besides food, daily life is another area where it makes sense that distinct vocabulary has developed. Words for transportation vehicles and even family members are often different from country to country.
- Baby – For starters, the word for baby in most countries is bebé. In popular reggaeton songs you will hear the phrase nena which means baby girl and can be a nickname for your girlfriend. In Chile, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia and Argentina they say guagua in both cases. Just remember that guagua means something else in the Caribbean!
- Bus – Guagua is the public bus in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. In most countries you can call it the autobús or just bús for short. But when you need to get on the short bus in Chile (literally a short commuter bus), you need to ask for the micro.
- Car – Another transportation word that will leave your mind spinning: In Latin America you will hear auto from the full word automóvil. In Spain they drive a coche which is the Latin American word for a baby pram. In Central America you might hear carro for a vehicle while in Spain this refers to a grocery cart.
After food and daily life, the main time we see different Spanish words is of course in local slang. Let’s see some basic slang words to get an idea of the variety.
- Bad – Most countries say malo or use profanity to express when something is bad. Chileans use the word fome when something is boring or uncool.
- Cool – On the other hand, every country has their words for “cool”. It’s de p*ta madre in Spain, chévere in Venezuela, padre or chido in Mexico, paja in Spain, bacán in Chile, chulo in DR, brutal in Puerto Rico, and pura vida is the signature phrase in Costa Rica.
Most Spanish language learners know that slang is different from country to country, but most don’t realize that even food and words from daily life are not standard in the Spanish-speaking world.