What Did You Just Say?!

BE CAREFUL while abroad because that phrase you learned in 9th grade Spanish class will probably mean something completely different – depending on what country you’re in. Who knows, trying to offer up a simple complement might just accidently mean, “Your mother smells of garlic and toilet seats” or “Hey, your sister is an obese sea creature”.

One of my favorite things about traveling is to observe and compare the differences between the local slang or the vernacular used, as I quickly embed myself into the city and the surrounding culture.

A great deal of traveling has brought me to Argentina and now to Spain…and reflecting on the differences between these two great countries and the local language, has brought to the forefront several interesting differences (and can hopefully serve as a warning for future travelers).

But before we get into the specifics there are several key differences to point out between these two countries – differences in history, culture, and of course, language.

Argentina: The gem of South America, Argentina is heralded for it’s simply seasoned and tasty steaks, Malbec wine which flows like water, and the mesmerizing Tango dancers. Without a doubt there is much more to love about this great country (one of my personal favorite travel destinations) but another well-known characteristic of Argentina is the rich Italian, and distinctly European influence that is all apparent as you stroll through the streets of Buenos Aires. You can see it in their faces – a shade fairer than neighboring countries, and tinted with a pale-green, almost olive, complexion. You can also see it in the cuisine – traditional Italian meals with a South American spin include: Milanesa (thin cutlets of meat, battered in flour and pan-fried), mountains of Pasta, Pizza, and varying forms of charcuterie. But ultimately, you hear it in their voices and in the language.

The Argentines, are either revered for their distinct accent or loathed with an utter distaste usually reserved for the obese, triple-chinned American, wearing a girly fanny-pack…it all depends on who you ask. The Argentine accent is usually described as having a noticeable, Italian flare and musical rhythm (it all sounds so Italian that it almost necessitates forming a small bundle with your fingers and thumb, pressing this to your lips, and then blowing a large kiss up into the sky and whispering “Deliciosa”). The words they use also have a sound completely unique and are most noticeable in words that have a double “LL”. For example, the word for Chicken in Spanish is “Pollo”, (notice the double “LL”) and as I’m sure you remember from that Spanish class you never paid attention in, the double “LL” is taught to sound almost like a “Y”. So in almost every Spanish speaking country, from Mexico to Chile, the word “Pollo” will be pronounced, “POY-YO”. But you won’t hear that in Buenos Aires, instead you’ll hear scintillating “SSSH” sounds. The word “Pollo” is pronounced “PO-SHO” with a carefree, effortlessness. Just as well, the word for Street, “Calle” is typically pronounced, “CAY-YE” but instead comes out as “CAY-SHEY”.

What’s more, a common discussion will be filled with the word “Che” – it’s a simple and friendly word that is used commonly to mean hey or buddy or dude in English.

So that’s Argentina, let’s take a look at the Father country of Spain.

Spain: The famous country known for Sangria and Flamenco, or Sunshine and Bull-Fights, is probably on everyone’s Must-See List and for good reason. But this country known for it’s rambunctious eating and drinking scene (perhaps the liveliest of anywhere in the world) also is quite literally, the King of the Spanish language.

Remember that Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain and those explorers and Conquistadores floated west across the Atlantic in search for passage routes and accelerated spice trading with the East. Instead, they consequently discovered, and then beat, slaughtered, and raped the Indigenous people of Latin America into submission (teaching them Spanish and Christianity along the way).

Now to understand the sounds of the Spanish spoken here in Spain – you must first prepare yourself for the lispy whisper sound. This peculiar noise is made anytime the letter “C” or “S” is brought about, or really anytime a lisp could potentially be introduced…it is!

The sound is now commonplace to anyone who actually lives here, but to a foreigner the sound is unavoidable and impossible to miss.

Here in Spain, particularly in the capitol of Madrid, words like Cerveza (Beer) or Gracias (Thanks) take on entirely new sounds. In many ways, your mouth must first undergo a transformation in order to spit out these words.

In Madrid they talk as if they have enormous tongues and have all just undergone a rough teeth cleaning. Imagine if you will, that your tongue was slightly swollen and elongated such that it would no longer comfortably fit inside your mouth. Then also imagine that the tips of your teeth were highly sensitive and necessitated the constant sensation of the tongue rubbing below your two front teeth. Then try saying the following and you probably have the jist of it.

A beer is typically pronounced “SAIR-VAY-SA” with a rapid enunciation. But no, in Madrid the sound becomes “SAIR-VAY-THHA” (c’mon make that lispy sound when you say it).

While perhaps over-simplified, these are the major differences you will hear in either countries’ streets.

Key words that mean different things:

So what are these words that in South America mean one thing, but here in Spain can mean something COMPLETELY different?

Coger: The Spanish verb which is commonly used in Latin America to mean, well, err in a slightly vulgar sense, to fuck, to bone, to have sex, to bump uglies…ok you get the idea. Well here in Spain the verb is used in a more straightforward manner to mean simply, to take, or grab. So for example the word will be used in a sentence to say “Excuse me, could you please grab that pencil and hand it to me?”. However for someone used to the Latin American understanding of the word, it might be quite unsettling to hear young kids of 7 or 8 years old battering this word back and forth as if they were talking about lollipops and cartoons.

Remera/Ramera: The word “Remera” is often used to mean a T-shirt or Jersey. Very simple and easy to use. However, believe it or not, just by changing the “e” to an “a” you are now talking about prostitutes. The word “Ramera” means prostitute, hore, etc. Note: standing at a party with only locals from Madrid, and casually mentioning (by accident) that tomorrow you plan to head to the market to buy 2 or 3 prostitutes will immediately draw scorn and derision from essentially all females within shouting distance, but may make you friends with one or two of the dudes.

Tio: The word that everyone learned in Spanish class to mean Uncle or Aunt, is used as the common word in Madrid to mean dude, bro, guy etc. Similarly the word “Tia” is used to mean chick, girl, friend, etc. So in listening to almost any conversation you will hear the word Tio or Tia a million times. Once you understand it all makes sense. Still it does get slightly annoying to be called Tio all day long. Hey, I ain’t your uncle!

The list goes on and on, but these are the major differences I have noticed so far.

Got another example of a word that can mean two very different things? Post it below as a comment.


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