The Spanish of Argentina: el Castellano del Rio de la Plata

First, I’d like to clear up a common misconception: “Castellano” and “español” are two words for the same thing – and both words mean Spanish. If someone asks you, “¿Hablás castellano?” they want to know if you speak Spanish, not if you speak “Argentine.” I only point this out because many students, when they first come to Argentina, will think that castellano is a word which refers to the Argentine variety of Spanish, but in fact it simply means Spanish.

So why are there two words for Spanish: “español” and “castellano” and why do you more commonly hear the latter when people are speaking in Spanish?

It has to do with the modern-day politics of Spain, and in particular, the relationship of Spain’s minority cultures and languages to the dominant (Castilian) language and culture. It’s more politically correct to say “castellano” rather than “español” – because by saying the latter you are, in effect, belittling the other regional languages of Spain (such as Basque and Catalan) which are in fact also Spanish languages in the sense of being languages that are spoken in Spain. Castellano was, itself, once only a regional language of Spain, and even though it’s now the dominant language, calling it “castellano” instead of “español” is – it is thought – more respectful to the minority cultures, since it puts all of the languages of the Iberian Peninsula on a, more or less, even linguistic footing. (In spite of this, Spanish, on the other hand, continues to be the preferred word in foreign circles when the language is referred to as a second language, hence giving rise to the confusion.)

However, that’s neither here nor there, because the Spanish which is spoken in Latin America is all castellano, or Castilian Spanish.

The variety of Castilian Spanish which is spoken in Argentina’s capital city, meanwhile, is known as the castellano del Río de la Plata, so named for the river which bisects the region and separates Argentina from Uruguay to the north.

Argentines will be the first to admit – proudly, because they are a very proud people – that their way of speaking Spanish is one-of-a-kind. The Spanish which is spoken in Buenos Aires is marked by strong immigrant influences – notably that of the Italians. In addition, this Spanish has conserved certain traits of bygone eras, most notably the use of the “vos” pronoun (which, with its 17th century echoes, sometimes strikes other Spanish speakers as amusing, somewhat akin to what it would sound like to hear modern day English spoken with a Shakespearian “thee”). Finally, the Spanish of the Río de la Plata is highly inventive and is noted for its use of local slang, known as “lunfardo.”

Here are a few of the principal traits of Argentine Spanish, with examples (you can skip this part if you don’t already speak some Spanish):

1) The pronoun “vos.” The pronoun “vos,” even though ubiquitous and a little jarring at first, is actually remarkably easy to use and to get used to. The “vos” simply replaces the informal you (tú) pronoun. Verbs are conjugated by dropping the last letter “r” of the infinitive, replacing it with an “s,” and adding an accent to the final syllable of the verb. The conjugation is thus significantly more regular than it is with the “tú” pronoun, which is wrought with irregular forms. Examples of the use of “vos” include: “Vos vivís en Argentina” (You live in Argentina.) “Vos hablás castellano.” (You speak Spanish.) The only irregular verb used with “vos” is the verb “ser”. This is conjugated with “sos” (in place of “eres” from the tú form). Example: “Vos sos de Argentina.” (You are from Argentina). In the other tenses (past, future, conditional, and subjunctive, “vos” is conjugated in exactly the same way as “tú.”)

2) The letters ll and y in Argentine Spanish are pronounced with a soft sh sound. Example: “Yo me llamo” sounds like “sho me shamo”; or “calle” is pronounced like “cashe.”

3) Lunfardo. These can include sometimes untranslatable words such as “vivo” – a word that is used to denote a person who can get away with things; a hustler. A related term is “avivarse”: to get wise to things; gain experience; learn not to get taken advantage of. Another popular expression, with origins in lunfardo, is “che” which is roughly equivalent to the English “hey.” Certain Argentines use the word “che” all the time, especially when they’re angry. As in “Che, what are you doing? Che, where are you going? Che, get back here!” This way of speaking was how Ernesto “Che” Gueverra, apparently an easily frustrated person, was given his nickname.

4) Other words. Mainly related to food. Examples: Peach: known in many Spanish-speaking countries as melocotón; in Argentina (and Mexico), durazno. Strawberry: known in other Spanish-speaking countries as fresa; in Argentina, frutilla.

The point, if you’re attempting to learn the language, is not to get overwhelmed. The similarities between Argentine Spanish and other varieties to which you might have had more prior exposure are really much greater than the differences, which are mostly fairly minor. Give yourself a few days at the beginning of your stay to get used to the new accent and to hearing the word “vos” thrown around, and within no time you’ll be having a great time expanding your knowledge of “lunfardo” and benefitting from those things – language related or not – which make a stay in Argentina truly unique.

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