"El inglés es ideal para hablar de negocios, el alemán se hizo para las ciencias, el francés es la lengua del amor y el español... Ah, el español, es el idioma para hablar con Dios…" *
Spanish is an Ibero-Romance language, and the second most natively spoken language in the entire world (after Mandarin Chinese) due to the enormous expanse of the Spanish Empire in its heyday. It's the national or official language of 21 countries, as well as one of the official languages of the UN and 13 other international organizations. Even in the United States alone there are over 50 million Spanish-speakers, which is more than the entire population of most Spanish-speaking countries, Spain itself included. In short, this is a big language. It's the most widely spoken language in the Western Hemisphere. See Spanish Literature
Naturally, with all these people speaking it, considerable differences can arise between the various dialects; more on that later.
Nouns ain't too complicated in Spanish. Unlike its predecessor Latin, which had a casserole of case endings depending on the noun was used in a sentence, Spanish has nothing in that regard. Pan
(bread) will stay pan
no matter where or how it's used.
One thing that does
present occasional problems (for English speakers primarily) is the gender. It's mostly an arbitrary attribute of the noun (el coche
, "car," masculine; la mesa
, "table," feminine), though when it comes to things that have actual gender they cling to that; you don't have that ridiculous business like in German
where the word for "girl" is neuter. Spanish actually doesn't have a neuter gender at all; everything is either masculine or feminine.
Gender is quite a bit more intuitive than in many languages as well; in most cases, a noun's gender is clear from its ending; -o/-an
is almost always masculine, whereas -a/-ción/-idad
is almost always feminine...not to say that there aren't exceptions, like "mano" ("hand") which ends in ''-o" but it's a femenine word. Masculine nouns are more common than feminine ones, so if you're really lost guess masculine. On the same note, for nouns in plural that refer to groups that have both masculine AND feminine elements, we always use the masculine. For example, the Spanish word for "cat" would be "gato" for a male cat and "gata" for a female cat. However, if we want to refer to a group that includes cats of both genders, we use "gatos".
Of course, like any other language with gender, Spanish has its own headache-inducing part of it, and that would be the fact that some feminine
nouns take the masculine
singular article, while still being feminine grammatically (e.g., declension of adjectives), mostly for "flow" reasons. This occurs exclusively with feminine nouns that have a stressed a
sound at the beginning. Thus, though still grammatically feminine, águila
(eagle) takes the masculine article as el águila
. With plurals, however, they do take the feminine ones, and thus las águilas
, as the flow is not interrupted in this case with the feminine article.
Finally, a few words actually have different meanings depending
on the gender assigned to them. For example, el capital
means capital as in money, but la capital
means capital as in a capital city.
Pronouns in Spanish are used in a very similar fashion to English; however, they are often omitted unless the sentence requires additional emphasis. This is done because the verb tense already says who is the one talking and the pronoun doesn't convey any further information. Addition of unnecessary pronouns easily gives away that the writer has not gone past a few years of Spanish. For example: the sentence Hoy yo como en casa de mi madre
(I eat today at my mother's house) doesn't seem too fluent because of the first person pronoun yo
. The only commonly used subject pronouns are the third person ones, due to the ambiguity lacking a pronoun can sometimes cause, and yo
in tenses where the first-person-singular and third-person-singular are identical (i.e., imperfect, conditional, and all subjunctive tenses). However, these are also often omitted if it's clear who the speaker is talking about.
A quick note on tú
(the singular 2nd person pronouns): it really depends on where you are what pronoun you use in most situations. In Spain, for instance, usted
is used mostly in formal speech (people who you don't know and/or are much older than you), while with anyone you already know or someone you meet and want to continue to meet in the future, you use tú,
unless it's official business. In many Latin American countries, however, tú
is seen as somewhat disrespectful by people who aren't your peers. Note also that in several Latin American countries around the Rio de la Plata, vos
is used instead of tú.
Argentina is the most popular example of this.
(the plural 2nd person pronouns) meanwhile, vosotros
is used ONLY in Spain, and following the same rule of thumb as with tú
(as in vosotros
in casual speech and ustedes
in formal speech). If you use it in Latin America, at best it will sound like saying "Tally-ho, Guvnah" in the US and at worst they won't know what you're talking about. You can get away with it as a nonnative speaker, but try to stick to ustedes
even if you're in full-blown ceceo
mode (more on that later as well). Also in Spain itself people will always understand you (although it may sound a little weird to them if you manage to make friends with them) so it's a safe bet.
Of course, like any other language, Spanish has its area that makes nonnatives (and sometimes even natives) want to give themselves a lobotomy. In Spanish, like many other Romance languages, that would be verb conjugations.
The three possible verb endings are -ar
, and -ir.
Each has its own conjugation patterns (now with 40% more irregulars!) for each tense, of which there are seventeen.
Let's have a look at the conjugation tablets for three regular verbs of each type—hablar (to speak), comer (to eat)
and vivir (to live)
—in present tense, indicative mood:
- yo: hablo, como, vivo
- tú: hablas, comes, vives / usted: habla, come, vivenote
- él/ella: habla, come, vive
- nosotros/as: hablamos, comemos, vivimos
- vosotros/as: habláis, coméis, vivís / ustedes: hablan, comen, viven
- ellos/ellas: hablan, comen, viven
Having fun yet? And that's just one tense out of seventeen
, which are divided in three categories: Indicative (indicativo
, which has ten tensese), Subjunctive (subjuntivo
, which has six) and Imperative (imperativo
, which has only one). Every single tense has a table like this. Oh, and to add to the fun, in the Rioplatense dialect (Argentina, Uruguay, etc.) the pronoun vos
has its own separate conjugation! So instead of hablas,
it's vos hablás.
If you're really curious, here are the full conjugation tablets for the three verbs above: hablar
(we have to confess, though: half the conjugations are composed forms and a few aren't even used).
The seventeen tenses, with usage notes, are as follows:
- Indicative (indicativo):
- Present (presente): Exactly What It Says on the Tin. While the progressive form does exist in Spanish, it's much less commonly used; the basic present form is typically used instead. By far the most important tense.
- Preterite (pretérito): The "once" or "X times" past. Distinct from the imperfect. Also, unlike English, used to describe pictures and the like; to ask "What's she saying?" for a comic panel or somesuch would be "¿Qué dijo ella?" Also often used in speech to replace the perfect tense, somewhat akin to English, especially around the Rio de la Plata. In Spain, on the other hand, is not as commonly used. Only when the action described is considered to be in the relatively distant past.
- Imperfect (imperfecto): The "continuous" past. A tense of considerable importance. Some verbs only retain their past meaning in the imperfect and take on new meanings in the preterite; for example, "Yo ya sabía", (I already knew), but "Supe ayer" (I found out yesterday). Both forms are from saber, "to know." Also used for English past progressive, as in, "El esclavo llevaba la jarra cuando la dejó caer." - "The slave was carrying the jug when he dropped it."
- Future (futuro): Describes future events. Actually considered somewhat "high" speech, something like English "shall"; usually, the ir a + [infinitive] construction replaces it, like English "going to"/"gonna." Also used for certain statements regarding uncertainty or wondering, such as, "¿Qué hora será?", "What time could it be?"
- Conditional (condicional): Used to express things that would happen if a certain condition were met. For example: "Yo iría con ustedes, pero tengo que estudiar." (I would go with you guys, but I have to study.) If you didn't have to study, you'd be going with them, but you do, so you're not.
- Present perfect (pretérito perfecto): Essentially identical to the same tense in English; the best way to explain it is a "past action with present consequences." A compound tense, formed with a present tense form of haber. Often replaced by the preterite in casual speech in Latin American countries (in Spain too, although not as common). "Ya te he dicho lo que pienso." = "Ya te dije lo que pienso." "I [have] already told you what I think."
- Pluperfect (pretérito pluscuamperfecto): Again, essentially identical to the same tense in English. Used to describe something that had already happened before something else did. Another compound tense.
- Past anterior (pretérito anterior): Archaic, essentially replaced by the pluperfect, or in some cases the preterite.
- Future perfect (futuro compuesto): Used to express things that will have happened before something else does, essentially the same as in English, as you can see in this very sentence.
- Conditional perfect (condicional compuesto): Used to express a "hypothetical past action"; something that would have happened had a condition been met. Think of the last line every Scooby-Doo villain says: "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for You Meddling Kids!" In Spanish, they would use the conditional perfect. ("¡Y yo habría tenido éxito sin ustedes muchachos entrometidos!")
- Subjunctive (subjuntivo)
- Subjunctive present (presente de subjuntivo): Hoo boy. The subjunctive forms are used when dealing with something that is either a wish, uncertain, or just not necessarily real (which extends to a lot more things than you might think). It's virtually always in a clause with que. The exact peculiarities of the subjunctive mood are very, very complicated, but suffice to say, if it has a que clause and you're not 100% certain it's real, go with the subjunctive. The subjunctive present specifically is used when the preceding clause is in the present or future tense.
- Subjunctive imperfect (imperfecto de subjuntivo): The subtleties of the subjunctive mood were explained above. This one is used when the preceding clause is in the imperfect, preterite, conditional, or the present, past, and conditional perfects. Also used to express the condition used to fulfill the conditional tense: "Yo comería si tuviera hambre." (I'd eat if I were hungry.) Notably, this has two conjugation variants: the nowadays more common one ends in -ra, while the less common, more formal variant ends in -se. Tuviera in the previous example could have been easily replaced by tuviese with no change in meaning.
- Subjunctive future (futuro de subjuntivo): Virtually obsolete, except in legalese. It used to be used when the preceding clause was in the future tense, which has been overtaken by the subjunctive present.
- Subjunctive present perfect (pretérito perfecto de subjuntivo): Used primarily to express subjunctive past actions when the the preceding clause was in the present tense.
- Subjunctive pluperfect (pretérito pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo): Used to express the condition of something for the conditional tense primarily.
- Subjunctive future prefect (futuro compuesto de subjuntivo): Obsolete entirely.
- Imperative (imperativo): Used to give commands. This is actually an incomplete tense; commands can obviously only be given to a "you," or as a "let's [do something]." For the tú and vosotros forms, there are actually two forms, affirmative and negative.
Spelling, Sounds, and the Like
Spanish's sound system and especially its orthography aren't that hard to get used to. Spelling gives all the info needed for pronunciation (the opposite is not always true, though) and each letter has one pronunciation (with the exception of c and g); you don't have the long vs. short vowel distinction that can cause a minor fiasco in some other languages like English.
digraphs, for the records.
- A: like father
- E: between bed and bay; more towards bay at the end of a word.
- I: like seem
- O: like hole
- U: like rude
The following letters and digraphs are noticeably different from English pronunciation:
- C: In Spain, before i or e, pronounced like the th in think but drawn out like s. In Latin America, it's s like in English. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, thinco, thinco, seis!
- CH: Always like in match, unless the word is foreign.
- D: Between vowels, often pronounced like a soft, voiced th, as in this.
- G: Also before e or i, this changes from the normal goat sound into, depending on the region, either the h in house, the ch in loch or Bach, or hardly pronounced at all.
- GU: A hard g in front of e or i; gw in all other cases.
- H: Never, ever said.
- J: Same as g above, except in all cases. If you ever see Hispanics on Facebook typing "jajajaja", this is why.
- LL: Usually pronounced like the y in year, though in Spain it's supposed to be pronounced like an Italian gl as in figlio. In Argentina it's pronounced as the sh in show.
- QU: Always a k. "Quiero que el queso se quede" is pronounced "Kyero ke el keso se kede." (Incidentally, that means "I want the cheese to stay.")
- R: Flapped, as in the d's in pudding. Except when beginning a word; then it reads as...
- RR: The famous "rolled r," as in the ridiculously exaggerated ¡Arrrrrrrrrrrriba! Think making a machine gun noise with your mouth. If you don't get it right, don't worry too much. This is one of the most difficult sounds for nonnatives, and natives usually understand that.
- V: Pronounced like a b; Spanish doesn't distinguish, although they are pronounced more like the English v between vowels.
- Y: Pronounced like the y in "year". When ending a word, like a semiconsonantal i. ("rey" is read as "ray")
- Z: Pronounced, again only in Spain, as a "th."
- X: In standard Spanish it's always pronounced as in "exit". But Spaniards used it to represent several different sounds on Aztec and Mayan languages, so in Mayincatec words that crossed over to Mexican Spanish it can be read like "s", "sh", "j" (That's how you should pronounce it "Mexico", by the way) and also "x". Funny thing, just by how a word is written you can't tell how it should be pronounced.
While we're on the z
Lithpth and Shoshos: Spanish Dialects and Accents
The biggest contrast among the dialects is between the Spanish spoken in Spain*
and Latin American Spanish. This is best seen in two features, ceceo/seseo
and the vosotros
pronoun and conjugation.
refer to how soft c
are pronounced in various regions. As noted above, in Spain, those two letters are pronounced like an English unvoiced th
("ceceo"). In Latin America, they pronounced both as an s
(seseo), which makes learning English phonology slightly more difficult, but also is more intuitive to English speakers learning Spanish. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some regions in Spain, specially in the South, where all
"s" sounds are pronounced like th
, even standalone S's. So you get things like, "¡Por favor, Theñor Jueth, no mande uthted mi hijo a prithión!" *
Thus the famous "Spaniard lisp," that you see in lots of Antonio Banderas
movies (being him from Málaga, in Southern Spain).
The other major difference is the vosotros
pronoun. It is used only in Spain, replaced by ustedes
in all of Latin America, though a few isolated areas retain the conjugation but not the pronoun itself. As explained before, vosotros
is the second person, plural, familiar register pronoun, essentially a plural tú
, and enjoys common usage in Spain, but in Latin America sounds like a thick South London accent and dialect would in the US.
There is a special pronoun that is used in some areas of South America, however, which is amusingly derived
. This dialect is known as voseo
, and is used primarily in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Colombia. The conjugation of the vos
pronoun is a modified form of the vosotros
conjugation, resulting in tú puedes
becoming vos podés
(compare vosotros podéis
happens to be one of the features of the Rioplatense dialect, which takes its name from the Rio de la Plata, the area where it's spoken; this is mainly the countries of Argentina and Uruguay. The other main features of the dialect are the consonantal shift of y
to either a sh
ure) sound, hence the "Shoshos" (Yoyos) of the title, resulting in ayer
sounding like "ah-SHARE" or "ah-ZHARE" instead of "ah-YAIR"; and also the almost entire elimination of the present perfect tense, which enjoys some usage in most other areas.
Acentos y tildes: ¡un montón de ñaña! Aparte, ¿qué pasó con la puntuación?
One famous feature of Spanish orthography is its diacritics, specifically acute accents and tildes. The acute accents, unlike some other languages, such as Hungarian or Polish, where they distinguish sounds, accents in Spanish are used only to mark stress or to distinguish homonyms. You'll notice, however, that it's not marked on every word, and that's because they only mark stress if the word breaks Da Rules, which are:
- If the word ends in a vowel, "-n," or "-s," the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. Examples: queso, chico, umbra, oscuro.
- If it ends in any other consonant, it's on the last one. Examples: pared, hablar, escolar, policial, carnet.
Besides the acute accent, Spanish is also famous for the eñe
letter, "ñ." This is pronounced approximately*
like "ny," so "ñaña" above would be pronounced "nyanya." (This happens to be a sort of cutesy word for "crap" in a few dialects.)
Another difference of Spanish punctuation is their disuse of quotation marks. Dialogue is denoted by long "em" dashes (—), and quotes and phrases are surrounded by comillas angulares
, or angular quotes, used in most Romance languages, which look like this: «Se usan las comillas angulares para marcar las citas.». However in recent years, due to the use of computers, English quotation marks are starting to be dominant, since oddly enough Spanish specific keyboards DON'T feature the angular quotes as a key
But perhaps the most famous feature of Spanish orthography is the inverted question mark (or "interrogation point," for any Brits reading this) and exclamation point. Like just about any feature of language, this has its uses—it helps isolate the question or exclamation in a compound sentence, for example—but these two marks are so rare among languages that they're often simply called "that Spanish upside-down thing."
The title of this section, incidentally, means "Accents and Tildes: A Load of Crap! Also, what happened with the punctuation?"
No molestar - False Friends, Swear Words, and Other Things
The nature of semantic drift naturally ensures that "false friends"
will arise. Probably the most famous, as shown above, is molestar
, which is a perfectly innocent and mundane word in Spanish meaning "bother," but obviously means something more...extreme in English. This really isn't that difficult, but an English speaker who's sort of half-listening may still be caught off guard by a phrase such as, Aunque él me molestaba, yo le amaba todavía.
("Even though he bothered
me, I still loved him." We're not talking Stockholm Syndrome
Another potentially hilarious false friend is embarazar
, the opposite situation of molestar
; it means "impregnate," not "embarrass," which in Spanish is humillar
(lit. "humiliate"). This led to a rather famous case of Bite The Wax Tadpole
where a pen company advertised their product with the slogan, "It won't leak in your pocket and get you pregnant." One has to wonder exactly what sort of ink such a pen would be using...
But the most irritating false friends have to be the troll pair of atender
They sound like English "attend" and "assist" respectively, so you'd think this would be easy, right? Wrong. Atender
means "to assist"...and asistir
means "to attend"!*
Now for the good stuff, though: profanity! We've saved the best for last. Here are all the expressions you need to know to know when to hit someone (when they're said to you) or duck (when you say them). Also convenient for use in non-Spanish-speaking circles.
- Mierda = Shit (chances are you already knew this one). In Spain can also translate as "Damn!" as an interjection.
- Cojones*= Balls (likewise)
- Carajo = An interjection roughly equivalent to damn, fuck, or in some cases hell. In Venezuela, along with the interjection use, is also used as a sightly more vulgar equivalent of "dude", even having a female and a diminutive version to refer to women and small children. "Estar del carajo", however,. means that something/someone is doing very well.
- Cabrón = "big goat", but meaning "cuckold", equates to asshole, fucker or bastard. Can be used casually among friends, but don't use it with strangers.
- Capullo = "cocoon" and (amusingly enough) slang for "prepuce". In Spain, it's practically synonym for "Cabrón", although "¡Eres un capullo!" would more accurately translate to "You're a dick!".
- Pendejo= "pubic hair", roughly idiot or jackass, with an added connotation of willful incompetence. Rarely used in Spain, and much, much stronger in Puerto Rico. Also a derogative word for a young person in Chile and Argentina.There was a scandal in Venezuela when the late politician and intelectual Arturo Uslar Pietri used the word on a TV interview in 1989 to refer to honest everymen., not because the meaning but because at the time the word was considered too strong for broadcasting (while in real life it is relatively mild).
- Joder = Fuck (used rather like it is in English; estamos jodidos means "we're fucked."). Almost never conjugated in anything but past participle (The expletive "fuck!" would simply be joder! and "That fucking test" would be Ese jodido examen, although most would say puto or something similar instead). "Fuck you!" would be translated as ¡Jódete! or ¡Que te jodan!. It is also a vulgar word for bother, specially in Latin América.
- Chingar = Fuck. Almost an exact synonym for joder, but used more often in Mexico, whereas joder is practically a comma for the Spanish.
- Follar = Synonym for "fuck" as a verb, although only when it refers to the specific biological act of intercourse. Extremely vulgar, not usually heard outside of Spain, since most swear-worthy situations are covered by joder or chingar. "¡Que te follen!" would be an alternative translation for "Fuck you!".
- ¿Qué diablos? or ¿Qué demonios? = What the hell? (Lit. "What devils?" or "What demons?")
- Maldito/a = (God)damn (again, rather used like in English; can be either an interjection or adjective). Unlike the English equivalent, this word is soft enough to be used in Television for the youth slot in most Latin American countries.
- Maldición = Literally "malediction" or "curses", but more commonly translated as "damnit" or similar. Also soft enough for TV.
- Malparido/a = Something like saying the person wasn't born right or in the right way. Similar in the usage to the English word "Bastard".
- Tomar = Slang for drinking spirit; literally, "take." Completely innocuous for most situations, such as photography (Tomar unas fotos). An important exception would be taking a person to a place, for which the verb "llevar" is used. "Tomé a mi hermana al prom", for example, means you and your sister have some explaining to do.
- Puto/a = The female form "puta" means "whore", or more generally "bitch"; "hijo de puta" equates to "son of a bitch." Beware of this in Spain, since it's the worst insult you can say to a person. The male form "puto", on the other hand, is a very offensive word for "gay" when applied to people, and something more akin to "goddamned" when applied to objects or situations.
- Coger = Literally "get or take" but has evolved into "fuck" in most Latin American countries. Recoger is the non-profane version. In Spain, however, it has maintain the literal meaning, which sometimes can cause missunderstandings between Spaniards and Latin Americans.
- Cagar = The verb form of "shit". Often used to construct colorful oaths like ¡Me cago en la leche! ("I shit in the milk!"). Cagada means "shitty" or "full of shit".
- Coño = Country Matters. Although it's not nearly as offensive as that word is English (ESPECIALLY in North America), and it's never used to describe a person, but rather as an interjection. "¿Qué coño ___?" equates to "What the fuck ___?" in peninsular Spanish (see note below on profanity in Spain). Saying that a person is "un coño de madre/un coño de su madre" means not that they're that part of their mother anatomy, but that the person is a bastard, and the expression "¡El coño de tu madre!" is a direct insult, in some places being even worse than calling the person "Hijo de puta". There is also the derivate word "coñazo", that in Spain means something among bothersome or annoying (as in "esa persona es un coñazo", that person is very annoying) but in Venezuela means "beating" (Te voy a meter un coñazo = I'm going to hit you hard). Nowdays, Spain is the only country that still uses the word on its original sexual context: the rest of the Spanish speaking countries simply see it as another vulgar interjection.
- Culo = Ass, used in pretty much the same situations as in English and then some more. De mi culo is "my ass" in some Latin American countries. A father of a teenage daughter, when she says where she goes with her date, may say "'Vamos al cine' de mi culo." ("'We're going to the movies' my ass."). In Spain it's also used in the construction "de culo" for "screwed"; "Vamos de culo" can mean "We're screwed." Venezuelan males also use the term to refer to a one-night stand or someone they have a superficial sex-based relationship (but never saying it in front of the person); "ese un culo que me levanté anoche" means "a girl I picked up last night".
- Pajero = Wanker/douchebag/jackoff. Mitsubishi fortunately avoided biting the wax tadpole on this one.
- Polla = Literally a female chicken, but usually used to mean "dick". ¡Chupame la polla! means "Suck my dick!"
- Gilipollas = One of the most common insults in Spain, and nowhere else. It doesn't have a literal translation, but the "-pollas" at the end comes from where you think it comes from. It would be a rough equivalent to "dumbass", although somewhat more offensive. This word also has an Unusual Euphemism version in "gilipuertas", which subtitutes "pollas" ("dicks") with "puertas" ("doors"). In Catalonia (North East of Spain) it's also used the short form "Gilí", which is considered a kinda "softer" version of the word.
- Arrecho: In some countries, it means horny. In Venezuela and Colombia, however, it means "furious" when applied to people, and "spectacular" when applied to objects (to wit. "Estoy arrecho": I'm furious, "Soy arrecho": I'm awesome).
An interesting note about Spanish is the frequency of Cluster F-Bomb
in common speech, particularly in Spain. Spanish speakers tend to use stronger swear words and use them more often. The prevalence of this in Spain is said to be due to the Franco regime's oppressive enforcement of clean-mouthed-ness; when that regime fell in the late 1970s, people began cussing left, right, and center. By far the most common word is "joder", the proper inflection and placement of which takes practice, said by everybody from chavales (boys, preteens), to abuelitas (little old ladies). Truly offensive peninsular profanity relies on blasphemy and creativity. Hostias
, or "host" (as in sacrament) is somewhat more offensive than "joder", while Me cago en Dios y las tetas de la Virgen
(I shit upon God and the Virgin Mary's tits) means you probably just amputated something. Overly agressive or profane
swearing (even moreso than these latter examples
) is possible, but rare and mostly used in derivative works for comedic effect, such as "Te voy a sacar los putos ojos y me voy a mear en los agujeros para que te escueza"*
. Spaniard are perceived as more profane than Latin Americans, not because this is fundamentally true but because there is more swearing on Spanish TV (even on family-oriented shows), while most Latin American countries enforce cleaner language
on media to very ridiculous extremes (where even Gosh Dang It to Heck!
can be considered too much).