Language is a complex thing. For years, I have talked about how “bad” Chilean Spanish has become, degenerated over years of geographical isolation and popular ignorance. Much of the basis for my comments was rooted in the self-flagellation of Chileans themselves, which have on many occasions told me how poorly they speak by cutting out consonants like s, c and z from words, and chopping off or concatenating other words like para allá becoming pa’llá or por si acaso becoming porsiaca, as well as generally pronouncing and enunciating poorly.
Now, let’s be clear – all languages evolve and there is no right or wrong dialect in an absolute sense. There are variations from the norm of the day and what has been standardized that causes inefficiency and lack of comprehension, especially in broader audiences. But no single way of speaking is in a moral sense superior to another. Thus, when I repeated that Chilean Spanish was bad, I meant so in a relative sense and in terms of sloppiness when one should know better – i.e., if he were not so lazy to study his own language!
Unlike English, which has mercifully few divergent dialects, Cockney and Ebonics being the isolated yet standout examples to the contrary, Spanish has many dialects often with extreme differences, even within the confines of small areas. For instance, in a small country like Spain there are 18 recognized dialects, two of which are recognized as separate languages now (Basque and Catalan).
Chile itself has at least five dialects, even though the language is largely uniform from north to south. The island of Chiloé has a chilote dialect, with its unique accent and slang words. In the north, mainly in Arica and in the altiplano, there is an influence of local Indian language and slang words from Peru. The rest of Chile speaks castellano proper, except in the countryside (among cowboys, farmers), or among day laborers like construction workers, all known as roteques where they speak campo or roto dialect featuring poor pronunciation.
The main reason a Chilean speaks roto instead of castellano is because he does not read much and did not read growing up, but instead learned the language by repeating what he heard. Thus, lower class people tend to speak roto and upper class people, called pitucos and cuicos by the lower classes, tend to speak castellano. These roteques replace the letter l with the letter r in words (e.g., parta instead of palta, bordo instead of boldo, etc.), pronounce the ch as if it were an English sh in words, and have poor enunciation in general, resulting in fast, slurred speech.
There is also a low-class Chilean Spanish equivalent of Cockney or Ebonics called flaite that can be heard at times throughout Chile (some examples here, here, here, here and here), and a related aberrant language called coa, common among Chilean inmates (reos). See documentary here. If you are not a native speaker of Chilean Spanish, you have almost no chance of understanding these people. There is no textbook to study, nor is there a grammar with rules that can be learned and followed. Listen to the links and see how far you get! Even native speakers would have to go to jail for some time and be around the reos or live on the streets with the flaites for many months before learning the “dialect.”
Flaites tend to be the tough guys and their girls (called minas after the Italian-Argentine influence), and “moneyed” big shots or capos in the neighborhood, or at least wannabes that talk the “cool” lingo. Reos and other criminals speak coa specifically because it cannot be understood by others and they thus have a secret language that permits them to plot and scheme among themselves. Without a written grammar, it is not likely that these dialects can be studied or learned, nor is it generally desirable to sound like these characters.
Rotos are a different story, however. If you have ever read Kenneth Robert’s wonderful book, Rabble in Arms, a story about the dirty, often toothless and illiterate yet colorful American commoners that lived during the late 1700s in New England, you have an idea about what Chilean rotos are like. They are uneducated, yet generally friendly people that know their “place” in society and fill their role. They do not work too hard, nor are they necessarily efficient or punctual but they know their duties and will fulfill them generally. Some of them are quite capable of doing quality work in mining, agriculture and construction. They have learned their trade and many are now maestros. Just like people in the southern United States are amused by the speech and actions of Blacks, so upper class Chileans are often amused by roto talk, even if annoyed by their actions. It is little wonder why they are not highly paid as their counterparts in other countries. Like the “rabble” of Kenneth Robert’s masterpiece, the original rotos (“brokens”) in Chile were so-named because of the shoddy appearance and behavior of soldiers under the command of the Spanish Conquistadores as they marched through Chile. Nevertheless, no educated person would then or now judge the entire Chilean Spanish dialect based on way uneducated rotos speak, any more than they would have judged American English based on the way the “rabble” spoke in the 1700s.
I found in studying nouns to learn Spanish in 1995, in reviewing 1,000 basic words that children learn first, that 40% of words used in Mexico were different than in Chile. On a 2015 trip to Colombia with two Chileans, we encountered dozens of words that were used in Bogotá that were not used in Chile, even for common words like strawberry (fresa versus frutilla), avocado (aguacate versus palta), cabbage (col versus repollo), and watermelon (patilla verses sandía). One native speaker literally had no idea what the other native speaker was talking about! Suffice it to say that the differences between Spanish dialects are often dramatic.
Having established that fact, what should one think about Chilean Spanish? It is true that Chileans use around three thousand slang words, idioms and phrases that are not used in any other Spanish-speaking country. After being around the language for nearly two decades, I am still only familiar with one-fifth of these terms. Even foreigners from other Spanish-speaking countries have considerable difficulty with Chilean slang words, idioms and unique phrases.
But these things make the Chilean dialect richer, not poorer. Many of these colorful expressions are eloquent, quaint and humorous, although others are distasteful and vulgar. Nonetheless, their existence does admittedly make the Chilean dialect harder to learn. Look up all the different ways that Chileans say “homosexual” for instance. Off the top of her head, my wife recited 15 different words or phrases, many of which were cute or funny even if politically incorrect!
Written Chilean Spanish is actually quite accurate and true to traditional, pre-1950s Castillian Spanish, with the major exception of not using the vosotros (plural “you”) form. In spoken Spanish, Chileans never pronounce the c or z as th, like they would in central Spain. But is that fact a problem?
Scholars have concluded that the Chilean spoken dialect is actually quite similar to what is spoken in Seville, southwestern Spain, the main port town of the country located in the region of Andalusia. That region is famous for culling the s, z and c out of words, losing the d sound in the middle of a word, changing the final n in a word to an ng sound, and country speakers exchanging the consonant l in words for an r.
Chile does the same things. Apparently, there is also considerable influence in Chilean Spanish directly from the castúo dialect of the Extremadura region, nestled along the Portuguese border, directly north of Seville. The fact that spoken Chilean Spanish is derived from Seville or Extremadura instead of Madrid does not make it worse Spanish. Remember that the famous Spanish armada and many voyages to the New World were all based in Seville. To say that Spanish from Seville is bad because it is not like Spanish from Madrid is tantamount to saying that English in Liverpool, Manchester, New York, Sydney or San Francisco is bad because it is not like English from Cambridge or Oxford.
Chilean Spanish is also mercifully free of many language perversions of its neighbors, especially eastern Argentina. Chileans often use the voseo (vos instead of tú) form common in Buenos Aires, mainly men in informal settings. Sure, Chileans (mainly men) will in causal speech use verb conjugations from this medieval form (e.g., podís instead of puedes, tenís instead of tienes), but it is very rare to hear them use vos itself, which is widely considered as low class and coming from uncultured people from Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay (and some parts of Central America).
Thus, we might actually conclude that Chilean Spanish is a much purer Spanish than other dialects, at least from a historical perspective – much more conservative to its European roots. The same is true of the cuyo region of Argentina, directly adjacent to central Chile, that includes the city of Mendoza. They have an accent more similar to that of Chilean Spanish than to that of the porteños of Buenos Aires. While Chilean written Spanish closely follows Castillian Spanish, its spoken version piles colorful slang on top of a base of historically-recognized southern peninsular Spanish common in the Extremadura, Andalusia and Murcia regions.
It is also noteworthy to remember that those regions were ruled by the Arabic-speaking Muslims (Moors) for 500 years (711 to 1212), which embedded many Arabic-based words into the dialect. Some examples of common words include: Ojalá (let’s hope so), albañil (plaster worker), albóndiga (meatball), alcachofa (artichoke), alcalde (mayor), alcántara (drain), alcatraz (sea eagle), alfajor (sweet almond shortbread), alfil (bishop in chess), almacén (storehouse), asesino (assassin), algorítmo (algorithm), álgebra (algebra), algodón (cotton), azúcar (sugar), azul (blue), alicate (pliers), algarrobo (carob, a fruit similar to chocolate from a Mediterranean tree), almohada (pillow), tarea (task), taza (teacup), zorzal (thrush) and zanahoria (carrot). There are hundreds of other Arabic-rooted words in Spanish.
In the final analysis, it is hard to say what “standard Spanish” really is, given that there are so many dialects with widespread differences and many external influences. Nevertheless, if one judges Chilean Spanish in terms of its origins, both its written form (Castillian) and spoken form (Sevillian/Castúo) are more conservative, legitimate and pure than what is found in most other parts of Latin America. The only other places that come close seem to be parts of Paraguay; and perhaps parts of Bolivia or urban sections of México, Lima, Quito and Bogotá could make some claim to purity – but that is just an educated guess on my part.
Moreover, Chilean Spanish is really quite a beautiful dialect. It comes across as almost sung instead of simply spoken. Many people that are native speakers have so remarked over the years. Its slang is colorful and quaint, despite its vulgarity at times. So, why is the Chilean dialect considered so bad?
In retrospect, I think that my earlier judgment of Chilean Spanish based on what I heard from Chileans was unfounded and even unfair. I now think that he who learns Chilean Spanish is actually learning a very good dialect, in both written and spoken forms. Obviously, the quality will be better among academics and educated people rather than country people, reos or flaites. But that fact is universal in any language. All the same, it is still good to know these things while one is putting in the extraordinary effort to learn the language!
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