Attractions of South America e-Book

Argentina: Language

To get the most out of your trip to Argentina, you'll need to have a decent smattering of Spanish. Though you'll frequently come across English-speakers who'll be more than keen to try out their language skills on you, you can't rely on there always being someone there when you need them.

In general, Argentines are appreciative of visitors who make the effort to communicate in castellano - a great confidence booster for those whose language skills are limited. Any basic Spanish course will give you a good grounding before you go.

A good pocket dictionary, such as Collins, is a vital accessory, while of the bigger dictionaries Collins, Oxford and Larousse are all good - make sure your choice covers Latin American usage.

If you really want to refine your grasp of the subtleties of the language, a comprehensive grammar such as the excellent A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish by John Butt and Carmen Benjamin (Edward Arnold, London 1988) is a good investment.

Argentine Spanish is one of the most distinctive varieties of the language. Dominating the country's linguistic identity is the unmistakable Porteño accent, a seductive blend of an expressive, almost drawling intonation, combined with colorful colloquialisms.

Linguistically speaking, the capital's sphere of influence spreads out for several hundred kilometers around Buenos Aires; beyond this, subtle regional variations begin to take hold, though certain grammatical constructions and words hold for the whole country.

If you've learnt Spanish in Spain, the most obvious difference you will encounter (true for the whole of Latin America) is the absence of the th sound for words like cielo (sky, pronounced SIE-lo in Argentina). In Buenos Aires, in particular, you will also be struck by the strong consonantal pronunciation of "y" and "ll", as in yo and calle, a completely different sound to the weaker vowel-like sound used in Spain and much of Latin America.

Another notable difference is the use of vos as the second-person pronoun, in place of tú, with correspondingly different verb endings. As in the rest of Latin America, ustedes is used as the third-person pronoun instead of vosotros. In general, Latin American speech is slightly more formal than Spanish, and usted is used far more commonly.

A good guideline is that vos is always used for children and usually between strangers under about 30; though within circles who regard themselves as politically progressive vos is used as a mark of shared values.

Argentine vocabulary is often quite different to Spanish, too and the use of " che " (a vocative used when addressing someone, very loosely it approximates to something like "hey" or "mate" or "oi" in British English, used at the beginning of a phrase; ¿che, qué decís? - "hey mate, how's it going?") in particular is so much identified with Argentina that some Latin Americans refer to Argentines as "Los che". The word "che" was, of course, most famously applied as a nickname to Ernesto Guevara, popularly known as Che Guevara.

The voseo

The use of vos as the second-person pronoun, a usage known as the voseo, is common to nearly the whole of Argentina. Though you will be understood perfectly if you use the tú form, you should familiarize yourself with the vos form, if only in order to understand what is being said to you.

Present-tense verb endings employed with vos correspond approximately to those used in European Spanish for the vosotros form. Thus, European tú vienes (you come) becomes Argentine vos venís. Imperative forms are again derived from vosotros, though without the final "d": European ven! ("come here!") becomes Argentine vení! Past, conditional, subjunctive and future forms used with vos are the same as the European tú forms.


The Spanish pronunciation system is remarkably straightforward and consistent, with only five, very pure vowel sounds (English has many more than this). Only a few sounds tend to cause problems for foreigners, most notably the rolled double R and the common R which, though not rolled, is pronounced in a subtly different way to its English counterpart. A general rule of thumb is to make sure you articulate words clearly and put more effort into pronunciation than you would in English: observation of native speakers will make you realize that speaking Spanish involves a much more obvious articulation of facial muscles than English, which often appears to foreigners to be mumbled through barely open lips. Another characteristic of Spanish is that there is no audible gap between words within a breathgroup; thus Buenos Aires is pronounced BWE-no-SAI-res and not BWE-nos-AI-res. Failure to observe this detail produces a very stilted Spanish.

A blessing for foreigners is the fact that Spanish is spelt exactly as it sounds - or sounds exactly as it is spelt. If this seems a minor point, imagine the problem for foreigners in working out the pronunciation of English words through, though, rough and slough

Argentine vocabulary

As well as the voseo and various different pronunciations, those who have learnt Spanish elsewhere (particularly in Spain) will need to become accustomed to some different vocabulary in Argentina. In general, Spanish terms are recognized but - as for all the other differences - a familiarity with Argentine equivalents will smooth things along. Though few Spanish terms are not understood in Argentina, there is one major exception, which holds for much of Latin America. The verb coger, used in Spain for everything from "to pick up" to "to catch (a bus)" is never used in this way in Argentina, where it is the equivalent of "to fuck"). This catch-all verb is replaced in Argentina by terms such as tomar (to take) as in tomar el colectivo (to catch the bus) and agarrar (to take hold of or grab) as in agarrá la llave (take the key). Less likely to cause problems, but still one to watch is concha, which in Spain is a perfectly innocent word meaning shell, but in Argentina is usually used to refer to a woman's genitalia: Argentines find the Spanish woman's name Conchita hilarious and the words caracol or almeja are used for shells.

Also note that some words which are feminine in Spanish are more often masculine in Argentine; eg vuelto - change, llamado - (phone) call.

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