Hey Spanish learner – welcome to Guatemala and Guatemalan Spanish! This beautiful country in Central America is well known for its Mayan culture, its amazing volcanoes, and its colourful cities.
Although many native languages coexist in this territory, Spanish is the one most spoken by the population.
In this article, I’ll explore everything about the characteristics of this dialect, and we’re going to figure out why is so fascinating. Ready? ¡Vamos!
Guatemala: Culture And Languages
There are those who say that Guatemala is one of the most diverse countries in the world if we talk about linguistics…and they are right. In fact, inside the territory of this country, made up of 8 regions, 25 languages are spoken!
And the most interesting thing is that most of them —twenty-two— are not Indo-European languages, but rather native languages of the Mayan people.
So… how many people speak Spanish in Guatemala? According to official statistics, 56% of Guatemalan people consider themselves ladino; this is a sociocultural category that designates the non-indigenous population, generally Spanish-speaking mestizos.
Meanwhile, 41% of the Guatemalan population considers themselves part of the Mayan people. Beyond the perceptions related to ethnic groups, statistics suggest that 70% of the Guatemalan population considers Spanish as their first language.
Guatemalan Regions & Dialects
Dialects always vary by region—that’s nothing new! In some countries, this variation is obvious (Have you ever heard an Andalusian and a Galician speak?). However, in Guatemala, the pronunciation is quite similar throughout the country.
Even so, some academics of the language have proposed dividing the country into 3 dialect zones, such as professor Katrine Utgård, author of the Linguistic-Ethnographic Atlas of Guatemala.
- Altiplano occidental. This region is located in northwestern Guatemala and is made up of the departments of Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, Totonicapán, and Huehuetenango.
- Caribean coast. Guatemala has access to the sea on both sides. The zone around the Caribbean coast, like the city of Puerto Barrios (the third Guatemalan city in size), has some phonetic characteristics shared by Honduras or Nicaragua, such as a more lax pronunciation of consonants.
- Petén. The department of Petén occupies a large part of northern Guatemala, and borders the Mexican state of Chiapas; this makes it absorb many phonetic features of that region.
Characteristics Of Guatemalan Spanish
Beyond the division by regions, as I have said, the Guatemalan accent is usually quite similar throughout the country.
Let’s see some of its main characteristics in terms of phonetics:
- Yeísmo. As in many Spanish-speaking countries, in Guatemala, the “y” and the “ll” both tend to be pronounced in the same way, as an “i”.
- Seseo. The sounds “z” and “c” (the latter, when accompanied by an “e” or an “i”) sound like an “s”. So, casa (casa) and caza (hunting) are pronounced the same way.
- Weakening of the final “s”. This happens at the end of a syllable or a word, particularly affecting plurals. Thus, las casas (the houses) would be pronounced lah casa’.
- Pronunciation of “x” as “sh”. In Guatemala, unlike other Spanish-speaking nations, many words begin with “x” (this has to do with its great Mayan heritage). Words like Xela and xeleño (a Guatemalan city and its demonym, respectively) are pronounced as Shela and sheleño.
- The syllable hue sounds stronger. Words like hueso (bone) or huevo (egg) sound more like güeso or güevo.
- Use of sentences with double possessives. This has to do with the constant contact with Mayan languages. For example Fueron en el coche de mi hermano (They went in my brother’s car) becomes Fueron en su coche de mi hermano; and Voy a ver a un amigo (I’m going to see a friend) becomes Voy a ver a un mi amigo.
Guatemalan Spanish: Tú vs. Vos
Many people wonder if the tuteo (that is, the use of pronoun tú) or the voseo (the use of pronoun vos) is used in Guatemala. Well, the answer is…both!
It all depends on the context. While the voseo is normally used as a form of address among friends, relatives and people you trust, the tuteo is more used between couples, or as a form of formality with unknown women.
The voseo is not only pronominal; it also modifies the verb forms of the second person singular. It may seem a bit complex (that's just the grammar villain messing with you), but with a little practice, you'll be sure to learn it soon.
Here you have a table with some main differences between the voseo and the tuteo.
|You are||Tú eres||Vos sos|
|You sing||Tú cantas||Vos cantás|
|You do||Tú haces||Vos hacés|
|You love||Tú amas||Vos amás|
|You love||Tú quieres||Vos querés|
Guatemalan Spanish Slang
This country has its own slang: hundreds of words that are used daily among Guatemalan people.
These terms are known as chapinismos, and many of them are influenced by one of the 24 Guatemalan languages from the Mayan and Nahuatl languages spoken in the country.
Let’s look at a list of typical Guatemalan terms:
|English||Guatemalan Spanish||Other varieties of Spanish|
|Bus||Burra||Autobús, colectivo (in Argentina), micro (in Chile), camión (in Mexico), guagua (in Puerto Rico)|
|Cool||Chilero/a||Cool, guay (in Spain), chido/a (in Mexico)|
|Blond||Canche||Rubio/a, güero/a (in Mexico)|
|Police officer||Chonte||Policía, paco (in Chile), yuta (in Argentina)|
|Jacket||Chumpa||Chamarra (in Mexico), campera (in Argentina), chaqueta (in Spain)|
|Hangover||Goma||Resaca, cruda (in Mexico)|
|Kid||Patojo/a||Niño/a, chaval/chavala (in Spain), gurí/gurisa (in Uruguay)|
|Hot dog||Shuco||Perrito caliente or pancho (in Argentina)|
|Motorcycle taxi||Tuc tuc||Mototaxi|
5 Famous Guatemalan Spanish Expressions
And now it’s time of the juicy part: the typical phrases! These are some sentences that you can easily hear any Guatemalan say. And you should know what they mean before you go so you don’t miss anything in the conversation.
#1 ¡Qué Clavo!
Literally, clavo means “nail”, but Guatemalans use it as a way of saying “shame”. So, ¡Qué clavo! is the equivalent of the Mexican ¡Qué oso! or the Spanish ¡Qué corte!: they say it when they can only think “I wish the earth would swallow me up!”.
You know that feeling when someone hits the nail on the head? Well, in these cases, Guatemalans will say ¡Cabal!, which is something like “Exactly!”.
#3 Haceme La Campaña
Haceme la campaña (literally, “make me the campaign”) is a way of saying “do me a favour”. You can find an equivalent expression in Río de La Plata Spanish—the one used in Argentina and Uruguay: haceme la gauchada.
There are a lot of swear words in Spanish — I bet you know a couple.
Despite the fact that there are those who consider that swear words are sometimes necessary (have you heard the hilarious speech of the Argentine humorist Roberto Fontanarrosa about it?), sometimes it’s preferred to replace those words with more innocent terms. Púchica is one of them.
Don’t be surprised if you see that a Guatemalan says regáleme to the clerk at the grocery store. Although regalar means “to give away”, in Guatemala it’s often used as a synonym for “to give” or “to sell”. This also happens in Colombian Spanish.
Learn Spanish, Including Guatemalan Spanish, With Stories
Guatemalan Spanish is fascinating, with the Mayan influence on the language being one of its most interesting features. And what do you think about the slang?
It may seem a bit hard to incorporate these phrases into your day-to-day life, but I encourage you to try it. I promise you that practice is the key to results!
If you want to learn to speak Guatemalan Spanish, as well as other Latin American varieties, I invite you to try our StoryLearning system, where you can listen to exciting stories in all accents.