Hispanic woman speaking with friend outside food in cuban spanish

What is Linguistics? With Examples from Spanish

Among other things, linguistics explores phonetics (study and classification of speech sounds), syntax (organization of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences), and semantics (study of meaning), while also exploring language evolution, acquisition mechanisms, and the cognitive intersections with race and gender or regional varieties.

Phonetics: An example of phonetics in Spanish is the study of allophones and phonemes, which hold the key to correct pronunciation in Spanish. For instance, the phoneme /k/ can be represented in various ways: the letter “c” as in “casa” (/’ka.sa/), the combination “qu” as in “queso” (/’ke.so/), or the letter “k” as in “kiosko” (/’kios.ko/).

Syntax and Regional Varieties: An example of syntax in Spanish is word order in Cuban Spanish. Where most Spanish speakers are likely to ask “¿Qué quieres tú?” (What do you want?) with the subject pronoun “tú” (you) after the verb “querer” (to want), if they use the subject pronoun at all. In Cuban Spanish we find “¿Qué tú quieres?” with “tú” before the verb (Dauphinais & Ortiz López, 2013).

Semantics: An example of semantics in Spanish is the use of demonstratives as discourse particles and their dimension of meaning. Demonstratives are words like “this”, “that”, “these”, and “those” that are used to indicate the relative distance of something from the speaker or listener. In Spanish, demonstratives can also be used as discourse particles to convey additional meaning. Instead of “esa” meaning “that” (feminine), we can use “aquella” to place distance between the ourselves and the object or person we refer to. For instance, the demonstrative “aquella” with “mujer” (woman) can be used as a discourse particle to indicate disapproval or disappointment, as in the sentence “¡Aquella mujer es insoportable!” (That woman is unbearable! [and I’m nowhere near or like her]). The use of demonstratives as discourse particles adds an additional layer of meaning to the sentence, conveying not just the basic information but also the speaker’s attitude or emotional state.

Language Evolution: An example of language evolution in Spanish is the changing use of pronouns over time. For instance, the frequency of the Spanish pronoun “vos” compared with “tú”, both pronouns meaning “you”, varies across time and space. In current-day Argentina, for example, “vos” is often used as the second-person singular subject pronoun (“you”), as it is in Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent in other Spanish-speaking countries. The path to these differences is embedded in the unique evolution of Spanish in different places.

Language Acquisition Mechanisms: An example of native language acquisition in Spanish is the way children learn to use subject pronouns. In Spanish, subject pronouns are often omitted because the verb form itself tells us who the subject (or speaker) is. For instance, a child might say “yo quiero agua” (I want water) instead of just “quiero agua” (want water), as an adult might. Over time, the child learns to omit the subject pronoun when it is not necessary for clarity, like “Hey, it’s ME who wants the water!”. An example of second language acquisition in Spanish is the way adult learners often struggle with grammatical gender, which does not exist in languages like English. For instance, an English speaker learning Spanish might say “el mesa” (the table) instead of “la mesa” (the table), because they are not used to assigning gender to inanimate objects. Or – even among highly experienced bilinguals – they might have no idea how to say “a white female swan” using the proper aggregate of genders: “un cisne hembra blanco,” with “un” and “-o” [masculine].

Cognitive Intersections with Regional Varieties: An example of cognitive intersections with race in Spanish is the way different dialects and accents are perceived and valued. For instance, Hammond & Resnick (1988) found that speakers of Caribbean Spanish dialects were perceived as less educated or less competent than speakers of other dialects, due to stereotypes and prejudices.

Cognitive Intersections with Gender: An example of cognitive intersections with gender in Spanish is the way language use reflects and reinforces gender roles and expectations. For instance, Oliva (2015) found that women omitted overt subject pronouns (using I, you, he/she, etc.) more and preferred second-person pronouns (you), reflecting a more subjective style.


Aijón Oliva, M. A., & Serrano, M. J. (2016). A matter of style: gender and subject variation in Spanish. Gender & Language, 10(2).

Dauphinais, A., & Ortiz López, L. (2013). Word order and NP characteristics in Cuban Spanish: Pragmatic and sociolinguistic variation. In Hispanic Linguistics Symposium.

Hammond, R. M., & Resnick, M. C. (Eds.). (1988). Studies in Caribbean Spanish Dialectology. Georgetown University Press.