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¿Hablas castellano? An overview of Latin American Spanish

Published January 20, 2015 by Nick Dall

385 million of the 469 million Spanish speakers in the world are Latin American and Spanish is the second most common native tongue in the world (behind Mandarin and ahead of English). Latin America stretches from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, and – these days – from Brooklyn to Bratislava too, so to make generalizations about the Spanish spoken by Latin Americans (often referred to as Castellano  by the locals) is probably more than a little foolhardy. But let’s give it a go anyway…
Spanish was brought to Latin America by Spanish explorers and conquistadores in the 16th century and – with the obvious exception of Brazil – is spoken throughout the continent. It’s the official language of 19 South American countries and is one of the 6 official languages of the United Nations.
Accents and sounds
Latin America is a vast continent (two continents, in fact) and trying to describe a ‘South American accent’ would provide more confusion than illumination. That said, there are one or two valid generalizations when it comes to the pronunciation of certain sounds.
In European Spanish and in the Andean parts of South America the pronunciation of the ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sounds is distinct while in the rest of Latin America these two sounds are identical. In Argentina and Uruguay they are pronounced ‘sh’ or like the ‘s’ in ‘pleasure’ depending on which part of the country they come from. This famous Argentine TV advert about ‘La llama que llama’ (The llama who calls) is a pretty good representation of the latter variant:



Unlike Spanish from Spain, Latin American Spanish does not pronounce a soft ‘c’ or ‘z’ any differently from an ‘s’. While the word cenicero (ashtray) in Spain would contain two lisped ‘th’ sounds, in Latin America it is pronounced ‘senisero’.
Weird grammar
An endearing characteristic of the Spanish in Andean countries is the liberal use of the diminutive endings -ito and -ita. While most Spanish speakers would say Nos vemos ahora (‘See you soon’), a Bolivian or Peruvian would downsize the whole phrase charmingly by saying Nos vemos ahorita. In the remote Chiquitanía region of Southeastern Bolivia I even had the dubious pleasure of befriending a chap called Kevincito (little Kevin): I think someone’s mother watched Dances with Wolves one too many times!
One of the most striking local variations is the Argentine use of vos instead of tu for the singular ‘you’ and ustedes instead of vosotros for the plural. This also affects the inflection of the accompanying verb endings. If you learn your Spanish in Argentina, as I did, you should try to drop the habit in other Latin American countries – vos will be understood throughout the continent, but it is considered very informal, verging on rude. This is probably half of the reason that Argies are considered haughty by the rest of the continent…
Local flavor
Every Latin American country has its own indigenous languages and these, have had a strong impact on the Spanish vocabulary in these countries. Not to mention the influence of immigrants from regions as diverse as Europe, Asia and Africa. There are literally thousands of examples of regional slang, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • pololo and polola – in Chile you don’t call your boyfriend or girlfriend your novio or novia.
  • ¿cachai? – Chileans use this phrase which translates as ‘Do you understand?’ at the end of just about every sentence…especially when they’re speaking to foreigners. (Given their weird accents, the answer is usually: ‘No.’)
  • ¿que cosa? – instead of just saying ¿que? when they want you to repeat yourself, most Ecuadorians will say ¿que cosa? which translates as ‘what thing?’
  • bacán – just about every country has its own way of saying ‘cool’ but there’s none cooler than Ecuador’s bacán.
  • el servicio – anywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world you go to the baño, but not in Peru.
  • chifa – is the name given to the Chinese restaurants which are around every corner in Peru and Bolivia. Chifa Ping was my local – what’s yours?
  • che – loosely translates as ‘man’ or ‘pal’ but is used very liberally in Argentine Spanish. In much the same way that ‘like’ is used by VJs on MTV.
  • pibe and mina – these terms for guy and girl (in that order) are unique to Argentine slang.

This blog has only scratched the surface. If languages and dialects float your boat, you could do a lot worse than to get yourself a copy of Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook. Or you could just wander into a slightly-off-the-beaten track South American bar or restaurant and buy the whole place a round…every man and his dog in Latin America is a wannabe Spanish teacher; the more colorful the better!
Sharing mate with a friend in Plaza Espana_2