A note on Register, or Level of Language, in Spanish

By Ronald Batchelor

A most dominant factor in the use of language is register, or variety or level of language determined by the communicative situation in which the speaker/writer finds herself/ himself. In other words, the level of language we resort to depends, to a very large extent, on whether we are speaking with friends, which would attract a colloquial style, writing a letter, delivering a lecture involving a standard style, or writing a book frequently entailing a formal, elevated style of expression. Levels of language may therefore differ over a range from informal to formal, and are determined by four factors: sex, age, professional or social status, and intimacy. All these features affect, in varying degrees, the way we use language in areas of vocabulary and grammar.

A simple formula for assigning register (henceforth called R) to vocabulary and grammar could be: R1* vulgar, possibly offensive; R1 colloquial, elliptical, casual; R2 standard, polite, educationally sound: R3 formal, literary, scholarly. Such subdivisions are arbitrary and there could be some movement between them, but they do seem to hold water for most linguists. What is clear, however, is that language-sensitive speakers would consider as “incorrect” many expressions in the R1 or R1* category. As they say in Spanish, “Está mal dicho” or “Es una palabra malsonante”.
Looking towards the future, it is possible that some of what are deemed incorrect usages assigned to R1 will end up in an R2 category. A simple illustration: the Mexican use of the x in México, once shunned in Iberian Spanish, is now accepted in Spain. In point of fact, it appears quite regularly in the Spanish press. It is manifestly obvious that the Spanish language, spoken over vast territories, from the Río Bravo (Río Grande) to Tierra del Fuego, will entail great diversity, and even uncertainty, in the light of which what is “correct” in one Spanish-speaking country may be considered “incorrect” in another.

The Real Academia Española (RAE) was once recognized as the guardian of the “correctness” and standard register of Spanish, but this can no longer be the case. There are as many Academias as there are Spanish-speaking countries. And they all enjoy linguistic parity. As a consequence, the judgment of correctness has become arbitrary in many cases. An Argentinian would find the juxtaposition of adverb and possessive pronoun (adelante mío=in front of me), (cerca tuyo=near you), perfectly admissible, and would classify these structures as R2, but these expressions would appear strange to a Colombian, a Mexican or a speaker from the Iberian Peninsula who would doubtless reject them. How many speakers of “standard” Spanish would admit delante mío as R2? Probably no one outside Argentinian. No disagreement, of course, on the acceptability of delante de mí/cerca de ti, everyone considering them as R2. All Spanish speakers would unanimously agree on the use of ante mí (before me) as an R3 expression. Yet, delante mío, delante de mí, ante mí all have validity in their own way, depending on circumstances, region, locality, and country.

Paradoxically, in the case of Mexico, and this point may be applied to Peru and Colombia, and even Argentina, Spanish, as imported from Peninsular Spain from the sixteenth century onwards, felt conservative constraints, doubtless on account of distance from the “mother” country, so that some vocabulary, as heard and seen in Mexico, has an archaic resonance, falling into an R3 category. It is the author’s experience that Mexican speakers prefer certain terms that are now high register, or of less or restricted use, in modern Spain: alberca instead of piscina, platicar instead of hablar, regresar instead of volver, caminar instead of andar, and even the apocopation of a before a feminine noun, once common in the Spain of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: la primer casa/página/vez, instead of la primera casa…

A compelling argument pleading for the rich diversity of register in the different Spanish-speaking countries lies in the more than well documented origin of Spanish itself, and of all Romance languages for that matter. They derive largely from Latin, which gradually and inevitably splintered into French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and Spanish, as Roman administrators followed Roman legions. With distance in time and place from Rome and Lazio, the surrounding area, Latin speakers of Roman origin began to speak a different, and therefore, for many, a bastardized form of Latin. Vergil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid would have turned over in their grave on hearing a degenerate form of Latin in the Roman Empire of the third, fourth and fifth centuries AD. The fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by the fall of the Latin language. The lesson is clear, and “Heresy” I hear some say. Spanish, like all Romance languages, is a deteriorated, low-register form of Latin. But, a type of expression generally considered faulty or “incorrect” in Latin generated a new standard, culturally exciting and linguistically exalting, and this linguistic “deterioration” resolved itself into the marvel of the languages of Cervantes, Racine, Manzoni and Camōens. A case of R1 usage finding its way into R2 and R3 usages over the succeeding centuries.

(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of Spanish (600pp). See pp 3-10 for chapter on Register)
3 examples of range of register, taken from Spain, A(rgentina) and M(exico):

R3 disturbar; R2 fastidiar, incordiar, molestar; R1 enchinchar M, hinchar A, chinchar;
R1* chingar M, dar el coñazo/la puñeta (a) (+many more)
R3 seno; R2 pecho; R1 lola(s) A, delantera; R1* chichis M, tetorras (+many more)
R3 recrearse; R2 pasarla bien A/M, pasarlo bien, disfrutar, divertirse, gozar; R1 pasarla mil puntos A, pasarlo bomba/la mar de bien; R1* pasarla a toda madre M (+many more)
(Taken from my Cambridge Using Span. Synonyms)



Find out more about Dr. Batchelor here

2 comments to A note on Register, or Level of Language, in Spanish

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  • Bob Allen

    I didn’t understand the following:
    “A simple illustration: the Mexican use of the x in México, once shunned in Iberian Spanish, is now accepted in Spain.”

    Is this a reference to the spelling, of X instead of J? Or is it a pronunciation difference: In my limited experience, the Mexican pronunciation of J is often not very fricative, rather like IPA [h], while the pronunciation in Spain is more [x]-like.

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