Mexican Spanish: 13 Ways It Sounds Different from Any Other
More than a hundred million people speak Mexican Spanish making it the single largest dialect of Spanish in currency today. In fact, there are more Spanish speakers in Mexico than there are in Spain! The language was introduced to the country almost 500 years ago. That’s enough time for a distinct dialect to take shape. And sure enough it did. The Spanish spoken in Mexico today is almost as different from its European ancestor as American English is from British. The land of the great Kukulkan has added copious amount of Nahuatl and other regional words to its Spanish. The differences, however, stretch beyond mere vocabulary. There are, although minor, grammatical differences too. And also that of pronunciation.
Of course, given the sheer geographical expanse of the country, Mexican Spanish is far from a monolith. No fewer than ten distinct sub-dialects exist today. And when they say Mexican Spanish, they essentially mean Central Mexican Spanish. That’s the way people from the capital Mexico City talk. This is the educated speech and the one you hear in classrooms and on TV. Of course, what you hear on TV isn’t always what you hear in the streets but that’s for another day. There’s enough vernacular to fill out books after books. But we are merely here to get a glimpse of the most striking features of this dialect.
How Mexican Spanish Sounds
The folks who first landed on the shores of Mexico from Spain came from a region in the south of the country called Andalusia. Now Andalusia has a peculiar way of pronouncing words heavily influenced by the centuries-long Moorish rule. The Moors spoke Arabic which explains the abundance of Arabic-origin words in Spanish. But guess what, the Moors are long gone now. Which means much of their effect on Andalusian Spanish has diminished as well. At least in terms of vocabulary. This couldn’t happen in the New World though and you have the mighty Atlantic to blame.
Mexico still managed to retain much of its Andalusian roots, both lexically and phonetically, whereas Spain shed most of it after driving out the Moors. Mexican Spanish sounds pretty Andalusian even today and the most popular example is seseo. Seseo is a feature common to every variety of Spanish spoken in the New World, from the Caribbean to Colombia and from Argentina to Puerto Rico. So let’s explore Mexican Spanish phonetics a little deeper.
1. Consonants Unique to Mexican Spanish
Spanish rarely clusters its consonants together without any vowel to separate them. Not within the same syllable anyway. And some combinations almost never exist. Two such combinations are tz and tl. But Mexican Spanish enjoys a sizeable Nahuatl influence. Now Nahuatl is one of the several indigenous tongues spoken in Mexico other than Spanish. One of over 50, to be realistic! Mexicans were speaking these languages long before Spanish hit them. And they continue to do so even today. When two linguistic legacies this rich confront each other, a whole lot of intermixing is inevitable. If you didn’t notice, Nahuatl has the tl combination in its very name. That should tell you something about the ubiquity of this sound in the language.
Mexican Spanish has internalized scores of words from Nahuatl (mostly place names) and most of them have either tl or tz in them. Some even have both. In fact, these awkward consonant combinations are the defining feature of Nahuatl and, by extension, Mexican Spanish. Words like coatzacoalquense (from Coatzacoalcos, a major port city in Veracruz) and tlapalería (hardware store) are abundant. Don’t panic if you hear the term digraph anywhere in this context. That’s just a linguistic term for such awkward-sounding vowel-devoid consonant clusters. So far as pronouncing them goes, tl and tz shouldn’t take too much practice to get comfy with. In tl, the t is actually sounded in the back of your tongue against the back of your palate. In tz, the sound is more like /ts/. Easy?
2. The /sh/ Sound Unique to Mexican Spanish
The Spanish letter x is a funny one. That’s because depending on where you are, the letter can be pronounced in one of the three different ways. The most original way is to pronounce it as /ks/. And that’s because almost all Spanish words using x come from Greek or Latin and in those two languages, x is pronounced /ks/. But that’s not how things are n Mexico because remember, the country speaks a lot of indigenous tongues. One of the native peoples in the region are the Mayans. And we’ve already spoken about Nahuatl, the lingo of the Aztecs. Mexican Spanish has borrowed many words from these two languages, most of them being place names.
Until the sixteenth century, Spanish represented the /sh/ sound with the letter x. This sound is not native to Spanish but abundant in Nahuatl and other indigenous tongues of the New World. Hence, x became the random placeholder. So we have place names like Xola (a Mexico City Metro station) pronounced as /show-lah/. Another place is Xalapa which is sometimes (although rarely these days) pronounced as /sha-‘lah-pah/. Even Mexico was pronounced /’meh-shee-koh/ at some point in the past. But like I said, x stopped representing /sh/ after a while. And that added to the confusion. Most place names went from /sh/ to /x/ (like the ch in lock). Mexico is now /’meh-hee-koh/ or /’meh-xee-koh/, not /’meh-shee-koh/. Xalapa is now /ha-‘lah-pah/ or /xa-‘lah-pah/, and not /sha-‘lah-pah/. Others like Xola continue with the /sh/ pronunciation. There’s even a Xochimilco that goes with /s/!
3. A Little More On /sh/
Notice that /ch/ sound in words like chulo (cool) and chancla (flip-flop)? Just a regular consonant that seems to have nothing to do with the dialect of Spanish you’re speaking. Right? Well, welcome to Mexico. And also welcome to Andalusia. Southwest Andalusia, I mean. Andalusia is in Spain, just so you know. The dialect of Spanish they speak in south-western Andalusia seem to pronounce their /ch/ as /sh/ for some reason. This could have something to do with the fact the Arabic doesn’t have the /ch/ sound in its alphabet. If you ever run into a one-off Arabic word with this sound, it’s most likely a Persian import.
Remember the Moors? They ruled Spain for quite a while and they spoke Arabic. And Andalusian cities like Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Málaga, and Seville were their primary strongholds. The further south you go, the stronger the influence of Arabic on the local dialect. Take lucha (fight) for instance. Arabic doesn’t have the /ch/ sound but the word does. So the Moors improvised and replaced it with a /sh/ sound. Thus, /lu-chah/ became /lu-shah/. Several generations down the line, the practice still prevails. And since some of the earliest Hispanics to settle in the New World were from Andalusia, the practice exists in parts of Mexico as well.
But Andalusian Spanish isn’t the only contributor to this distortion in Mexican Spanish. Don’t forget, the dialect experienced a heavy indigenous influence as well. The Mayans have the same issue of not having the /ch/ sound in their alphabet. So that was like a double-whammy in Mexican Spanish. Both Andalusian influence as well as Mayan meant that in the northwest and in areas like Oaxaca, and in some eastern states, words like leche (milk) sound like leshe.
4. Jalapa or Xalapa?
Some time in the 16th century for reasons unknown to me, someone decided to drop x and replace it with j for the /sh/ phoneme. This made things confusing as well as interesting. Because now, /‘meh-shee-koh/ became /‘meh-xee-koh/ or /‘meh-hee-koh/, depending on where you are. Remember, Spanish j is pronounced like the ch, represented as /x/, in Scottish loch? And it’s also pronounced as English h in Andalusia, most of Extremadura, and the Canaries. So the parts of the New World that experienced immigration from these regions in Spain adopted the /h/ sound whereas the rest went with the /x/ sound. That means most of southern and coastal Mexico, along with the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, follow the /h/ pronunciation. The rest of the country goes with /x/.
This brings us to Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz, a state in southwest Mexico. Originally a Nahuatl name, the classical pronunciation is /sha-‘lah-pah/. But since /sh/ doesn’t exist in Spanish, x came to represent the sound in Old Spanish. Later, x was replaced with j. And that’s why we see both Xalapa and Jalapa today. Xalapa is, strictly speaking, slightly more archaic. That said, both variants carry the same pronunciation and although most locals say /xa-‘lah-pah/, /ha-‘lah-pah/ enjoys an almost equally widespread usage. Here’s an interesting discussion thread on the Jalapa vs. Xalapa dilemma.
Having said that, if a word opens with y or ll, most Mexicans tend to go with the sound of j as in jar. Thus, while vaya is /bah-yah/, llama is /jah-mah/.
5. Mexican Spanish and Yeísmo
Now what the heck is yeísmo? Sounds like an –ism, like feminism, no? Yes, it is an –ism, a practice. The practice of pronouncing all instances of ll and y as /y/. If you just went, “duh,” trust me you’re not alone. Most classrooms and books throughout the world teach this exact pronunciation for both letters. But that’s not how Spanish is spoken everywhere. Many parts of the Spanish-speaking world sound ll and y differently. Some sound them alike but the pronunciation is something other than /y/.
In most of Uruguay and Argentina, both letters sound like the s in measure. Linguists call this zheísmo. In other parts, such as Buenos Aires, younger speakers even tend to pronounce them as /sh/! But I digress. Coming back to Mexican Spanish, the sound of choice is that of y in yellow. This is the prevailing practice in Most of Latin America, mainly in the lowlands, and parts of central Spain. This can result in quite some confusion for the uninitiated. If you’re new to Mexican Spanish (or Spanish in general), you might have trouble telling cayó (he/she fell) from calló (he/she became silent). Linguists call them minimal pairs. Another example of minimal pairs caused by yeísmo is halla (he/she finds) vs. haya (that there be). Want more? Try olla (pot) vs. hoya (hole, pit).
Having said that, if a word opens with y or ll, most Mexicans tend to go with the sound of j as in jar. Thus, while vaya is /bah-yah/, llama is /jah-mah/. Not like you’ll be crucified for getting your /y/ and /j/ mixed up, though, so don’t sweat it too much. Just take this as a fun trivia on Mexican Spanish and let your ears train your speech.
6. Drop the Bass, Not the “S”
Mexican Spanish doesn’t drop nothing. Not consonants at least. And definitely not s. In most Andalusian-influenced dialects of Spanish, the kind spoken in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, etc., they eat up this letter if it happens to end a word or syllable. That’s why you hear /doh ‘rah-toh/ when they say dos ratos. In fact, this elision is one of the defining features of these dialects. Some people aspirate it, i.e. render the syllable-final s as h, others omit it altogether. Either way, s goes. The same is also the case in southern Spain, i.e. Andalusia. In fact, that’s where the practice originates.
But that’s not how Mexican Spanish rolls. People in Mexico pronounce the letter everywhere it occurs, as do most other native Spanish speakers around the world. I mean people in the interiors of Mexico. The coastal regions, both Pacific as well as Gulf, still exhibit a stronger Canarian and Andalusian influence, just like their Caribbean neighbors. That’s why the Spanish you hear along the coast tends to weaken its consonant, especially syllable-final s. But people in, say, Mexico City tend to preserve their consonants. This is one of the easier ways to tell a costeño (a person from the coastal region) from a Defeño (a person from Mexico City, i.e. Distrito Federal).
7. Lose That Vowel Please
Mexican Spanish retains its s. But it also drops stuff. Stuff like vowels. This practice particularly defines the Spanish spoken in the central parts of the country. That includes the states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, México, and Morelos, and also the capital Mexico City. Some reduce their vowels, others omit it completely. But do note that this happens only to vowels that are unstressed. Identifying them is easy if you have even a rudimentary understanding of phonetics. For instance, take the word abandon. You pronounce the word as /uh-‘ban-dunn/; with three syllables. Notice how you place a slightly higher stress on the /ban/ part than the other two syllables? That’s what I’m talking about here. You can say that the second syllable (or the second vowel) in abandon is stressed while the first and the third are unstressed.
Back to Mexican Spanish, native speakers often tend to skip their unstressed vowels. And this phenomena primarily affects vowels that follow, and are followed by, an /s/ sound. So the idea is to eat up the unstressed vowel if it occurs in an s + <vowel> + s formation. The practice also affects, albeit to a lesser extent, situations where the vowel comes after /t/, /p/, /k/, or /d/. Thus, we have words like pesos, peces, and pesas, all sounding the same as /’pay-suhs/. Trastos (cooking utensils) is pronounced /’trahs-ts/ and pastos is /’pahs-ts/.
8. There’s No Vos Here
What we’re talking about here is the second person pronoun. Unlike English, Spanish distinguishes between a formal second person and an informal second person. English did that too, back in the day. That’s why if you read an ancient text, such as the Holy Bible, you’ll find words like thou, thee, and thy. Back then, thou was the second person singular in an informal context and you was its formal counterpart. But the practice was eventually dropped and we were left with you in all situations.
In Spanish, tú is the second person singular pronoun in informal settings. Usted is its formal counterpart. In plural, the pronouns become vosotros in informal settings and Ustedes in formal. That’s the way Spanish originally intended to be and still is in Spain. This practice of using tú is called tuteante. In Argentina and around, though, the tú is replaced by vos. This is called voseante. Mexican Spanish deviates from both formats in that it uses tú instead of vos in the second person singular and uses Ustedes for both formal as well as informal second person plurals. So no vos and no vosotros in Mexican Spanish.
9. The Cutesy Diminutives
Most of us are already familiar with Spanish-speakers’ obsession with diminutives. Diminutives are those tiny little three-letter suffixes, most notably –ito/-ita, that render a noun smaller cuter. Thus, we have casa (house) and then we have a casita ( a small house). Similarly, there’s bebe (baby) and bebita (a small/cute baby). There’s tons of examples because you could slap the prefix to literally anything and make it sound more adorable than it is. Anything.
Now people in Central Mexico, they take it to another extreme altogether. They literally talk in diminutives. They go trigger-happy with these suffixes even when no semantic diminution is implied. If the word ends in a vowel, it’s –ito/-ita, e.g. cajita, amiguito, chiquita, etc. And if it ends in –n, it’s –cito/-cita, e.g., jovencito. Like I said, diminutives in Mexican Spanish aren’t always about the physical size. More often than not, it’s about lending the thought a positive, affectionate attribute. For example, un casita grande is a lovely big home.
And diminutives can be added to not only nouns but also adverbs and adjectives! In Mexican Spanish, I mean. When slapped to an adjective, the meaning is more like nice and + <adjective>. Thus, a colchón blando is a soft blanket but a colchón blandito is a nice and soft blanket. Blando is more like too soft compared to blandito. In the northern parts of the country, the –ito is often replaced by –illo, e.g., cabecilla, Juanillo, etc. But beware of overkill. Too much diminutive in your Spanish and they’ll see you as uneducated or uncouth.
Mexicans also use –uco/-uca and –ucho/-ucha a lot. These have a derogatory connotation, so handle them with care. Adding either of these suffixes to a noun lends it a disparaging tone.
11. And the Augmentatives
These are the exact opposite of diminutives. Diminutives make things cuter or smaller. Augmentatives, make them bigger, longer, stronger, or heavier. And Mexicans love to overdo them. One such augmentative is the suffix, –ote. There’s also a variant, –zote. Both are gender-agnostic. So, camión (bus) gives us camionzote (big bus). There’s also –ón, doing the same job. Thus, nariz (nose) gives us narizón (big nose) and pata (foot) gives us patona (a female with large feet). There’s also –azo/-aza which do the same job as –ote or –ón. but emotionally rather than physically. What this means is that it makes everything sound more impressive or prominent, e.g., carrazo (impressive car).
Mexicans also use –uco/-uca and –ucho/-ucha a lot. These have a derogatory connotation, so handle them with care. Adding either of these suffixes to a noun lends it a disparaging tone. For instance, take casa (house). With –ita, it is casita (a lovely house). But with –ucha, it becomes casucha (a hovel). Similarly, madera is wood, but maderuca is rotten wood. Again, don’t overdo these suffixes; it’ll make you sound uneducated in Mexico.
12. Negatives Without “No”!
This one, again, isn’t something I’d recommend doing because the practice is largely associated with pedestrian speech. But the practice is mighty quirky nonetheless and confined to Mexican Spanish. We all know Spanish for its love of double negatives. But Mexicans, being different as they are, sometimes convey the negative without using any negative! Of course, only certain constructs allow for this adventure, it’s interesting nevertheless. Take the following sentence, for example:
Until I took the pill, I did not fall asleep.
There’s two clauses separated by a comma in the above sentence. Translating them into Spanish is dead-easy if you try one clause at a time:
Hasta que me tomé la pastilla, no me dormí.
The above translation shows that until is hasta que in Spanish. This is key here. The rule of Mexican Spanish is that whenever a sentence comes in the until this, not that format, i.e. one clause opens with hasta que (until) and the other is in negative, the latter loses its no:
Hasta que me tomé la pastilla, me dormí.
Since the literal translation (until I took the pill, I fell asleep) makes no sense whatsoever, the negative is automatically implied by the context.
13. Por over Durante
Por vs. para is a major bottleneck for most rookie Spanish learners. Both translate into for but imply very different things. While por implies more of an exchange or passage, para is more like for the sake of or destination. That’s why when you work for your boss, it’s para; but when you work in behalf of your sick friend, it’s por. One situations where you don’t use por, though, is when speaking of time-spans. English uses for and during interchangeably in those situations. You could be working for the last 20 years or you could be working during the last 20 years. Spanish prefers durante in such situations. Durante should be easy to remember and recall given its etymological similarity with during.
Fui gerente durante cinco años (I was the manager for five years).
Mexicans, however, tend to use por in these situations:
Fui gerente durante cinco años.
I strongly suspect the influence of English from Mexico’s northern neighbor might have something to do with this. Por somehow seems more convenient than durante if your speech is heavily affected by English.
Needless to say, Mexican Spanish is far from a monolith. Mexico is a big country and as expected, has a range of dialects from one part to another. In fact, ten distinct sub-dialects of Spanish exist in the country as of today. The thirteen features discussed above are the ones most ubiquitous across all dialects and define Mexican Spanish in contrast with its non-Mexican counterparts. Of course, there’s a whole range of other features I might not have covered. And that’s where you come in. Can think of any fun feature I left out? Please share your thoughts and we could do another article discussing them! Someday I also plan on doing an article on the various sub-dialects of Mexican Spanish. That should be a fun exercise, whatsay?
And then there’s the lexical quirks that I haven’t even touched upon this time. Vocabulary is always a stronger indicator of a dialect than grammar or pronunciation. And there’s way more words unique to Mexican Spanish than a single post could ever dream of covering. Maybe one day. So stay tuned and have fun learning!