Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You Say "Che!" I Say "Huh?"

At school, I could never understand the need to learn another language. English was spoken at my house, and the city I lived in had migrants but a majority spoke some form of English. At school I learnt German, Indonesian, and French. I didn’t study but still passed with flying colors. I look back now and can see I had a talent for languages but had absolutely no clues about my ability or what being bilingual or multilingual could do for me. Ah, hindsight, what a frustrating thing.

On my first few trips out of Oz, I had my trusty phrasebook with me. In places like Nepal and India, I bumbled along, frustrated at not being able to find the right word or phrase in those dodgy little language books. To get my message across, I usually ended up drawing stick figures or conducting mime sessions that would make Marcel Marceau proud.

It wasn’t until I hit the shores of South America for the first time that I realized I needed to formally learn a language. A tiny book with phrases like “more beer, please” just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. I wanted to converse with the locals and talk about more interesting things other than how to find the bus station. So off to language school I went.

I enrolled at a local one upon my return to Australia and learnt the basics. My Argentine friends sent me a heap of pop CD’s in Spanish. This included, Shakira, Los Piojos and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. I translated the CD booklets into English so I knew what I was singing about. My poor neighbors were subjected to my (very bad) singing but hey, it was fun and I got a workout from dancing around the house (the curtains were drawn). I obsessively went to weekly Spanish classes, and by then it was time to get out of the classroom and put my skills to the test. I failed miserably.

The teacher I had in Australia came from Spain. She spoke beautiful Castilian which was almost useless in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires. It didn’t take long before I realized I needed to learn everything again – this time with an Argentine accent and the Spanish commonly used in Argentina known as lunfardo.

For all intents and purposes, lunfardo is unintelligible to the average Spanish-speaker who wasn’t brought up in Argentina. Since the 1970’s the Argentines have debated if the slang of Buenos Aires actually qualifies as lunfardo. Traditionalists say lunfardo has to have a link to the argot of the old underworld, tango lyrics or racetrack slang. But others maintain the colloquial language of current day Buenos Aires is lunfardo. I’m no linguist, but I do use the term lunfardo to describe the language of the Argentines.

My discovery of this language started a lifelong delight in learning new words and phrases that the locals use. Unfortunately, lunfardo is dying out. The younger Argentines are steering away from it and creating their own version of Spanish, but many of my older Argentine friends still enjoy using this language spoken by the Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) for many generations.

If you listen closely, you’ll notice a slight Italian twang when an Argentine speaks Spanish. In the early part of the 20th century, millions of Italians immigrated and spoke mostly in their local dialects (mainly Neapolitan, Sicilian and Genoan). The Argentine accent is influenced by the Italian immigrants and some of their words are used in Argentina today.

Many South Americans have said my Spanish is a mixture of Buenos Aires Spanish and the sing-song lilt of the women from Miraflores, a beach suburb of Lima, Peru. I smile and say “gracias” and silently thank my Spanish-speaking pop-stars for helping me along the road to fluency.

And of course, I couldn’t end this post without sharing some examples. Happy practicing!

Che! – Hey!
Chabón – lad
Chirola – small change
Cobani/Grey Hair (pronounced in English) – police
Macanudo – used in a positive response to an invitation (“all good”)
Mango – not to have any money (“I don’t have a mango”)
Minga – not to have something, nothing
Pilcha – clothes
Pucho – cigarette


  1. Love it Ali!! I struggled with my very basic Spanish (I learnt from a Columbian) in both Argentina and Chile. My favorite moment was being in Usuhia and trying to order an Empanada. I could not understand the different types. In the end the owners of the cafe took me into the kitchen to show me an onion!! I then tried to teach them how to say and spell onion in English!! Fun times!! I am loving reading your blog - Megan

  2. Oh, thanks, Megan! I'm glad you're enjoying it. What fun times you must have had! I love how you got shown the kitchen -- fabulous!

  3. Thanks for the quick lesson in lunfardo, Alli! I find it sad to hear that this slang is dying out. Any chance that a new generation of Portenos will agree with me and try to keep it alive?