“Cheee, ¡Re boludo que sos!”, you hear someone say to their friend teasingly as they playfully push at their shoulder.
“Where am I?” you then ask yourself. “These people speak Spanish, right? Why then, does it sound so different?”
Deep breaths. You’re not alone!
Argentina is one of those Spanish-speaking countries with a repertoire of vernacular unparalleled by other nations. Sometimes I joke around and say, “No, I’m not learning Spanish. I’m learning Argentine.” It really does feel that way sometimes! Argentinians have their own words for basically everything I’ve encountered.
Camisa? No, it’s a remera.
Aguacate—what’s that? You’re thinking of palta.
It’s frutilla, not fresa, ananá, not piña, lapicera, not bolígrafo.
I could go on.
And I will, just to teach you all a bit about the eccentricities of Argentine Spanish. Those of you studying Spanish and who plan on visiting this unique country, I’m sure you’ll find this post most useful. I’m going to break this post up into four parts, those being the different lexical aspects you’ll encounter while you immerse yourself in this culture.
- Vocabulary distinctions
- Unique phrases
- Grammatical variations
- Tone & Rhythm
PART ONE: VOCABULARY DISTINCTIONS
All right, let’s begin with the vocabulary. You can start by throwing your high school Spanish book out the window and forgetting *almost* everything you learned in university because none of that matters anymore. Besides the aforementioned words, there are many other Argentine translations worth mentioning. First, I made you all this handy dandy chart with the most noteworthy vocabulary words you’ll come across. This is just the tip of the iceberg!
|English word||Word you probably learned in high school/college||Argentine translation|
|kid||niño||nene/pibe (niño also used)|
|hot dog||perrito caliente||pancho|
|red pepper||pimiento rojo||morrón|
|green beans||judías verdes||chauchas|
|swimsuit||traje de baño||malla|
|pregame||hacer el botellón||hacer la previa|
One thing I’ve noticed here is that Argentines are more likely to adapt to anglocismos, which are English words incorporated into their vocabulary. I remember that in Spain, they would mostly come up with their own translation but here they are more willing to incorporate English words into their vocabulary. Most of these are relating to technology such as “mail” for “e-mail”, rather than “correo electrónico”, or the words “selfie”, “chat”, “comfort”, “CD”, “hobby” etc. (A more complete list here! http://www.americanismos.com/ejemplos-de-anglicismos)
Not only English words have been added, but Argentine Spanish has largely been formed from Italian words, indigenous words, and some Portuguese ones as well! After all, Brazil is right next door.
Another source of Argentina’s unique lexicon is all thanks to prisoners and outlaws in the 19th century. What? How is this possible?
Do you remember back in middle school when you would pass notes in class and you made up your own “secret language” so that if the teacher confiscated the paper they wouldn’t understand it? Don’t play innocent, I know I’m not the only one! Well, criminals in Argentina back in the day did the same exact thing so that the prison guards didn’t understand them—only they were at a much higher level than you and I and their words actually STUCK. In fact, I still use them in my everyday speech here!
All of this lexical variation is called “lunfardo”, which comes from the Italian word “lombardo”, which referred to a city in Italy where many of the immigrants came from (Lombardia). Eventually, the word lunfardo itself began to mean “criminal” due to its associations with lawbreakers. I love etymology.
Many Lunfardo words are seen in tango lyrics. Remember when we discussed the history of tango and I said that at its roots, tango was associated with the lower class folk? As we all know, lower class, poverty, and crime usually go hand in hand, hence the connection between the criminals using lunfardo speech and the lower class people writing tango songs.
It’s worth mentioning that the use of lunfardo has remained largely concentrated in the region of Buenos Aires for the most part.
The way many of these words were formed was by switching around the syllables in the word, known as “vesre” (revés). For example, “panza” is belly, but they would say “zapán”, “quilombo” would be “bolonqui” and “mujer” would turn into “jermu”. See it now? Not all of the words were formed this way, sometimes they formed using a variation on Italian, French or Spanish. But still interesting!
(More here! https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesre)
Here is a little snippet I took from Wikipedia with the words taken from other languages and used in Lunfardo. The ones in bold are ones I’ve actually heard or used.
- buchón– snitch, informer to the law (from the French bouillon)
- chochamu– young man (vesre for muchacho)
- fiaca– laziness, or lazy person (from the Italian fiacca “laziness, sluggishness”)
- gomías– friends (vesre for amigos)
- guita– money
- lorca– hot, as in the weather (vesre for calor “heat”)
- mina– an informal word for woman
- percanta– a young woman
- pibe– like “kid”, a common term for boy or, in more recent times, for young man
- quilombo– racket, ruckus, disorder, mess; also slang for brothel (from the Kimbundu word kilombo).
- cerebrar– to think something up (from cerebro, “brain”)
- engrupir– to fool someone (origin unknown, but also used in modern European and Brazilian Portuguese slang)
- garpar– to pay with money (vesre for pagar “to pay”)
- junar– to look to / to know (from Caló junar “to hear”)
- laburar– to work (from Italian lavorare “to work”)
- manyar– to know / to eat (from the Italian mangiare “to eat”)
- morfar– to eat (from French argot morfer “to eat”)
- pescar– to know (vesre from the Italian capisce “do you understand?”)
One point that really captured my interest was the word “quilombo” and its origin. This is a hugely popular word here and it means “mess”. Long story short, it comes from escaped slaves from Africa who fled to Brazil and set up settlements known as “Kilombos”. This is where many brothels were situated and when you think about it, there is kind of a connection between a brothel and a big mess. And there you have it!
Now onto phrases!
Within these phrases, I’ll indicate at the end whether or not they are Lunfardo in origin.
To express that someone is cool and gives off good vibes or is agreeable, you say “tiene buena onda”. Conversely, “tiene mala onda” would be the opposite.
To say that something is very posh, high-end, expensive, upper-class, designer, sometimes snobbish—basically any of those translations depending on the context, you call it “cheto”. For example,
-“¿Che, fuiste a ese boliche electrónico en Independencia?” (Hey, have you gone to that electronic dance club on Independencia street?)
-“No, es re cheto, ¿eh? ¡Ochenta pesos por un Fernet!” (No, it’s really ‘cheto’! Eighty pesos for one Fernet!)
Argentines have 3 ways to use the word “pedo”…which means fart. Yes. You read that correctly. In a more colloquial sense, it translates as “problem”….Well if you think about it, I guess they’re kind of the same thing, amiright?
- Estar al pedo: to be idle, have nothing to do, lots of free time
- Estar en pedo: to be drunk
- Ni en pedo: No way!
- A los pedos: really quick (“Ella se fue a los pedos.” –She left quickly.)
- De pedo: by chance/luckily (“Aprobé el examen de pedo” –Luckily I passed the exam.)
To say okay, channel your inner Pitbull and say “dale”. It was a bit of an adjustment for me because I was used to the peninsular Spanish, “vale”.
To refer to Spaniards, they call them “gallegos”. (“Entra un gallego a un bar…” –So a Spaniard walks into a bar…) HOWEVER, this is NOT politically correct…I’ll leave it at that.
To say that someone is smart, friendly or just a good person, you say that they are “piola”. Note that “piola” stays the same even when talking about guys.
You know how in English we say “chick” when talking about a girl and “dude” when talking about a guy? Argentinians say “mina” and “tipo” or “pibe” to express this idea. (Mina and pibe: Lunfardo)
Speaking of “tipo”, you would also use this word to give an approximation. (“Llego tipo las siete.” –I’m arriving around seven.)
A much stronger word than “boludo” is “pelotudo”. Boludo is an affectionate way to refer to someone depending on the context, basically meaning “silly”. A good translation I found was “blockhead”. Think back to your Charlie Brown days! “Pelotudo” however is much stronger. It would roughly translate as “stupid”, or “dumba**”.
To say “cool”, you can say “genial”, “bárbaro”, or “copado”.
An annoying person or situation can be referred to as an “hicha pelotas”.
Another way to say “very” is “re”, instead of “muy”.
A mess or a sticky situation is a “quilombo”. (Lunfardo)
The police are also called the “cana” or “yuta”.
Something boring is “embole”.
If you don’t care about something, you can say, “No me da bola”.
More can be found here!
PART TWO: UNIQUE PHRASES
Now that we have individual vocabulary words covered, let’s move into some phrases that are quite common in Argentina. These are little “muletillas”, or fillers that you’ll hear:
- “Mirá vos…” (Look at you…) This is kinda like when we say, “whadya know…”, “really?”, or “wow”. It’s a way to show acknowledgment of what the other person is saying.
-“Compré estas plataformas a la galería ayer.” (I bought these platforms at the gallery yesterday.)
-“Ah, ¡mirá vos! (Oh, look at you/really!)
- “¿Qué sé yo?” (What do I know?) This phrase is added into conversation when someone is unsure of the information they are providing. It’s a lot like our “like”.
-“Qué hiciste ayer?” (What did you do yesterday?)
-“Bueno, Laura y yo fuimos al shopping porque estábamos re al pedo y…qué se yo…paseamos un rato allá antes de tomar un matecito. (Well, Laura and I went to the mall because we had nothing to do and…like…we walked around a bit before having a little mate.)
- “De una/tal cual” (Totally) You’ll hear these phrases when expressing agreement. They’re used in different contexts however. “Tal cual” is saying “yes, I agree.”, where “de una” is more like saying “definitely” or something along the lines of “let’s do it!” This particular phrase implies that the listener wants to take part in whatever you want to do, not merely expressing agreement. Here are some examples to clarify:
-“Ese tipo sigue enviándome mensajes por Whatsapp. ¡Qué hincha pelotas! (That guy keeps sending me Whatsapp messages. How annoying!)
–¡Tal cual! No lo respondas, entonces. (Totally! Don’t answer him then.)
-“¿Cheee, querés ir a chupar un trago?” (Heyy, do you want to go grab a drink?)
–”¡De una! Te busco a tu depto?” (Totally! Meet you at your place?)
- “Sí o sí” (Definitely) This phrase is used in the context of commands. My choral instructor always uses this, saying that we need to come to the practices sí o sí.
–Tenés que conocer a Mendoza, sí o sí. (You definitely need to visit Mendoza.)
- “Pasa que…” (The thing is/Its’s just that…) You would use this in the beginning of a sentence to plead your case for something, just like in English.
-“Pasa que me quedo sin plata así que no les puedo acompañar a salir esta noche.” (The thing is, I don’t have any money so I can’t come out with you guys tonight.)
- “Por las dudas” (Just in case…literally translating as “for the doubts”) This one is self-explanatory, and different than from what I learned in Spain, “por si acaso”.
- “Ya fue…” (What’s done is done.) I give the Argentines credit. They are pretty optimistic. Life can throw some crazy curveballs and they’ll say, “ya fue”, because they know you can’t control everything that happens in life. It’s better not to dwell on bad moments and move on.
In fact, my one porteña friend described it perfectly. She said, “If it’s something you can fix, don’t worry because you have the solution. If it’s something you can’t fix, still don’t worry because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” LIFE CHANGING.
–“Qué pelotudo mi ex-novio. Él se puso las cuernas. Pero ya fue; estoy mejor sin él igual…” (What a dumba** my ex-boyfriend was. He cheated on me. But what’s done is done; I’m better off without him anyway.)
- “Capaz” (Maybe) Of course, you can always say “tal vez” or “quizás”, but you’ll also hear this way of expressing “maybe”.
-“Capaz que me vaya a Japón. Ahora no sé.” (I might go to Japan. Now I don’t know.)
- ¿Cómo andas? ¿Cómo te va? (How are you? How’s it going?) Not sure this is soley for Argentina but both of these are common greetings!
- ¿Todo bien? (All good?) This phrase is used as a greeting, and more specifically means something along the lines of “What’s up?” Its use is very informal. To respond, you can say, “Sí, todo bien. ¿Vos?”
- ¿Viste? (You see that?) This is another conversation filler to express agreement. It’s a lot like we say “Right?” when we agree with something in English. Or it could also mean “you know?”
-“Hay tantas ofertas al shopping ahora, ¿viste?” (There are so many deals at the mall, you know?)
-“No tengo ganas de salir esta noche. Hace mucho frío.” (I don’t feel like going out tonight. It’s so cold.)
- ¡Ojo! (Watch out/Be careful!) Once again, this one explains itself.
- Listo (All right/Got it) This word literally translates as “ready”, but in context it is another way to express agreement, or rather understanding and obliging. It’s a lot like saying “Okay, got it.”
–Primero, hay que doblar a la derecha y está a cuatro cuadras. ¿Me entendés? (First you have to turn right and it’s four blocks ahead. Got it?)
-Bueno, listo. Gracias. (Okay, got it. Thanks.)
- Che (Hey, or man/dude/buddy) This is probably THE MOST important phrase worth mentioning, given that when people think of Argentina, they think of this word. Heck, Che Guevarra got his nickname because he said it so much! There are two situations in which this is used. The first one we are quite familiar with: it’s interchangeable with our “hey”, being used to catch someone’s attention. Simple enough. It can also be used to refer to a friend in a casual setting. Like, “¿Querés alquilar una peli, che?” (You wanna rent a movie, man?)
PART THREE: GRAMMATICAL VARIATIONS
There are three grammar topics that caught my attention since I’ve been here.
- Use of participles
- Use of indirect object pronouns
So instead of saying “he hecho” (I have done) or “he ido” (I have gone), or any other sentence following the participle structure (someone HAS done something), Argentines will just skip all that and say “hice” (I did) or “fui” (I went), using the past tense directly.
An example would be, instead of me asking, “Has ido a Jujuy?” (Have you gone to Jujuy?) I would just say “Fuiste a Jujuy?” (Did you go to Jujuy?). Although for us the question sounds a little more vague in this form, Argentines will know what you mean, especially if you add “alguna vez” (any time) to the end of the sentence, which reinforces the idea of it being only one time or for the first time.
Alas…the time has finally come to discuss the voseo. This conjugated verb form I so dreaded before coming here I have actually come to embrace and now I confess that is sounds better and more natural than saying “tú” and using those verb forms. (*GASP!*) As we all know, Argentines reject the way of saying you in its singular form as “tú” and instead say “vos”. In the present tense, the conjugations are different than what you’ve learned. There are some irregulars but overall it’s a lot easier to learn than the tú form!
So instead of saying “tú eres” for “you are”, you would say “vos sos”. That’s an irregular. For “you have”, it would be “tenés” rather than “tienes”. “Quieres” would change to “querés”, “piensas” changes to “pensás”. The good thing is, these new conjugations are only in the present tense, so the future, imperfect, conditional, preterit, and subjunctive all stay the same from what you learned back in the day. Yay!
For those of you who studied the Penninsular Spanish “vosotros” forms, all you do to form “vos” is drop that additional, non-accented vowel and voilá! There you have the Argentine vos.
Commands also change with the voseo, putting the stressed syllable on the last vowel instead of the first one. So now it’s mandáme, avisáme, calláte, instead of mándame, avísame and cállate. The irregular commands are easier to learn now because they’re not so irregular. Instead of “haz” for “hacer”, it simply changes to “hacé”. You would just be dropping the “s”! Remember these irregulars?
|Infinitive||Conventional Conjugation in Command Form||Argentina Conjugation in Command Form|
* “ir” in a command sense is rarely used, so the verb “andar” is used instead.
Once again referencing Peninsular Spanish, for commands in the “vos”, all you do is drop the letter “d” from the “vosotros” commands. Even the accent stays in the same place. It’s that easy! (abrid, escribid, hablad à abrí, escribí, hablá)
Indirect Object Pronouns
So whenever you refer to someone who is receiving an action in Spanish, you use what is called the indirect object pronoun. For example, “I’ll let her know”. The word “her” is the indirect object pronoun because she is receiving the action. Normally in Spanish, you would say “le” to express this. “Le avisaré.” However I’ve noticed that here in Argentina they’ll say “lo” instead of “le”, so it would be “lo avisaré”. Minor difference, but just curious.
PART FOUR: TONE AND RHYTHM
If you were to have Spanish-speakers from any of the 21 countries around the world repeat the same sentence to me, I could instantly pick out the Argentine. Their way of speaking is very distinct, as they have a unique tone and rhythm unmatched by other countries. There are constant fluctuations in tone, with their voices going up and down in such a way it’s as if they are singing.
Mini history lesson:
Argentine heritage comes from three major sources: Italian, Spanish and the rest of the Europeans. Of course, there is a mix of native heritage in there as well but that’s not as prominent. The key here is ITALIAN. Have you ever noticed the way Italians speak? They are very animated and it sounds like they are…singing! Take that Italian heritage and mix it with the Spanish language, and you have a unique blend of Argentine Spanish in regards to tone.
In fact, they’ve even adopted the Italians’ expressive body language in speech, using many gestures and speaking with their hands to get their point across.
You’ll see this a lot.
One topic I’m sure I’ve mentioned before but is worth discussing again due to its weighty importance is the use of the “sh” sound whenever you see “ll” or “y”. The degree of strength varies by region, being quite pronounced in Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, diminishing a bit to more of a soft “j” sound by the time you reach Córdoba and then completely disappearing by the time you reach Mendoza or the northern regions such as Jujuy and Salta.
All of these tendencies fall under the category of the “rioplatense” Spanish, expressed by this map:
I must confess, using the voseo forms, the yeísmo and the distinct lexicon Argentina possesses has come very naturally to me and dare I say it sounds better to me than the way I was speaking before. It possesses a certain, je ne sais pas that is so alluring to me. I wish I could just teach my students this version of español!
There you have it. I’ve brushed the surface of the deeply intricate and complex Argentinian Spanish. Honestly though, the best way to learn is by surrounding yourself with native speakers, so if you ever get the chance to visit this beautiful country, take advantage of that opportunity!