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Learning Spanish in Buenos Aires: Rioplatense Spanish
If you came to Buenos Aires thinking you had a decent grasp of the Spanish language, only to be thrown back on your heels, you aren’t alone. Rioplatense Spanish, the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires, isn’t what you were taught in high school and it’s definitely not what you learned studying abroad in Mexico or Spain. Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) speak very fast and with a lot of slang (called lunfardo). There’s a more sing-song quality to the way they speak as well. When traveling in Texas with my Argentine in-laws, everyone thought we were speaking Italian. The tú form here is replaced with vos (but that’s a whole chapter on it’s own!). All “y” and “ll’ sounds are pronounced like “sh” (calle is no longer ca-ye, but ca-she).
What is Lunfardo?
On top of all these grammatical differences and pronunciations, there is slang, lots of slang. This slang is called Lunfardo and it’s spoken in Buenos Aires and surrounding areas. It stems from the large influx of immigrants flowing into Argentine ports in the mid-19th century, their languages blending with the multitude of languages already here. These influences included rural words from the countryside (palabras gauchescas or words used by guachos), indigenous languages (such as guaraní) and African languages from slavery (mostly via Brazil).
A pidgin language started to take form, referred to as cocoliche, a hodgepodge of the many Italian dialects and Spanish. Over time, cocoliche began to disappear, with a lot of the words being absorbed into Lunfardo and still used today.
The Language of Thieves
The name Lunfardo derives from Lombardo, referring to Lombardy in Northern Italy. The Lombardos were the first bankers and therefore the first loansharks of Europe. And since throughout the history of banks no one has ever liked banks, the word Lombardo was associated with thieves or conmen. In the 19th century in Rome, Lombardo was synonymous with thief. It’s only natural that the word would travel to Argentina during the large wave of immigration from Italy towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.
It’s even said that prisoners used lunfardo so that the guards wouldn’t understand what they were saying. While a lot of historians agree with this legend of the language of thieves, Oscar Conde disagrees in this interview (in Spanish, but if you’re interested in the history of Lunfardo I highly recommend reading this!). He describes lunfardo as a language of the people, and the vocabulary covers every aspect of life, not only crimes or delinquents.
Regardless, there are a lot of words for thieves and the like:
- Cobani – Police officer
- Yuta – Police officer
- Cana – Police officer
- Botón – Police officer
- Tira – Police officer (again)
- Abanico – You guessed it, police officer
- Chorear – To steal
- Afanar – To steal
- Afano – A ripoff
- Chorro – Thief
- Chorizo – Thief
- Motochorro – Thief who steals on a motorcycle as he drives by you on the street (watch your phone!)
- Boga – Lawyer (fits under thieves, no?)
A fun Lunfardo Vocabulary List
There are thousands of words in lunfardo, many sadly falling out of use. Here’s a sampling to get you started.
- Quilombo – Chaos
- Boludo – Idiot, can also be used as a term of endearment
- Che, boludo! – Hey man!
- Pelotudo – Asshole (yell this at the taxi driver that nearly ran you over)
- En pedo – Drunk
- Ni en pedo – No way (literally, not in fart, as pedo means to fart, but technically “not even if drunk”)
- Al pedo – Useless, doing nothing (Estoy al pedo is what I say when I’m not doing anything productive)
- Mucama – Maid
- Pibe – Kid or Guy
- Pendejo – Kid (same word, slightly different meaning than in Mexico)
- Chabón/Chabona – Kid
- Estar hecho un pibe – to look young
- Tipo – Guy
- Tipo – Also used to give examples or as a filler word like we use “like”
- Gil – Stupid (noun)
- Falda – Skirt
- Remera – T-Shirt
- Ojo – Watch out, be careful
- Cheto – Posh (in Spain it’s Pijo or Pija, here pija is penis, so, ojo!)
- Palmar – To die
- Palma – To be tired, e.g.: “Tengo una palma”
- Fiaca/Que Fiaca/Tener Fiaca – Lazy or to feel lazy
- Choto – Bad quality
- Trucho – Bad quality or counterfeit
- Truchada – Same as trucho but as a noun (Es una truchada).
- Atorrante – Someone shameless
- Morfar – To eat
- Copado – Something or someone good or cool
- Salame – Used to call someone stupid
- Ñoqui– Some legally registered as a worker and receives a paycheck, usually for the government, but doesn’t actually work.
- Capo – Someone who’s really good at what they do or is the best at something
- Groso – Someone good or cool
- Macanudo – Used to describe somone as a good person (Un tipo macanudo)
- Bacán – Someone who lives the good life
- Cachuso – Decaying, deteriorating
One word, so much meaning
- Che – An exclamation or call for attention, like “hey”, or for emphasis at the end of a phrase.
- Viste – Literally the past tense of “to see” in you form, “you saw,” used for emphasis or as I told you so or “you see?”
- Posta – Originates from the Italian “apposta” (properly), if someone tells you something and adds “posta” at the end, they’re emphasizing that it’s a sure thing, “Ese restaurante es buenisimo, posta!” It reminds me a bit of the British use of proper as good, “Where can I get a proper steak?”
- Mira vos! – Literally meaning “Look at you!” and used in the same way, but used much more often than I ever use the English version.
- Re – very, used in front of any adjective, if something is good it’s “bueno” if it’s really good, it’s “rebueno”
You can also use “Re” as an answer to a question.
– Era linda la mina? (Was the girl pretty?)
– Re! (Very!)
Re Contra – very very, if it’s even better it’s recontra bueno
Requetecontra – very very VERY, is it the fucking best? It’s requeterecontra bueno
Dating or A Night Out
- Mina – Woman
- Naifa – Woman
- Boliche – Club or disco
- Tirar onda – Flirt or to hit on
- Coger – To f*ck. In Spain, I used coger for everything, to “catch” the bus, to “pick up” the phone, here it only means the one thing.
- Piropo – Pick up line
- Chamuyero – A charmer or sweet talker, don’t believe what he says, ladies!
- Chamuyo – The charm (Es puro chamuyo = He’s pure charm)
- Birra – Beer (this is obvious, but I thought it was cool that it originates from cocoliche, so, cool!)
- Chupar/Escaviar – to drink alcohol
- Pucho – Cigarette
- Merca – Cocaine
- Pepa – Acid (also a type of cookie! Context matters)
- Guita- Money
- Mosca – Money
- Vento – Money
- Mango – 1 peso (Esta camisa me costó 10 mangos, che! = This shirt cost me 10 pesos, man!)
- Gamba – 100 pesos
- Luca – 1,000 pesos
- Palo – 1,000,000 pesos
- Un palo verde – A million dollars
- Chirola – Monedas or coins, a way of saying it cost very little
- Rata – Cheapskate
- Estar en la lona – Low on cash, broke
Vesre is very common, it’s an almost pig-latin way of playing with words. It involves swapping the syllables, usually bringing the final syllable to the front. For example, la calle becomes la lleca. There are some irregular “vesreísmos” that I have been unable any find rhyme or reason to, such as pantalón becoming lompa. If you pay attention to the way people speak you’ll hear this all over Buenos Aires. For an over the top example:
Hoy vi un bepi con su rope en la lleca. > Hoy vi un pibe con su perro en la calle.
The following isn’t Lunfardo but is still useful to know.
There are quite a few fruits and vegetables that go by different names in Argentina. Why? Hell if I know.
- Frutilla – Strawberry/Fresa
- Ananá – Pineapple/Piña
- Palta – Avocado/Aguacate
- Damasco – Apricot/Albaricoque
- Arvejas – Peas/Guisantes
- Porotos – Beans/Frijoles
Vulgarities: Rated R
Highly possible some of these aren’t Argentina specific. I believe they are, if I’m wrong I apologize. Regardless, they sure as hell use these dirty words a lot!
- Concha – Pussy (god forbid you want to go look for seashells on the beach, find another word!)
- La concha de tu madre – Literally “your mother’s…concha”
- La concha de la lora – Similar to above, except lora, which means parrot, but here it means a prostitutes c*nt
- Coger – To have sexual relations (to F&*!)
- Andate a cagar! – Go fuck yourself (literally, go ahead and shit)
- Me chupa un huevo – A way of saying “I could care less”
Just like Italians, Argentines are very expressive. Check out fellow expat Dustin Luke’s videos about Argentine hand gestures.
Spanish is hard ya’ll.
To end this mini-lesson in Argentine Spanish, I leave you this video expressing just how hard it is to speak Spanish. With different slang and vocabulary in every country, it can lead to a lot of misunderstandings.
This interview with Oscar Conde