Spanish in the Americas

Spanish in the Americas

Spanish in the Americas

Spanish in the Americas


This encyclopedic text focuses on the nature of Hispanic dialects, the spread of Spanish, and contemporary Spanish dialects in the Americas.


Before examining the specific varieties of a language, one must first be familiar with its general characteristics, its system of sounds, forms, grammatical structures, and vocabulary. Each of the sections in this chapter treats one of those aspects of the Spanish language, while also introducing the student to standard linguistic terminology.

The sounds of a language may be described in two ways: how they are produced and how they are used. They are produced by organs which human beings share with other higher mammals. What enables man to use these organs for speech is his brain. Is the brain preprogrammed for language at birth? Some linguists think so, likening the mind of a newborn child to a computer which will process certain kinds of information while rejecting others. Or is the brain so constructed that it has a general propensity if not a driving need to learn, a process which, based at the outset exclusively on reflexes, comes to use the environment to construct its mental schemata? Although the answers to these questions are slowly emerging through neurolinguistic research, the functioning of the mind is largely hidden from human view. Much more accessible is knowledge of the other organs involved in speech production. These may be divided into three groups, (1) those located in the thoracic cavity, (2) the laryngeal group, and (3) those situated in the upper respiratory tract.

The thoracic cavity contains the rib cage, the lungs, and the diaphragm. When the rib cage and diaphragm contract, a column of air is expelled from the lungs through the trachea to the buccal and nasal cavities, suffering certain modifications as it proceeds, the ultimate result being the sounds we recognize as speech. It is believed that the vigor and number of pulsations of the column of air differ for different languages. It is certain that the modifications do. The first modification occurs in the tracheal area when the flow of air reaches the larynx. In simple terms, the larynx may be described as a barrel-shaped tube of cartilage housing two shelves of flexible muscle. These shelves are thick at the point where they are attached to the wall of the barrel but taper as they extend toward its center and toward each other (see Figure 2).

During respiration, these shelves (the vocal cords) are retracted to form an opening (the glottis) through which air freely passes. In the production of many speech sounds, such as [t], [s], and [tʃ], the glottis remains open and the vocal cords play no part in their articulation. These sounds are 'voiceless'. However, in the pronunciation of sounds such as [d], [z], and [ǰ], the thin edges of the vocal cords are brought together and made to flutter or vibrate by the passage of the airstream, producing sounds which are 'voiced'. Observe this phenomenon for yourself. Place your fingertips—lightly—on your Adam's apple (the barrel).

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