Same Spanish Word, Different Spanish Meaning

Same Spanish Word, Different Spanish Meaning

Speakers of the Spanish language span an incredibly large portion of the globe, from Europe to both South and Central America, and even the Philippines. It’s relatively easy to understand that there may be variations between local dialects of Spanish in areas that are geographically very separate from each other such as between Spain and South America, or the Philippines. All too often, however, the Spanish of Latin America gets grouped together as if it was one, cohesive dialect of Spanish.

Latin America’s Spanish Diversity Underestimated

Although Latin America is often referred to as if it was a cohesive unit, if we take a closer look we can see that Latin America is comprised of an incredibly diverse group of countries spanning an incredibly large distance. Latin America is actually comprised of 26 different countries and territories, and spans nearly 6,215 miles (10,000km) from the Mexican border to the tip of Argentina. In fact, the South American portion of Latin America alone is comprised of 12% of the total surface area of the earth. For comparison, the United States of America spans only 1.58% of the total surface area of the earth.

Additionally, Latin America was colonized over an incredibly long period of time, from the late 1400’s through to the 1800’s, allowing for many distinctive regional variations to develop. Even after Latin America had experienced intense colonization, the landscape over much of the continent is mountainous, desert or dense jungle, which limited people’s movement and thus interactions with each other. This was incredibly effective in allowing local versions of Spanish to flourish independently, without much influence from outside sources.

The diversity of Latin America gives rise to many local variations in language, some taking some cues from the indigenous languages that pre-dated the arrival of the Spanish language. A good example of this phenomenon is the Spanish word for avocado, which is aguacate in many more Northern countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, and palta when we head south to countries such as Chile and Ecuador. Both aguacate and palta can be traced back to their roots in local indigenous languages.

Same Spanish Word, Different Spanish Meaning

Where things begin to become more confusing, however, is when one word has multiple meanings across different Latin American countries. It is actually surprisingly common that not only will countries have regional vocabulary variations, but will assign new and often wildly different definitions do identical words.

Even really common words can vary wildly across destinations. Take for example the word for car, which is one of the more commonly used words in most countries of the world. In Spanish, the word carro is commonly used in countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, and places in the Caribbean. The word is derived from the old word for ‘carriage’. The word carro, however, can also mean cart or wheelbarrow in places such as Chile or Argentina.

In Mexico they use the word coche for car, which is also the word they use for car in Spain. Coche, however, means baby carriage in Chile – and you can imagine how embarrassing it would be to tell people you arrived to the meeting by coche. In Venezuela coche is used as not-so-polite slang for pigs, another mode of transport you wouldn’t want to tell people you arrived in for your meetings, for example.

Speaking of modes of transportation, another potentially complicated word is guagua, which means bus in Caribbean countries such as Cuba. In Chile and other Southern Cone countries, however, guagua means baby.

Another place where words are commonly freely borrowed between regions but with vastly different meanings is in the context of food. For example, the word plátano refers to the firm plantain fruit, which is banana like but served more commonly in savory dishes in most Central American countries, and banana’s are referred to as bananas. In Chile however, plátano just means banana, perhaps because plantains are not commonly found in that region. To track down an actual plantain in Chile would require more explanation, such as asking for the harder, more savory ‘banana’.

When ordering at a restaurant, you could be in for quite a surprise if you try and order a torta, in Mexico you would receive a sandwich, while in Argentina you would receive a cake. Caña is another problematic word, which could mean sugarcane (yum!) or fishing rod, but in Chile to be with caña means to have a hangover (yuck!).

This can be difficult to navigate when attempting to translate documents, as even someone who is fully fluent at a native level in Spanish could easily not be aware of regional differences such as these. Using the wrong word in a professional translation has the potential to be incredibly embarrassing at best, and offensive at worst.

The Importance of Spanish Language Translation and Copy Writing Professionals

As you can see, there are many potential pitfalls to consider when trying to construct a cohesive message meant to be understood across many countries, even if they are all in one region such as Latin America. For this reason (among others) it is important to seek out Spanish language translation and copy writing professionals.

Only Spanish language experts will have the training and knowledge to guarantee your message will be understood in a clear and concise manner by the intended target audience. All of the Spanish language translators and copy writing professionals at Spanish with Style are highly trained individuals, and able to readily identify and avoid pitfalls such as words that could have an inaccurate meanings. In fact, the Spanish with Style staff hails from many different regions, thus guaranteeing your translations will have a local feel to them, and that your message is relatable.