The official language is Spanish. In general, most people speak Spanish in a local dialect, Castellano Rioplatense, which is different from both the language of Spain and the language of Central America. Notably, the pronoun “tu” is replaced by “vos” and the plural pronoun “vosotros” is replaced by “ustedes”, the latter being common in Latin America. There are also distinct verb conjugations, which sometimes differ significantly for irregular verbs in the present tense and for informal commands. In addition, people in each city pronounce words differently too! For example, people in Buenos Aires speak differently from those in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries; Example: Chicken in Spanish (pollo) is pronounced PO-zhO or PO-SHO by “porteños” (inhabitants of Buenos Aires), with the SH sound harder than in Spanish; unlike most other Spanish speakers in South America who pronounce it PO-yo. However, all Argentines learn standard Castilian Spanish at school, and even if it is not the first language of choice, people are generally competent enough to communicate.
Rioplatense Spanish is also strongly influenced by and often confused with Italian, due to the large influx of Italian immigrants. Italian-derived hand gestures are very common, and many colloquial expressions are borrowed from Italian (e.g. instead of saying “cerveza”, which means beer, young people find it cooler to say “birra”, which is in Italian). Most locals can understand most Spanish dialects well, as well as Portuguese or Italian (mainly because of the similarity to local Spanish). English is compulsory in school and is generally understood at least at a basic level in tourist areas. German and French are understood and partially spoken by small parts of the population. There are native speakers of Welsh in a few places in Patagonia, near Rawson. Words borrowed from indigenous languages include Quechua, Guarani, Mataco, Che, Mate and others.
The interjection “che” is very common and has much the same meaning as the English “hey! It can also be used as an expression when you know someone whose name you cannot remember. E.g. “Escucháme, Che, ….Sometimes it is used in speech, a bit like the English expression “yo”, as in “What’s up, yo? Nevertheless, communication will not be a problem for any Spanish speaker.
Argentines communicate with each other using lunfardo, a street dialect or slang. It is used in conjunction with Spanish by replacing nouns with their synonyms in Lunfardo. This does not change the original meaning, but only makes the expression more colourful. An important aspect of lunfardo is that it is only spoken. For example, you know the word dinero (money), but you can use the word guita to mean the same things. Lunfardo has about 5,000 words, many of which are not in the dictionary.
Hey Big Balls
¡Che boludo! (badly translated in the title) Che (used as an injunction, the root is native) is used a lot in slang …between friends. That’s why Cubans gave Ernesto Guevara the nickname “Che Guevara”. It’s a typical Argentine habit. Well, some Chileans use it, a bit differently, “Che huevón”.
Don’t be surprised if you hear creative animal names on the street. It’s not uncommon to call your friends boludo (“big balls”, which is a misnomer) or loco (“crazy”). If you read a bit of Lunfardo history, you start to see that Argentines like to play with language and use nicknames. An essay by Santiago Kovadloff explains it well: an overweight or fat person is simply called “flaco” (thin) by his friends ... a smart person with a great talent for earning the respect of his peers is “un hijo de puta” (son of a bitch, which is a misinterpretation). This may seem counter-intuitive to some, but friends do it as a term of endearment. There is something for everyone. Negro (which has no negative connotation in Spanish) is a popular nickname, regardless of the colour of the person’s skin. Loco is used interchangeably with Boludo. Boludo can be compared to the way bollocks is used in Ireland: to a stranger it is an insult; to a friend it is a term of endearment.
This kind of rough talk is considered normal in Argentina. Try to take it lightly, as it is not usually intended to be offensive, but do not copy it. It takes time to understand the nuances of colloquial language.
Although there is a community of descendants of Welsh immigrants in the Pampas, as well as Scottish and Irish communities, it is not these impoverished emigrant communities that have had the greatest influence in Argentina; they are wealthy investors who had the financial means to send their children to English boarding schools and universities.
Commonwealth English, although not an official language, has historically been the variety most used by the educated elite in Argentina.
Through groups such as the Argentine British Community Council (ABCC), it is possible for British expats to feel more at home in Argentina than in Britain. Constantly organising truly ‘British’ events such as car boot sales, village parties, races and fundraisers, the ABCC sees it as its duty to respect the British tradition of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and being on time! Argentina is the country with the largest British community in Latin America. Many cities were founded by Britons and 80% of public schools in Buenos Aires are British. Argentina was perhaps the fourth country in the Southern Hemisphere to be colonised by the British, along with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa!
Buenos Aires was once home to the only Harrods shop outside Britain and still has the largest and oldest English newspaper in Latin America, the Buenos Aires Herald. Some of the towns founded by British settlers in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina: Hughes, Rawson, Hudson, Hurlingham, Temperley, Banfield, O’Higgins, Brandsen, Parish, Fair, Barker, Bunge, Tornquist, Roberts, Gunther, Gahan, Abott, Anderson and Warnes.
Few things are as quintessentially British as the immaculately manicured polo fields of the Hurlingham Club or a football match between St Andrews School and Balmoral College. The Anglophile can achieve the ultimate in afternoon tea while quietly reading the local news in the Herald.