Getting serious about Chilean Spanish

3rd Aug 2015

Disclaimer: I'm not a linguist and this is not an academic paper. Feel free to add features or comment anything whether you're an immigrant in Chile or a native speaker interested in these things.

This article is aimed at people who want to come to Chile to work or study from the point of view of a local as there aren't enough articles or videos addressing the subject with a thorough approach beyond the funny aspects of the dialect. I'd rather use the word "dialect" than "accent" since this topic goes further than just the way it sounds.

First off, Chile like Spain or the United States and other countries has more than one dialect but when I talk about Chilean Spanish I mean the standard Spanish variety spoken in the country, grossly between La Serena and Puerto Montt although it's debatable so don't take it like it's set in stone. As it's the variety of Santiago and most of the Chilean population it's also influenced the rest of the country.

Any dialect could be broken down into at least three parts:

  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Accent

What's so unique about Chilean Spanish?

Before going into the details, let's start by explaining why it's even relevant. Today everything is interconnected but when Chile was just a Spanish colony and after the independence being surrounded by desert to the north, sea to the west and huge mountains to the east made our culture to develop differently from the other ones and among all the cultural features of course our language is a very important one. Just as a reference the crossing of the Andes by the troops of the Argentinian general San Martin to attack the Royal Army of Spain occupying Chile in 1817 took them about three weeks and several losses. Yes, the Andes are that big.

Switchbacks on the road up to Tunel del Cristo Redentor

Grammar

This is very interesting because when we learn a language, even our own language we are taught in such a way that we tend to think that one language has one grammar but it's not that strict in real life. When it comes to "Ortography" you have that words in BrE are spelt in a way whereas in AmE they are spelled in a different way, for instance, color and colour, center and centre or recognize and recognise (which doesn't really happen in Spanish but explains the point) or when you use "Have you got" instead of "Do you have". I'm not going to extend this article further on that since there are so many differences that it would take a full article to mention them all but they are enumerated here. Could you seriously tell an American that he or she speaks a bad English? I don't think so. What's funny is that differences among Spanish dialects are less strong than in English.

1. Verbal voseo

When using the indicative mode in the second person things start to get weird. In the first place, in Spanish when you address a person you can choose unlike in English among "Tú", "Vos" and "Usted" depending on the context and even on the country you're in. If you're in a formal situation like a salesman or a boss, someone you don't really know and in a situation where distance is needed you'd use "Usted" and that's valid for the Spanish from Chile, conjugated according to the standard rules. However, if you're talking to someone who's familiar already or in any friendly situation where keeping distance is not needed like two young people or friends you should use "Tú". In Argentina, in Mendoza for example they'd use "vos" with anybody but in Chile this is strangely different because using "vos" with anybody you don't really know well would be frowned upon as it's considered "too familiar" and often only used to offend people. Definitely not a kind way to address people in Chile.

This aforementioned feature of Chilean Spanish is relevant to explain what's called Chilean voseo or verbal voseo. Let's look at this example with the verb "Querer" (To want):

Pronoun Standard Chilean
quieres querís
Vos quieres querís
Usted quiere quiere

It's a feature and although some people hate it, it's the way it is and it works as a constant rule with any verb although there's a special exception which is the verb "Ser" (To be)

Pronoun Standard Chilean
eres soi/erís
Vos sos soi/erís
Usted es es

"Erís" is considered to be wrong but it makes more sense than using "soi".

People usually prefer to write in standard Spanish but it's essential to understand this because it's what everybody uses in daily life.

2. Future tense

I think this is very similar to English but not the same thing. When Chilean people use verbs in the future tense they don't use the standard future tense but the grammatical construction "ir a". In English you say "I will do it" because you want to express the desire of doing something, whereas when you say "I'm going to do it" you express a prediction about something that's going to happen or the intention to do so.

In Chilean Spanish though, people only use "ir a" and the standard future tense is perceived as a hypercorrection and this is valid for all verb pronouns, thus "(Yo) comeré" becomes "Voy a comer".

Pronoun Future Construction
Yo comeré voy a comer
comerás vas a comer
Él comerá va a comer
Nosotros comeremos vamos a comer
Ellos comerán van a comer

Grammatically speaking I think these two are the most important differences.

3. ¿Vuestro? ¿Nuestro?

Another interesting trait, less noticeable nonetheless is the use of some possesive pronouns. I like the word "Vuestro" (yours) and I prefer to use it in very formal situations but this is not really common outside of very formal communications. Something along the lines happened to "nuestro" (our) which exists and it can be used but it's relegated to a formal and written usage.

¿Vuestro? = De ustedes. ¿Nuestro? = De nosotros.

Needless to say: "Vosotros" is not used as a pronoun in any situation just like in any Latin American Spanish dialect.

4. A note from Andrés Bello

Likely as a consequence of being the most isolated and farther colony of Spain (well, actually that colony should be the Phillipines but they never really developed Spanish as their main language just like in Africa) and the influence of a very important academic led Chile to develop its own grammar rules from 1844 to 1923. These were also times when American linguists weren't taken into account by the Royal Spanish Academy.

In this way "Rey" became "Rei" and "Ingeniero" was "Injeniero". This aimed at making Spanish grammar easier to learn so it got many people in favour until it was adopted by the government and laws were written using the new rules.

None of those rules are valid today but in my opinion it's important to notice that these reforms started here.

Vocabulary

Often the approach to Chilean Spanish is through slang but CS is not just slang or juvenile jargon. There are so many articles on this subject that it'd be repetitive to show you a list of words that are used differently or those that don't exist anywhere else but there are a few ones that are especially basic and important.

Our local words anyway have mostly aymaran, mapuche and lunfardo origin or influence. Some of the most basic and interesting for me are:

Poh: People love this word that's so common that you'll hear it as soon as you arrive. Poh is what you call "pues" in standard. It's more than a distinct word a variation in pronunciation.

Al tiro: Not a word but an essential construction. Basically it means "now".

Fome: This word is interesting because it could be related to the portuguese word for "hunger" but it means "boring".

Besides there are guides for Chilenismos for English speakers that you can get from Amazon and on the web there are lists of slang phrases often poorly written. There's also an official dictionary from the Chilean Academy of Spanish called "Diccionario de uso del español de Chile (DUECh)" which is the only thorough and systematic list of vocabulary available. I don't know if it's available overseas but it can be found in any bookstore in Chile.

Some believe that we have more slang than other countries but I haven't seen basis for this belief.

Accent or pronunciation

Ugh Chilean Spanish is so hard!

Chilean Spanish is indeed difficult to follow in the beginning. It's a strong accent and unlike Spaniards or Argentinians people in my opinion don't speak too loud or opening their mouth too much so it's arguably less clear in comparison. Plus its pronunciation traits seem aimed at speaking faster like Andalusian accents.

I've seen people afraid of speaking secluding themselves to English speaking environments but they are usually people with little actual knowledge of Spanish so if you are learning Spanish you don't have to worry, moreover Chileans will certainly be friendly and will slowdown and standarize their Spanish enough if they see you struggling to understand or to say what you want.

Again I'm going to focus only on general features and not in pronunciation traits that denote a lack of education.

S, D and V Aspiration

Ya poh vamo'

Essentially any final "s" on any syllable will be aspirated. Aspiration however is not (at least not always) a complete lack of sound. Sometimes or depending on the speaker the final "s" is replaced by a brief exhalation which could be compared to a "j" sound but softer. You can easily relate this aspiration to the Andalusian accent(s) but I believe that their aspiration is stronger or more audible than ours.

Do you remember the examples of voseo above? "Tú querís" becomes "Tú querí'". That's not all as aspiration happens in the middle of words like "sistema" which becomes "sihtema" or "Estar" which converts into "ehtar". Bear in mind that this "h" sound is not the same used in English that's stronger.

It's similar to what happens with the "d" sound at the end of a word. However, this sound doesn't only dissapear when writing the letter in the end of a syllable but also in the middle of a word but at the beginning of a syllable when it's followed by an "o" like "pesado" = "pesaho".

What about a word with "V". This letter won't show up in the end of a word/syllable but it will appear in the middle of a word in syllables. Its sound is not aspired most of the time but when you find a syllable at the end of a word that contains a "v" it will be aspired:

Benévolo (benevolent) : All the syllables are pronounced. Vivo (alive): It's pronounced like "vi'o". Huevo (egg): It's pronounced like "hue'o".

Pal - pa

If you're familiar with other romance languages like portuguese they use lots of contractions. If not so a contraction is the union of prepositions or other words that usually work together.

Rarely written but often used in the spoken language you'll see people saying "pa" or "pal". For example:

"Él se fue para el trabajo" (He went to the office/factory/workshop) "Él se fue pal trabajo" "Ella se fue pal norte/sur"

It's also common in other countries so it's not entirely unique of the Chilean Spanish. Also you have "pa".

"Él se fue para la casa" (He went home) "Él se fue pa la casa".

By the way, "para" with the meaning of direction like "to" in English is prefered instead of "a" alone which is much more prevalent in Central Spain.

Conclusion

What do you think? Is it too hard? From what I've seen most people tend to pick it up after a couple of months so you shouldn't worry about. What I tried to do is to present everything so you can start studying it or understand what you might have heard on the streets already if you're here.

This article is neither exhaustive nor a linguistic review but I'll try to add as much information for the general usage of Chilean Spanish as possible.