5 Mexican Spanish Dialects and How to Tell Them Apart
Spanish is spoken in more than two dozen countries scattered across five continents. That should explain why it doesn’t sound the same everywhere. Heck it doesn’t sound the same even within the same country! These subtly different regional varieties of a language are referred to as dialects. And as language lovers, dialects fascinate us in more ways than one. In many cases, we non-native speakers find them even more intriguing than native-speakers. Now discussing every single dialect of Spanish would warrant way more than a book, let alone an article. This one is about the one that enjoys the most widespread currency, Mexican Spanish. To be precise, we’ll talk about the various Mexican Spanish dialects. That’s because there’s more than one, you see.
Major Mexican Spanish Dialects
Mexico is big. And by big, I mean both area-wise as well as headcount-wise. The thirteenth largest independent nation in the world has over 120 million inhabitants. Naturally, they can’t all speak alike. Not exactly alike anyway. Folks up north speak a dialect with interesting English influences, whereas those around the Gulf coast sound more like the Caribbean. Go further south and you find a hint of Guatemala in the voseo of the Chiapas. Indigenous influences range from Nahuatl in the North to Maya in the South and everything in between. All these influences make Mexico a fun cocktail of mutually intelligible yet audibly distinct dialects. All in all, the country boasts of no fewer than five distinct dialects and several sub-dialects:
- Baja Californian
Of course detailing every single one of the above at length is way beyond the scope of this article. Besides, these are just a very broad categorization of the actual continuum of dialects spoken in Mexico. The Norteño (Northern) dialect, for instance, further branches out into Norteño del este (North-Eastern) and Norteño del oeste (North-Western) dialects. And the two have more than a handful of mutually exclusive features. Similarly, the Central dialect you hear in Zacatecas isn’t exactly the same as what you hear in the capital. Speaking of capital, the dialect of Mexico City is often referred to as Defeño or Chilango. The terms also apply to people in or from the region, and are less than formal.
As you can guess, the lack of homogeneity is common to all Mexican Spanish dialects. And non-Mexican Spanish dialects as well. Don’t let this bother you because even American English doesn’t sound the same in Boston and Austin, does it? This fluidity underscores every natural language humans speak today.
They say Norteño is the nemesis of Chilango. That’s probably because the Chilango represents all that the Norteño doesn’t wanna become. Stereotypes include norteño and grupera genres of music, cowboy boots and an outrageous ranchero fashion statement, the trucks, and the morritas (cute northern girls).
1. Mexican Spanish Dialects: Northern
When Mexico was just taking shape, the North was almost completely deserted. Only the bravest and the stupidest ventured into these territories. That’s because most of those entering would never make out alive. Between the Tepehuanos and the Comanches and between the Yaquis and the Tarahumaras, there were enough Indians to devour the sturdiest of caravans coming this way. And even if one somehow managed to dodge them, there were the Apaches. And the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert did a good job further isolating this region. This isolation meant the North would end up being nothing like the rest of the country.
They say Norteño is the nemesis of Chilango. That’s probably because the Chilango represents all that the Norteño doesn’t wanna become. Stereotypes include norteño and grupera genres of music, cowboy boots and an outrageous ranchero fashion statement, the trucks, and the morritas (cute northern girls). The stereotypical Norteño also loves to strum away to his treasured Ramón Ayala collection. So if you want to be a true guitar maestro of the norteño music, what better than a tape of Ramón Ayala hits? Starting off with the easier Chaparra de mi Amor all the way to the ever-so-difficult Para Poder Llegar Ti? The region has a history and culture so rich that I could write an encyclopaedia to it. But that’s not what we’re gathered here for, are we. So let’s go back to talking dialect.
Many opine that the Norteño dialect sounds more aggressive and clipped than its southern counterparts. That being said, the speech also sounds more rhythmic and is characterized by its peculiar sing-song tone. Another defining feature is the decibel. This is why the accent is sometimes also said to be cantadito or golpeado. The Northerners seem to speak considerably louder than their southern compatriots. And they place a particular stress on their last syllables.
But the most well-known aspect of this dialect comes from the way they pronounce their /ch/ and /sh/. As we already heard before, the Norteño dialect isn’t a single homogenous monolith. It’s a continuum of Mexican Spanish dialects broadly classified as Norteño del este and Norteño del oeste. The Northeast (Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila) speaks differently from the Northwest (Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa). Northwest speakers, especially those from Chihuahua, cannot pronounce /ch/, so they replace that sound with /sh/. Thus, their ocho sounds like osho, muchacha like mushasha, and chocolate as shocolate. The exact opposite happens in the Northeast, especially in Sonora. There, sushi sounds like suchi.
The Yaqui Effect
The speech of the North has experienced heavy influences from the several indigenous tongues of the region, most notably the Yaqui Indian language. A lot of words used in this part of Mexico aren’t even Spanish! Here’s a sample expression from Hermosillo in Sonora, a Yaqui stronghold:
El buki bichi a papuchi dando tatahuila en el zoquete (The naked kid, mounted on someone’s shoulders, turning around in the mud)
Sounds anything but Spanish, no? That’s because none of the words in it is mainstream Spanish. With a couple of exceptions, of course. Other than Yaqui, English has a lot of clout in this dialect as well, for obvious reasons. Think words like watchear (to watch), parkear (to park), and truka (truck). Some say it’s cool, others find it ridiculous. The jury’s still out on this. Also, while wey or güey is quintessentially Mexican to most gringos, it’s almost foreign to the Northerners. The Norteño lexicon prefers alternatives like vato, compadre, or compa.
Another curious idiosyncrasy of the North is the practice of adding an article to names. Seriously! Imagine La María instead of María or El Diego instead of Diego. Funny, right? Folks in Durango and Sinaloa are particularly guilty of doing this and I have no idea why. The Northerners also have a slang lexicon of their own, obviously. For example, to get drunk is pistear in the North whereas emborracharse elsewhere. Similarly, to bathe is pasarse here, bañarse elsewhere. It can also be mamarse if you’re feeling extra vulgar.
Dialect in Action
Curious to see what the Spanish of Northern Mexico sounds like? There’s a whole bunch of multimedia out there illustrating this dialect. Given the region’s proximity to the United States, this dialect enjoys more than its fair share of representation in American media. A good movie to get exposure to this dialect in action is El Infierno. It’s a political satire on the Mexican Drug War. It was a runaway success and was nominated for the 25th Goya Awards for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.
There’s also tons of YouTube videos that illustrate this dialect with amusing accuracy. Habla como Norteño is one such example. It’s a good video comparing Norteño slang with that of the rest of Mexico. And although the dude in the video isn’t a native Norteño, I think he’s done a mighty good job. If you’d rather listen to a native, check out Norteños, a fun YouTube video exploring the mannerisms and speech of the typical Northerner. Skip the first one minute if you’re running short of time.
2. Mexican Spanish Dialects: Baja Californian
Some argue this one is a subset of the Norteño dialect rather than a standalone dialect in itself. Others consider it too different from Norteño for that. But that argument is subjective and frankly, inconsequential. What matters is that the way people sound in Baja California is different from the way they do elsewhere, even in the North. The Bajacaliforniano dialect (also sometimes referred to as the peninsular northern variant) is more heavily anglicized than any other in Mexico. And that is courtesy its proximity to the United States. I mean, Tijuana is a three-hour drive from San Diego, home to over 12 million English-speaking gringos! That’s got to have an impact, right?
The Baja Californian Lexicon
Like any self-respecting vernacular, Bajacaliforniano or the Baja Californian Spanish has a vocabulary of its own. There are words only a thoroughbred Baja guy could decode even in today’s world where the cultures seem more homogenous than ever before. Take naked, for example. It’s desnudo in regular Spanish. Should be easy to remember because there’s already a nude in desnudo. Word association, anyone? But should you strut your stuff in the birthday suit in Mexicali, you’d be bichi. That’s Baja Californian for desnudo. Mexicali, you see, is the capital of the Baja Californian accent. And if you find it cool, it’s guay to most Spanish speakers. But in most of Mexico, it’s chido or padre. And in Mexicali? Chilo. There’s more (regular Spanish alternatives in parentheses):
- Morro (joven): A young man
- Paro (por favor): An informal please
- Pistear (emborrachar): To get drunk
- Pirata (locado): Crazy
- Cura or curada (chistoso): Funny; both cura and curada are gender-neutral, i.e. end in -a in both feminine and masculine forms.
- Lángaro (codicioso): A cheap or greedy person
- Sobrerruedas (pulgas): Flea market; all flea markets are tianguis in Central Mexico. But in Baja California, only one in a fixed building is tianguis; the one on the street is sobrerruedas.
- ¡Arre! or ¡fierro!: Go ahead! Get it on!
- La refri (aire acondicionado): Air-conditioner; Careful with the gender here because the masculine el refri is slang for refrigerator in all Mexican Spanish dialects.
Other that these, a lot of English words have also creeped into the Spanish spoken here. Words like troca (truck) and baika (bike) are commonplace. Another interesting quirk of this accent is that when making diminutives, -illo/illa is often preferred to -ito/ita. Incidentally, a person from Mexicali is locally called cachanilla.
Sub-Dialect of Norteño?
Like I stated above, Many people consider Bajacaliforniano a subset of Norteño. After all Baja California is in the North. The only aspect that sets this dialect apart from its mainland cousins is vocabulary. As we saw in the last section, Baja California uses words nobody else in Mexico does. Other than that, it sounds pretty much like Norteño. The accent, the diction, the grammar — everything sounds Norteño. There might be pockets of slight variations depending on where you go, though. The region is, after all, home to no fewer than 45 indigenous tongues with Mixteco, Zapoteco, Nahuatl, Purépecha, and Triqui being the most spoken.
Baja is also home to a lot of migrants from other parts of the country who come with their own dialects and accents. Almost half of the region’s headcount is non-native. A significant part of this non-native demographics is made up of migrant labor from Oaxaca. The growers in Baja California Sur have been hiring Oaxacan labor since 1970 and La Paz is where this practice is most pronounced. That being said, the dialect still sounds very Norteño overall. Words like watchear and parkear are as at home in Mexicali as they are in Ciudad Juarez.
3. Mexican Spanish Dialects: Central
The Central Mexican dialect is actually a continuum of three Mexican Spanish dialects: Western, Lowlands, and the actual Central. Since the three share plenty of overlaps with each other, they can all safely be clubbed under a single parent dialect. These dialects, or sub-dialects if you will, cover a larger part of Mexico than any other. Also, there’s significant overlap with other dialects as well. For example, Puepla has the same cantadito intonation as the North.
Of these, the Western dialect covers the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Colima, and parts of Aguascalientes and Michoacán. Being the largest and most visited of all cities in the region, Guadalajara is naturally the epicentre of this dialect. The Tapatíos (residents of Guadalajara) are known for their sing-song accent. Many name this as their top favorite among all Mexican Spanish dialects. There’s quite a few words unique to the region as well. For instance, what’s necesito (necessary) to others is ocupo to a Tapatío.
The Bajío (Lowlands) region covers the states of Guanajuato and Michoacán, and parts of surrounding states like Querétaro and Jalisco. Bajo is Spanish for low, so that should explain the name. The states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Morelos, and Puebla, and parts of Querétaro comprise what’s called the Altiplano or Central region. This dialect region also includes the Chilango zone, officially named Mexico City or Distrito Federal. The Chilango accent attracts strong opinions akin to the accent of New York. A very striking feature of the Chilango accent is its signature drawl. You can liken it to the Texan drawl. Stressed vowels are drawn out significantly longer than the remainder of the words. No manches wey sounds like /no ‘maaaan-chis waaaaaay/! Let’s see a few defining features of this dialect here (do note, however, that not all features pertain to all of Central Mexico uniformly):
“I” Becomes “E”
This is a peculiar trend found only in these parts of Mexico. It involves the letter I. The rule is that if this vowel occurs in two consecutive syllables of which the first is unstressed, the first i becomes e. Confused? Take visitar, for example. How many syllables? Three: /bee-see-‘tahr/. Which of the three syllables is stressed? The last one, right? So we have two occurrences of i of which the first one is unstressed. Well, technically, both are. So a person from Central Mexico is likely to pronounce the word as /veh-see-‘tahr/.
To further illustrate this practice, consider principal, medicina, and escribir, which render as prencipal, medecina, and escrebir, respectively. Note that the spelling never changes; it’s just the pronunciation. The practice seems to have come from the Old Spanish and something similar also happens in the Aragon and Vizcaya provinces of North Spain.
A related development, more rural than urban, is that of switching bue- or vue- for güe- in word-initial positions. This is what gives us the quintessentially Mexican güey which further morphs into wey.
The Fall of “B”/”V”
Chilean Spanish features this practice too. And the practice involves dropping of word-initial bilabials. Those would be the letters b and v. The most well-known example of this curious practice is buey (bull) which turns into wey. Others that get the ax would be words like vuelo, bueno, vuelta, etc. Losing their initial bilabials, they render as welo, weno, and welta, respectively. Again, note that these changes reflect in pronunciation only and not spelling. When writing, people always go with the correct spelling.
A related development, more rural than urban, is that of switching bue- or vue- for güe- in word-initial positions. This is what gives us the quintessentially Mexican güey which further morphs into wey. The practice is not unique to Central Mexico, by the way. The lower socio-economic class of Spain also seems to have this tendency. As do some groups in Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Costa Rica.
When Latin was evolving into Castilian, word-initial f turned into h. This is how we wound up with words like ferro turning into hierro. The only exception to this trend were words opening with the fui- or fue- combinations. And that’s why we’re still left with words like fuego and fuiste. Unless you’re in Andalusia, Santander, Extremadura, and the Asturias. This practice began around the 16th century. That’s about the time Spanish first entered the New World. Since most early Hispanics to this region were from Andalusia, the practice of turning all instances of word-initial f into h crept in. Including the ones involving -ue- and -ui-. This is also seen in Puerto Rico. Thus, fuego becomes huego and fuerte becomes huerte.
Although this switch came from Spain, there’s an important difference. In Central Mexico, the h- in this case retains its aspiration, i.e. sounds like /h/. But in Spain, Andalusian regions to be precise, it becomes silent. Either way though, the spelling stays the same when written. Nobody writes fuerza as huerza. I wouldn’t recommend adopting this practice, however, because it’s associated with rural or uneducated speech. Just be aware of the tendency so can understand when you hear it spoken.
Fall of the Initial “D”
A lot of Mexicans from this region have a tendency to drop their word-initial d. In most words if not all. This could be due to the characteristically weak nature of the consonant making it easier to fall. Again, the practice has its genesis in Southern Spain, around Andalusia and Aragon where it’s still prevalent. On this side of the Atlantic, you can hear this practice in parts of Colombia, Venezuela, and even Puerto Rico. Other than Central Mexico, that is. Thus, donde sounds like onde, destruir like estruir, and despacho like espacho. As you may easily guess, the change doesn’t reflect in the spelling. It’s solely about pronunciation.
Like I said, the fall can also be heard in parts of Latin America. But the degree may vary slightly. For example, dice que (he says) often sounds like /’es-kay/ in Bogota and even like /’ih-kay/ in Venezuela. Interestingly, some Asturians go the other way around as if to hyper-compensate. That is, they seem to add an additional d- where none ought to be. This means funny results such as iba sounding like /’dee-bah/ and ir sounding like /deer/.
The Tapatío Vocabulary
I know Central Mexico is more than just Guanatos (Guadalajara as locally known). But given the city’s size and significance, you can be fairly certain that the words heard here are to an extent representative of the Central Mexican Spanish dialects to a good extent. Of course, listing out every possible slang and colloquialism is way beyond my means and scope. The words you hear in Jalisco, Guadalajara in particular, are folkloric, pleasant, and quite unique to the region. Let’s explore some of them here (regular Spanish in parentheses):
- Calar (probar): To taste, to test
- Chesco (refresco): Soft drink
- Casco: Soft drink container
- Chile (salsa): Sause
- Carrilla (burla): Taunt
- Cagua (cerveza grande): One-liter beer bottle
- Asquil (hormiga): Ant
- Bien mucho (demasiado): Too much
- Edá (verdad): Truth
- Chucho (perro): Dog
- Fajo (cinturón): Belt
- Ey (sí, de acuerdo): Yes, I agree
- Ocupar (necesitar): To be necessary
- Mijo (cuate, amigo): Buddy
- Melolengo (tonto): Idiot
- Enchiloso (picante): Spicy
- Chuchulucos (dulces): Sweet things
- Chispear (llover): To rain
- Echar lío (coquetear, hablar): To flirt, to chat
Now, like I said before, Central Mexico is way more than just Jalisco. It’s also Mexico City, which has a lexicon of its own. But instead of listing out the Chilango vocabulary for you, I’d rather urge you to discover it for yourself. That way, it’ll be more engaging and fun to learn. Whatsay? Of all Mexican Spanish dialects, this one enjoys the strongest currency. Hence, if you’re wondering which dialect to pick, go for this one. Of course, your choice would also have to depend on a lot of other factors as well.
4. Mexican Spanish Dialects: Coastal
This accent features in the speech of states along the coast, such as Veracruz and Tabasco. The Pacific coast also exhibits this dialect, especially the coastal regions of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The Spanish name for this dialect is Costeño. Of all Mexican Spanish dialects, this one resembles what you’d hear in the Caribbean or Puerto Rico the most. By extension, that also means a lot of similarity with the Spanish spoken in Andalusia and the Canaries across the Pond. I would attribute this to the obvious: Proximity to the ocean.
Try listening to Salma Hayek in Spanish. She’s from Veracruz and her speech should give you a good idea of what the Costeño accent sounds like. Like I said, it sounds closer to the Caribbean than any other Mexican Spanish dialect. Some might confuse a Veracruz resident with a Cuban, for example. One such similarity is in what they do with the word-final and inter-vocalic d. They don’t pronounce it. Thus hablado sounds like hablao and verdad sounds like verdá. Word-final -s also meets the same fate. It’s ignored. And that’s why, for instance, pues sounds like pueh. Also, like the Caribbean dialects, unstressed vowels are blurred or altogether elided in these regions as well. The dialect is also marked by a softer volume and higher rate of speech. At least as compared to the North.
The first Spanish speaker to set foot in Veracruz was Hernan Cortes who came from Cuba in 1519. That could explain the strong Cuban feel about the city in not only its accent but also everything else. Be it the extra-sweetened coffee or the penchant for hand-rolled cigars. Veracruz is Mexico’s Havana. While the rest of Mexico is primarily Indian, Veracruz is primarily African. This reflects in the traditions as well as cuisine of the region. Regional musical styles such as jaracho, mamba, macumba have the quintessential Afro-Caribbean sway about them. Why don’t you try exploring the idiosyncrasies of the Jarocho (a person from Veracruz) accent for yourself?
5. Mexican Spanish Dialects: Southern
Most of Oaxaca and Guerrero, and parts of Puebla speak what’s categorized as the Southern Mexican accent or Sureño. But like most things language, Sureño isn’t a single homogenous dialect. It’s a continuum of similar-sounding sub-dialects spoken around the Southern parts of the country. The group includes two major sub-dialects: Yucateco spoken in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapaneco spoken in the Chiapas. There are pockets where Sureño exhibits some overlap with the Altiplano dialects but Yucateco and Chiapaneco remain the most defining Mexican Spanish dialects of the South. Given the regions ethnic heritage, the Spanish spoken in these parts have a strong Mayan influence in vocabulary and diction. In fact, of all Mexican Spanish dialects, Sureño is the only one to have any Mayan influence.
The most striking feature of the Yucateco accent is the lack of /g/. Spanish has this sound, Mayan tongues don’t. So words like agua sound like awa in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Needless to say, this is the dialect of the Yucatan Peninsula. Compared to other Mexican Spanish dialects, this one seems to be the least rapid-fire. Especially pitted against the Norteños, the Yucatan rate of speech sounds super-tame. Yucatan Peninsula is a Mayan stronghold and the influence is readily apparent in the Spanish spoken here. Check out this video to get a hang of what this accent sounds like. Now although we cannot possibly explore every single aspect of a dialect this rich and complex, let’s check out the ones that stand out.
The most striking feature of the Yucateco accent is the lack of /g/. Spanish has this sound, Mayan tongues don’t. So words like agua sound like awa in the Yucatan Peninsula. Do note that this only happens when the /g/ in question comes before a /w/ sound. Thus, ganar is still ganar and agosto is still agosto. Another Mayan relic is in the pronunciation of the letter ñ. Since Mayan doesn’t have this sound, they simply switch to n. That’s why a Yucateco says pequeno when others say pequeño. Also, the final -n changes into -m in the Yucatan. For instance, pan (bread) sounds more like pam and sin (without) like sim. There’s many more pronunciation quirks that I’m intentionally leaving out as discussing everything would take forever.
One very interesting lexical peculiarity of this region is the verb buscar. The word means to search in standard Spanish. But here, it means both to search and to find. So an expression like the following is perfectly understandable here, even if it isn’t elsewhere:
Busco el lapiz que perdi, pero no lo busco (I’m looking for the pencil that I lost but I don’t find it).
Another feature involves hace (in the sense of ago) becoming ha which used to be valid Spanish centuries ago. The following might sound poetic and quaint to an outsider but perfectly commonplace to a Yucateco:
¿Cuánto ha que llegó? (How long ago did he arrive?)
Ha is not the only archaism the Yucateco Spanish features. Up until the sixteenth century, tener and estar were commonly used as auxiliary verbs. That’s akin to how we use haber today. Thus, the following sentences were perfectly normal back in the day:
Tengo trabajo mucho (I have worked a lot).
Está ido a cortar leña (He has gone to cut firewood).
To a modern Spanish ear, though, the above constructs would make zero sense since they prefer haber in such cases and not tener or estar. But guess what, the Yucatecos still talk like that! They are also known to use pasar a + infinitive where others use estar a punto de + infinitive. Thus, me pasé a caer is the Yucatan equivalent of estuve a punto de caer. This one isn’t archaism but rather a Mayan influence.
Thanks to the rich Mayan heritage in the region, this dialect boasts of a reasonably rich lexicon of words unique to it. Most words have directly been lifted from the Mayan languages and enjoy better currency than their standard Spanish counterparts. Check out some of them here (and as always, standard Spanish in parentheses):
- Charros (tirabuzón): Corkscrew
- Menudo (monedas sueltas): Change (of money)
- Vereda (raya del pelo): Parting in hair
- Costurar (coser): To sew
- Tirahule (tirador): Slingshot
- Papagayo (cometa): Kite
Needless to say, this doesn’t amount to even scratching the surface. Look here for more Yucatan vocabulary. The Spanish spoken here is so heavily laced with Mayan words that to the uninitiated it sometimes might sound like a different language altogether. Similar to Spanish but not exactly. But don’t sweat it too much unless you’re planning to really settle down in the boonies of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Chiapas is more Guatemala than Mexico. Many say it’s to Mexico what Texas and New Mexico are to the US. Annexed territory. But let’s not get political. All I’m illustrating here is that the Spanish spoken in the Chiapas sounds more Guatemalan than Mexican. The same goes for culture, cuisine, and lifestyle. And that’s because Chiapas shares a very porous border and a lot of history with the country in question. The Mayan influence remains as strong here as it is in the Yucatan Peninsula. That’s understandable since the Mayans form the strongest indigenous community in the region.
The most notable feature of the Chiapaneco dialect is the prevalence of voseo. This is the only part of Mexico where vos is used in the second person singular instead of tú. None of the other Mexican Spanish dialects practice this usage. This is a direct influence of Guatemala on the speech of the Chiapas. Other than that, there’s little of significance worth discussing on an already-burgeoning blog post. Being the same Mayan territory as the Yucatan, the speech doesn’t sound all that different in the two regions. Except for some regional vocabulary, of course.
As you can tell, I haven’t even come close to doing justice to the idiosyncrasies of all Mexican Spanish dialects. That would be impossible. But the amount of stuff in here should give you a grounding on the subject firm enough to begin your own journey. Dialects are best absorbed under direct exposure. No amount of reading blogs and watching online videos can prepare you for the real-deal. So my strong suggestion would be to go out and explore for yourself. Make friends from the region of interest and talk! There simply isn’t a better way to learn a dialect and pick an accent. And be sure to share your discoveries and learning with the rest of us in a comment below. Because commenting is good karma, you see.