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History of the Spanish language in Latin America

The Spanish language arrived in America first through Cristóbal Colón's exploratory travels, and then with the rest of colonizers, at the end of the fifteenth century. At this point the Spanish language was already firmly consolidated in the Iberian peninsula. In the "new world", however, Spanish had yet to be established, and this was done through a process labelled by historians as "hispanización". During this period, the southern part of the American continent was a conglomerate of hundreds of different languages and dialects. Moreover, the cultures that the settlers encountered were radically different from the Spanish one.

Communication, therefore, was really a challenge in the first stages, and it was done first through gestures and later on through captive natives who acted as interpreters. The Catholic Church played a fundamental role in the expansion of the Spanish language throughout Latin America. Thus, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries established schools where they educated and converted into Catholicism most children and teenagers. Of course, this was all done in Spanish, and thus this language started to penetrate little by little in the daily lives of the different indigenous groups.

The evangelization was accompanied by the slow but firm administrative imposition of the Spanish language, which relegated the Amerindian languages to an unprivileged position. This was the inevitable consequence of the cultural and ethnic cleansing imposed by the Spanish Empire to its colonies. However, there was a two-way flow of cultural and linguistic influence between the colonizers and the colonized. This happened because, in spite of their dominant position, the natives of Spain always constituted a very small minority in the American continent.

Thus, there was a constant contact among languages and a progressive mixing among the different populations. This allowed the incorporation of aspects belonging to the pre-Columbian cultures into what would later become American Spanish. African languages, brought by those who were taken to America as slaves, also contributed to the formation of this rich mosaic.

Just listening to the intonation of the different South American Spanish dialects we can see that they are closer to the various native languages than to peninsular Spanish. In terms of vocabulary, two of the most influential languages were the Mexican náhuatl (spoken by the Aztecs) or the Peruvian quechua (spoken by the Incas). These two languages were accepted and spoken by a significant part of the population, and therefore they were used for commerce purposes, even after the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. Examples of words that have been incorporated into American Spanish from these languages are "papa" (potatoe), "cuate" (friend), or "chamaco" (boy). On the other hand, the characteristics of the Spanish explorers were also heterogeneous, since they came from all over Spain. However, their meeting point before starting their long journey was Seville, in Andalucía, the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

Since they stayed a long time while preparing their adventure, they ended up adopting some of the characteristics of the Andalusian dialect. Then they took them to the "new world". This is why American Spanish shares most of the Spanish pronunciation characteristics with Andalusian Spanish. The most significant one is the phenomenon known as "seseo", which indicates the fact that the sound "c" (pronounced "th") is transformed into the sound "s". All these factors have made American Spanish the rich and multicultural linguistic variety that it is today.


By: Mike McDougall

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