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I don't speak Spanish, but I noticed that Colombian Spanish (as in the TV series "Narcos") and Mexican Spanish sound very different (like Japanese and Chinese).

I doubt that I notice any subtle differences in vocabulary subconsciously, but it's as if Mexican is more tonal (like Chinese). Is that possible?

Wikipedia does mention tonality in Mexican Spanish, but suggests that only some Mexicans should have it, which seems contrary to my personal experience though.

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    Notice that Pablo Escobar in the series does not have a colombian accent. He is a foreign actor. He just speaks a sort of neutral spanish. – Joze Sep 21 '15 at 14:39
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    @Joze I agree. I haven't finished S5 of Breaking Bad so no spoilers please, but I have to say that the Spanish of Gus (the Los Pollos Hermanos guy) sometimes made me cringe. I would be surprised to learn that the actor was a native Spanish speaker. My coworkers are into Narcos now, and they say that 75% of the show is in Spanish. I praise the show for doing that and my coworkers for being willing to go through all those subtitles! – Diego Sep 21 '15 at 14:55
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    Lol comparing Japanese and Chinese is quite ridiculous. The difference between Mexican and Colombian Spanish is much less than the difference between the Mandarin Chinese in Sichuan province(southwest China) and that in Liaoning province(northeast China), which are sometimes mutually incomprehensible. Hell, Japanese and Chinese don't even belong to the same language family. It's even at times classified to belong to an independent language family. Japanese just borrowed a lot of Chinese characters and some words. Maybe a more appropriate analogy of their relation would be Euskara and Spanish. – xji Oct 1 '15 at 8:33
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    @XiangJi I'm talking about how they sound to someone who doesn't speak these languages. – MaxB Oct 1 '15 at 8:43
  • @MaxB Still that comparison is far off. See my answer below for detailed explanation. – xji Oct 1 '15 at 8:48
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They sound different, simply put, because Spanish is an evolving language. To address why could be difficult because there are many factors: isolation, exposure to other languages, development of local colloquialisms, etc.

There are several accents of both Colombian Spanish and Mexican Spanish, all with their own distinguishing characteristics (differences in intonation, pronunciation of phonemes, even the diminishing or deletion of some phonemes altogether) and to pinpoint direct causes is a bit tricky.

I once read that many of the differences in the accents of Latin America come from even which part of Spain the immigrants who migrated during the Colonial Era to each respective area came from (ie. some from Galicia, some from Sevilla, etc.) however I'm not sure as to what extent that influenced the two larger dialects in question.

Another factor is contact with local languages; both colonists in Colombia and Mexico came into contact with different native tribes and civilizations and those interactions gave way to different loanwords to each dialect, and perhaps even had an effect on the local accent. It is said that the s dropping phenomenon that occurs in many coastal dialects, including in Colombia, is a result of the influence of indigenous languages.

Isolation, however, is probably the biggest factor. Leave different communities separated by much distance with little contact for several hundred years and the dialects tend to diverge. The thing about language is that it changes to stay relevant to the population speaking it, and there are many socio-political factors that play into that. Now are they still very similar? Yes but there are definitely some notable differences, which you have noted by listening to Colombian dialects and comparing them to the more familiar Mexican dialects you have heard.

Now as far as tonality, I wouldn't say Mexican Spanish is tonal at all. Sure there are some interesting intonations in some dialects, but the concept of tonality (such as the one that exists in Chinese) implies that the tone of words has some effect on the meaning of the speech. In Mandarin, there are 4 distinguished tones that are attached to every syllable, such that a word will change meaning simply by changing the tone that you say it in.

I would agree that some Mexican dialects have some interesting intonation when compared to other dialects, but this is a characteristic of the dialect and doesn't actually have any effect on the speech. Compare the differences in some British dialects of English and American English; you will notice some degree of similarity.

Also if you are interested in hearing a more sing-song-y dialect of Colombian Spanish, look up the Paisa accent. You will notice an even greater emphasis on intonation.

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  • Welcome to Spanish SE and nice first answer !!!. About the immigrants it has been mentioned before on this answer and on this other one that the first contact with Spanish language was through people from the south of Spain, Andalucia. – AlexBcn Sep 23 '15 at 11:35
  • I guess by "tonality" OP meant the highly characteristic intonation of Northern Mexican or Mexico City Spanish? – RAKK Sep 27 '15 at 8:14
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The same reason British, American and Australian English (among others) sounds different. People from different regions tend to develop their own accent, and with time maybe their own dialect or "version" of the language.

Spanish from the south of Spain (Andalusia) sounds different from the Spanish from the "center" regions, such as Madrid or Valladolid, which sound different from the Spanish spoken in other regions (Galicia, Vasque Country, Catalonia, etc.). The same can be said about the English spoken in Boston, Texas, etc.

The vocabulary in each country tends to be "consistent" (migration would of course "import" some off the "oddities" of a dialect into another). In each country there might be a different dialect. I would use "conducir" in Castilian Spanish, where someone from other latin american countries would say "manejar". Again, the same way that British and American would differ in words such as "center/centre" or "lift/elevator".

Colombian and Mexican may sound very different, but if you were exposed to other dialects (like Argentinian, which I don't think is depicted in the show) you would notice that is even more different (differing not only in how it sounds or by using as slightly different vocabulary, but using sometimes different grammar too, like the use of voseo).

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    Remember that voseo is also present in a large colombian region. It is depicted in the series many times with the Cali cartel. The whole region of Valle del Cauca and Nariño use it. – Joze Sep 21 '15 at 14:40
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    @Joze. Thank you. I was unaware of this, although I focused on answering why they "sound different" (OP says he/she does not speak Spanish, so probably he/she did not spot this difference in the show). – Diego Sep 21 '15 at 14:50
  • My question is literally why they sound different (or what makes them sound different even to someone like me), rather than why dialects exist in general. I tried to clarify this in the edit. – MaxB Sep 21 '15 at 16:48
  • @MaxB, well, are you asking why they sound different or in what they are different? The existence of dialects and regionalisms of course answers "why they sound different". Maybe the answer focuses too much on what dialects are, but I honestly think that "they are different dialects" answers why they sound different. – Diego Sep 21 '15 at 18:11
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Lol I feel I have to make a clarification here regarding Chinese and Japanese, lest readers be misled by the question and thus bear false understandings of these two languages. Comparing Japanese and Chinese in this case is quite ridiculous. The difference between Mexican and Colombian Spanish is much less than the difference between the Mandarin Chinese in Sichuan province(southwest China) and that in Liaoning province(northeast China), which in most cases are not really mutually intelligible. Hell, Japanese and Chinese don't even belong to the same language family. It's even at times classified as belonging to an independent language family. Japanese just borrowed a lot of Chinese characters and some words. Maybe a somewhat appropriate analogy of their relation would be Euskara(Basque language) and Spanish, though the differences might be a bit smaller.

Now regarding your question, of course it's ridiculous to suggest that Mexican Spanish would be a "tonal" language. They're both just Spanish. Do you have any concept of the notion of "dialect"? I'm not sure which country do you come from, but in a big country such as China or the US, the same language varies wildly across regions to the degree of sometimes mutually unintelligible. Such a phenomenon even happens in a much smaller place such as Germany or the UK. As of how the dialects developed, as the existing answers already pointed out, geographical isolation and different cultural exchanges/experiences over the years are powerful enough to drastically let a language develop differently. There have been more than 400 years since the colonialists arrived in the new world, so such a development is not surprising at all. Even Taiwan, which has only been separated from mainland China for 60 years, has developed a drastically different variant of Mandarin Chinese, in a large part due to the interaction with the aboriginal population.

A good example for Spanish would be Chilean Spanish: Chile is a relatively isolated country both geographically and historically, thus their Spanish is very unique, so unique to the extent that many other Spanish-speakers can't understand them when they talk full-speed among themselves.

Source: I'm a Chinese who has lived in Latin America.

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    If you are a native speaker of Chinese, it's impossible for you to perceive how it sounds to people who only speak Indo-Europen languages. The variations in tone are pretty peculiar, and it's something that it has in common with the Mexican dialects I tend hear (as Wikipedia agrees). Whether those variations happen to carry any meaning or not is irrelevant in this context. – MaxB Oct 2 '15 at 1:56
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This is like Darwinian language evolution. Language tones and vocabulary is very localized. Even within Colombia there are huge regional variations. All due to geography. People in north caribbean coast speak really different from people in Antioquia (where the real Pablo Escobar was born), and from Bogota., and from Cali, and from Pasto. Colombia is a rich country in terms of ethnicities, geography and so on, food, language (all colombians speak spanish but tone and vocabulary vary a lot), anthropometry, you'll find blond people, brown people with grey eyes, etc.

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