Ah, Argentina: the land of juicy steak, Malbec wine, and unbridled passion for fútbol; the home of Evita Perón and the best dulce de leche you’ll ever taste. Before I set foot in Buenos Aires — itself an entirely different world; a mischievous lovechild of Paris and New Orleans, slathered in buena onda and with just a dash of political turmoil — I was armed with a couple years of university Spanish, so I thought I was going to do just fine with the language.
I rapidly discovered that this was not the case. Indeed, Argentine Spanish at first seemed to be some kind of pretend language, as if an Italian speaker was trying to imitate Spanish but was really just making up half the words. As I struggled through conversations littered with “¿Qué?”s and “¿Cómo?”s, I started kicking myself for relying on subtitles instead of paying attention to how the characters spoke when I watched Nueve Reinas.
But eventually, I got the hang of it, and now I’m here to help you learn what they don’t teach you in Spanish textbooks so you won’t embarrass yourself the way I did. Indeed, if you’re going to be speaking Spanish in Argentina, be prepared to drop what they taught you in class, because…
1. Their verbs are different.
After somehow surviving the monstrous wait to pass through customs, I took a taxi from the airport to the beautiful city of Buenos Aires. There, I engaged in my first real Spanish-language conversation, and got a taste for what was ahead of me. After telling my taxi driver my address and answering “¿Cómo estás?” like a champion, I hit a rough patch when he asked me, “Y vos, ¿de dónde sos?”
If you’re scratching your head right now, you can only imagine my own confusion. Vos? Sos? What are these weird rhyming words that I’ve never heard before? After stammering out a pathetic “P-p-perdón?”, my taxi driver smiled and said, “Ah, Estados Unidos, eh?” In his head, though, he was probably thinking something more along the lines of, “yanquis estúpidos…” — words I still wouldn’t have understood had he said them to me.
I quickly learned that, in the mysterious world of Argentine Spanish, the endless conjugations that I learned in class were of little value to me — well, the second-person forms, at least. In the second person (that’s “you”), verbs in Argentine Spanish are formed by dropping the “r” from the infinitive, replacing it with an “s”, and stressing the final syllable. Therefore, hablar becomes hablás, comer becomes comés, and venir becomes venís.
So what about “vos” and “sos”? Well, it turns out that sos is the only exception to the rule I explained above: it’s the second-person conjugation for ser. And vos is Argentina’s unique second-person pronoun, which for all intents and purposes completely replaces tú. (If you haven’t figured it out already, my taxi driver was asking me where I was from.)
But the funny second-person verbs and pronouns only scratched the surface of my uphill linguistic battle with Argentine Spanish, because also . . .
2. Their pronunciation is different.
Now I realize that watching Nueve Reinas wasn’t completely useless to me, for at least I learned that Argentines pronounce the letters ll and y not as the familiar “y” sound (like “young”), but as the “sh” sound in sheep. Unfortunately, this was harder to memorize than I expected, as I learned in this following exchange ordering at a restaurant:
Me: Para mí, el pollo criollo, por favor. For me, the Creole chicken, please.
Waitress: ¿Cómo? What?
Me: ¿El pollo? The chicken?
Waitress: (more slowly) ¿Cómo? What?
Me: Como…¿la carne de la gallina? Like…the meat that comes from chickens?
Sadly for me, both “pollo” and “gallina” contain a double-L, so my attempt to clarify was offset by my gringo accent, which continued to throw her off. Finally, a friend translated for me, and her face lit up with understanding when he pronounced pollo correctly as “posho”.
But the peculiar pronunciation of Argentine Spanish goes beyond how they say the letters ll and y. No, the intonation is also different, which is something to add to the growing list of things that confuse gringos. First off, in commands, the stress falls not on the second-to-last syllable of the verb, as we’ve been taught, but rather on the last one. Therefore, if I want someone to talk to me, an Argentine will not say háblame (pronounced “AH-bla-me”), but will rather say hablame (pronounced “ah-BLA-me”). Luckily, I was so traumatized by my inability to order chicken that I didn’t really want anyone to talk to me for the first couple weeks, anyway.
And finally, when multiple pronouns are attached to commands or infinitives — as pronouns are wont to do in Spanish — stress often falls on the last syllable, which is something that sounds off even to the ears of native Spanish speakers. Indeed, if your Argentine boss asks you to send him an email, he might say mandameló (“man-da-me-LO”), regardless of how jarring you find it to be. A hidden bonus of this odd pronunciation is that it makes yelling at people more fun, as you can prolong the final syllable as you dramatically cry “¡MandameLOOOOOOO!” for as long as you deem necessary.
But even if you’re mastered Argentine pronunciation, in both dramatic and non-dramatic contexts, don’t get too comfortable, because…
3. Slang pervades casual conversation.
At this point, a scrupulous reader might call me out for being cheap: after all, isn’t slang different in all dialects, even local ones? What makes Argentine slang so special? Yes, dear reader, you have a point — but as anyone who has been to Argentina can attest to, Argentines take slang to a whole new level.
Let’s start with the most important and ubiquitous ones: in Argentine Spanish, che and boludo reign supreme. Che is roughly synonymous with “hey” or “dude”, and is most often used at the beginning of an utterance as a way of getting someone’s attention — kind of like a gentle, informal way of saying “Listen up!”
Boludo (or boluda for the ladies) is a little more complicated. The word, which literally translates to “big-balled person”, certainly doesn’t seem like a compliment — and indeed, it can be used as an insult. But it’s not all aggressive: it can also be used as a term of endearment among friends. As you’ll often hear, it all depends on the context.
If you got che and boludo down, pat yourself on the back, because you’ll now be able to understand about 20% of conversations between Argentines. However, there’s plenty more to Argentine slang than, err, big balls. Here, we’ll focus on lunfardo, which is a uniquely Argentine class of slang that developed in lower-class neighborhoods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In Lunfardo, pibes and pibas are guys and gals, and women have the dubious honor of also being called minas (literally “mines”). Pifiar is to really mess something up, and morfar is to eat something when you’re really hungry. When the subway is interrumpido for the third time in one day, you might call the situation a quilombo, which literally means “brothel” but has evolved to be synonymous with “mess” or “disaster”. And while we’re on the topic of transportation that often fails, a city bus can be called a bondi.
Lunfardo developed closely with tango culture, so you’ll hear it in a lot of Argentine music, especially tango. But even if you’ve mastered Argentine slang (and the tango), there’s still more to learn, because . . .
4. Everyday items have different names, too.
Speaking Argentine Spanish doesn’t just involve learning new words and rules. Instead, it involves un-learning what you already know, as many common words are called different things. A t-shirt, for example, is not a camiseta but rather a remera; a car is not a coche or a carro but rather an auto; a sidewalk is a vereda, not an acera; a lightbulb is a bombita instead of a foco. Putting your suitcases in the trunk is not moving your maletas into the maletero, but rather your valijas into the baúl. And the list goes on and on.
But just how different Argentine Spanish is from other dialects is most apparent when you’re at the supermarket and try to buy vegetables. Indeed, pineapples are not piñas, but rather ananás; avocadoes are paltas rather than aguacates; peaches are duraznos instead of melocotones; strawberries are frutillas (be careful with the word “fresa”, as it can be easily misconstrued); and even the humble ear of corn is choclo, not maíz.
Of course, if you’re like me, at the supermarket you don’t get past the dulce de leche aisle, thus avoiding this problem altogether. But finally, even if you’ve un-learned and re-learned all the names for everyday things, you’re not quite done yet, because finally…
5. Even the gestures are different.
In general, Argentines like to hablar con las manos (“talk with their hands”), which means that they’re very expressive with their body language. Unfortunately, just exaggerating your gestures won’t cut it, because Argentines have their own, original set of gestures that, at first, may seem bewildering.
My first foray into the world of Argentine gestures was when I asked someone for directions, and they responded by brushing their fingertips along the underside of their neck from bottom to top. But don’t worry: you’re mistaken if you, like me, thought that this was a not-super-subtle way of telling me to, uh, eff off. Rather, in Argentina, the hand-under-the-neck simply means “I don’t know”.
Second, if you’re a foreigner in Buenos Aires, there are a lot of things you need to be wary of. Indeed, in my first few months when my gringo accent was at its strongest, about half of my conversations involved people telling me what I needed to do (and what I needed to avoid) in order to stay safe. Their diatribes were usually peppered by them slightly pulling beneath their eye with their index finger, which means “¡Ojo!”, or “Watch out!”
Finally, Argentina’s history of Italian immigration shines through when they are faced with an unbelievable or absurd situation. Indeed, in Argentina, the sentiment behind “Are you freaking serious?” is expressed in one simple gesture, which involves extending your arm, touching your fingers to your thumb with your palm up, and shaking your hand with a varying degree of rigor, depending on the incredulity of the situation (think of an Italian saying “What?!”). Accompany this with the super-Argentine ¿Me estás cargando? (“Are you kidding me?”), and you’re halfway transformed into a native Argentine.
Given that Argentine Spanish differs from other dialects in vocabulary, slang, grammar, pronouns, accent, intonation, and even gestures, it’s not surprising that the dialecto argento can be overwhelming at first. But now that you’ve made it through this guide, congratulations: you’ve been spared from a sad existence where you can’t order dinner or properly explain to taxi drivers where you’re from. And if you can get past the learning curve, you’ll grow to love the Argentine accent — with all of its grammatical peculiarities, its lexical oddities, its ches and boludos — as much as you grow to love Argentina itself.