Colombia: The purest Spanish

Discover why the Spanish spoken in Colombia is renowned worldwide as the "purest" or "best" variant.

Cascade du Rio de Vinagre (1810) by Johann Friedrich ArnoldOriginal Source: National Library of Spain

The arrival of Spanish in Colombia

The Spanish first arrived in the territory of present-day Colombia in 1509, as part of the expedition led by Alonso Ojeda beyond Lake Maracaibo. It was a region made up of small settlements, where more than 60 indigenous languages were spoken, including Wayuu and Quechua.

New Granada Map of the province and missions of the IHJ company of the New Kingdom of Granada. (1901) by Manuel Fernández de CastroOriginal Source: National Library of Spain

In 1525, the first colony was established—Santa Marta—and then in 1533, Cartagena de Indias was founded, which would become one of its most important ports. However, the ports both along the Atlantic and in the Caribbean remained isolated from the highlands of Colombia.

Colombian cottages (1827) by Edward Francis FindenOriginal Source: National Library of Spain

Nueva Granada, as Colombia was known at that time, became a Viceroyalty in 1718, leading to the founding of a university and other cultural centers. The continuous contact with the Castilian elite in Bogotá exerted a marked linguistic influence.

Frigate Victoria (1871) by Rafael Monleón y TorresOriginal Source: National Library of Spain

Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean coastline, was the most important port on the mainland. It was also one of the few authorized to receive African slaves, and so the majority of these arriving in South America disembarked there.

The slave market (1780)Original Source: National Library of Spain

The African population of Cartagena grew to around 75% of the total population at one time, and although it later declined, it continued to be the dominant population. The result of the Afro-Colombian language was the Palenquero vernacular, one of four creole languages based on Spanish.

Indigenous Colombian (2022) by AlbertolopezphotoFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Colombian Spanish

Every Colombian knows the difference between costeños (coastal residents) and cachacos (those living in the highlands inland). They reference two dialectal "superzones": inland and coastal.

Colombia (1577) by Sociedad General de PublicacionesOriginal Source: National Library of Spain

The characteristics found along the Caribbean coast also penetrate well inland. The significant African presence in this region is reflected in its lexicon. The Pacific Coast shares some of these general traits, but has a substantially different lexicon.

The central highlands, from Venezuela to the Cauca Valley, form a zone with a lexicon derived from Spanish, with a strong preference for the pronoun usted. In other zones, there is a stronger influence from indigenous tongues.

Caro y Cuervo Institute (2022) by Instituto Caro y CuervoFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Caro and Cuervo Institute

Every year, many people travel to Bogotá specifically to study Spanish. Since its inauguration in 1942, countless people have studied at this Institute, including the renowned Master of Hispanic American Linguistics and Literature of the seminary, Andrés Bello.

Women of Fruits (2022) by Nick WehrliFundación Antonio de Nebrija

The existence of this institute has gone some way to bolster the idea that in Colombia, and specifically inland, they speak the purest form of Spanish in Latin America, with the greatest correlation between pronunciation and the written form, and the "best" application of the grammatical rules.

Roca de Guatapé (2022) by Nick WehrliFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Although true that most inland departments in Colombia have experienced minimal demographical mixing, conserving linguistic purity, some would indicate other cities where "better Spanish is spoken", appealing to linguistic nationalism.

Woman farmer (2022) by AndersonPizaFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Even so, Colombia is one of the most studied nations in Latin America from the point of view of dialectology. Between 1982 and 1983, the Caro and Cuervo Institute published a study in the Linguistic-Ethnographic Atlas of Colombia (ALEC).

Carnival (2021) by HERNAN PERNETTFundación Antonio de Nebrija

In terms of the lexicon, there are not many words considered Colombian in themselves, but there are specific colloquial definitions given to different words, such as amarrado (mean), argolla (wedding ring), mamado (tired), and joto (small packet).

Credits: Story

With information from the Linguistic-Ethnographic Atlas of Colombia (Atlas Lingüístico-Etnográfico de Colombia) by the Caro and Cuervo Institute (Instituto Caro y Cuervo), and Latin American Spanish (El Español de América) by John M. Lipski

Curator: Rodrigo Díaz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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