My Argentine Spanish in the Latin American context

conversational dimension
My Argentine Spanish in the Latin American context

After a lot of work, MULTILATERAL’s website is finally available in Spanish!

Everything in it is now bilingual, from pages and downloadable resources to the MULTILATERAL Notes and their audio versions.

Of course, I translated and recorded it myself so that it’s a true reflection of my own voice, tone, and style in both languages: English and Spanish.

Proud of my work, I spent the last couple of weeks sharing it with friends and colleagues and the response I got was as great as I had hoped, if not greater. There was, however, something unusual about it: some people loved the fact that the Spanish I use in my website is very Argentine; while some others wondered why I preferred it to a more ‘neutral’ Spanish given that I work with all Latin America and not just my home country.

So, leaving aside for the moment the fact that there’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ Spanish, I thought it’d be good idea to share with you the reasoning behind my choice.

In a way, there are two sides to my professional self:

  • Cecilia, the diplomatic interpreter
  • Cecilia, the author, speaker, business owner, colleague, community member… Basically, me.

When I’m Cecilia, the diplomatic interpreter:

When I interpret for my clients, I’m a vehicle for their message.

My voice is theirs and, therefore, I tailor the way I speak to mirror theirs, their tone, their style, their background.

This is why, for example, I always use the more formal usted in Spanish, as not only is it used in the same way throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but it also befits the settings I usually assist my clients in. I also adapt my lexicon to the person I’m interpreting for and/or audience’s background and prefer using common phrases and expressions to more local/regional ones. However, no matter how hard I try, I can’t change my accent; to be honest, I think it’d sound disrespectful if I tried to mimic anyone else’s so, I stick to my own.

Accent aside, in most other ways, I tone my own self down so that my clients can shine, and their audiences understand them better and seamlessly.

When I’m… me:

But when I’m speaking and/or writing in my own name, as I do on my website and Notes, and not giving voice to somebody else’s message, the story changes. Then it’s me talking.

And the fact is that I come from Buenos Aires and that I’m witty and friendly and warm – or at least I’d like to think I am – so, I speak like a witty, friendly, and warm porteña (someone from the port city of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina).

But isn’t Argentine Spanish very different to all other Spanish?

Yes and no. Let’s break a few myths.

  1. What is usually referred to as ‘Argentine Spanish’ is not actually ‘Argentine Spanish’ but ‘River Plate Spanish’. This means that the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires (and its surrounding areas) is more like the one spoken in Uruguay than the one spoken in the rest of Argentina. Therefore, it is a regional variety rather than a national one.
  2. Argentine Spanish is not the only one that is different from all others. Colombian Spanish is also different from all others, and so are Mexican, Chilean, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Dominican, Uruguayan and so on. Each country has its own accents, lexicon, common phrases, and conversational crutches and differ from the rest as much as the next one.
  3. Argentine/River Plate Spanish is as valid a language as any of the other regional and/or national varieties of any languages spoken around the world.

So, what distinguishes Argentine/River Plate Spanish from all other varieties of Spanish?

At a first glance, Argentine/River Plate Spanish is characterised by:

  1. The use of vos instead of for the informal second person singular (you, in English) and, with it, its own way to conjugate and accent verbs. A phenomenon known as voseo.
  2. Pronouncing the ‘ll’ sound as in the English word ‘shower’ instead of as in the English word ‘yellow’ as they do in the rest of Latin America. A phenomenon known as yeísmo.
  3. The use of a specific type of slang known as lunfardo.
  4. A tendency to be extremely direct to the point of sounding blunt even when being polite.

Let’s unpack these characteristics one by one. You’ll see that Argentine/River Plate Spanish is not as unique as you (and most of us, porteños) think.

  • Voseo

The use of the form vos for the informal second person singular (you, in English) is not unique to the River Plate region; it’s used by about two thirds of Latin Americans.

It was brought to the continent by the conquistadores as the counterpart of the ‘royal we’ (something like a ‘royal you’) and, therefore, it was regarded to be a more deferent form of address than the informal and over-familiar of back then. As, at the time, there weren’t many scenarios in which the over-familiarity of would be acceptable, vos became the norm in the colonies.

However, when the form vos stopped being used in Spain in the 16th century, two things happened across the Atlantic Ocean:

  • only viceroyalty countries like Mexico and Peru aligned themselves with the metropolis; and
  • the Spanish arriving to the colonies still wanted to enjoy the special status and deference of kings, viceroys, and the gentry and, therefore, continued using the form vos to address each other, thus prolonging and spreading its use.

Although for centuries the form vos was considered incorrect and undignified, in 1984, the Academia Argentina de Letras was the first linguistic body to recognise it as the correct, standard informal form to be used in literature and official communications. And, finally, in 2005, the Royal Spanish Academy and The Association of Spanish Language Academies gave voseo official recognition by saying in the Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Doubts that there isn’t only one Spanish language.

Nowadays, the form vos is used by 2/3 of Latin Americans in countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Costa Rica, and in parts of Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Cuba.

So… not an Argentine/River Plate phenomenon but a Latin American one.

  • Yeísmo

Argentines and Uruguayans, or better said River Plate peoples, are famous for pronouncing the Spanish ll as the Spanish y. So, instead of saying pollo (chicken) as poio, we say posho; rain isn’t iuvia but shuvia, and so on.

Have we lost our collective minds?

Well, we’re a bit crazy, but for other reasons.

What linguists believe has happened is that this phenomenon is the result of the combined influence of Portuguese sounds coming down from Brazil, the migratory influx of Galicians and Italians during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the heavy influence of French culture and Gallicisms over the region during the Romantic Period at the turn of the 20th century.

So… not an Argentine/River Plate phenomenon but the confluence of regional ones.

  • Lunfardo

Lunfardo (which means ‘quick way of saying things’) is a form of slang that was started in the city of Buenos Aires by criminals in the 19th century and, over the 20th century, spread to other socioeconomic classes and became part of porteños vocabulary as well as that of the rest of the country.

It’s linked to tango and Italian immigrants, from which it took and adapted many terms (this is why Argentines say laburo for ‘work’ which is more similar to the Italian lavoro than the Spanish trabajo) and it makes use of certain linguistic tricks such as reversing the order of the letters in a word (such as saying vesre instead of revés (backwards, contrary, etc.).

Lunfardo is a truly Argentine thing. However, it’s no different from any of the slangs spoken in many other neighbourhoods, cities, and/or countries around the world.

So… not necessarily an Argentine/River Plate phenomenon but a global one.

  • Bluntness

In general, Argentines are known for being direct and going straight to the point.

For example, instead of saying ‘would you mind holding this for me?’ as an English person would say, most likely, an Argentine would just say ‘hold this’ and skip all pleasantries; and in emails, skip the whole ‘hope this email finds you well’ introduction and simply go straight to the point. Such directness may come across as rude or blunt.

It's not quite known what causes this, but I can assure you it’s not due to rudeness, impoliteness or lack of care. Maybe it’s out of impatience? Perhaps over-familiarity or a sign we like you? I’d go with the latter if you asked me. Something like when children and teenagers (and well, some adults, too) gently hit or pat the person they like. If an Argentine is all polite, correct, and distant with you, then most likely you’re not ‘in’ with them yet – or you’re a very important person in a very formal situation.

So… not necessarily an Argentine/River Plate phenomenon but a (universal) relational one taken to a collective extreme.

Despite its cultural meaning, there’ll be no bluntness in MULTILATERAL’s cyber-home simply because rudeness is not my style. Honestly, I do hate bad manners. So, no.

And there’ll be next to no lunfardo or any type of slang unless a Note I write or a talk I give calls for it.

But you’ll certainly find my mother tongue regional phenomenon of voseo across the Spanish version of my website and hear my yeísmo when you listen to me in Spanish, whether I’m interpreting, giving a talk, or reading a Note to you.

Like I said, I think it’d sound terribly fake and disrespectful if I tried to mimic anyone else’s accent or verb conjugation, especially when the whole point of writing my Notes, publishing books, and giving talks and workshops is to get to you better and for you to get to know me.

So, this is me. A witty, friendly, and warm porteña bringing clarity to the Anglo-LatAm table in my own way.

It’s nice to meet you! ;)

Useful Resources

¿Por qué algunos países de América Latina usan el 'vos' en vez del 'tú'?

¿Por qué en Argentina y Uruguay pronuncian las letras "y" y "ll" distinto del resto de América Latina?

Argentine Spanish Slang: What is Lunfardo?

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