You’ve just arrived in Buenos Aires, fresh faced and eager to tackle the city. You’ve got four years of high school Spanish under your belt, maybe two college seminars, and if you’re lucky you’ve read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book or two, in Spanish. You’ve got this. All you’ve gotta do, boludo, is take the bondi to your new place, avoid the quilombo that’s blocking 9 de Julio, and all will be buena onda, obvio. Got it?
Oh ya, and those “sh” sounds aren’t people trying to drown out your yanqui accent but an essential part of the Argentine, specifically porteño, way of speaking. I bet your 11th grade Spanish teacher forgot to mention that part.
Either way, you’re here and ready to delve headfirst into the world of asados and gauchos. Cultural differences aside, language barriers and localized slang can be one of the most insurmountable elements when moving to a new place. The porteño accent and way of speaking is an essential part of living in Buenos Aires and the faster you can get your “yo me llamo” to a “sho me shamo” the better off you’ll be.
Be wary, North American, Argentines speak castellano rioplatense*, a dialect so special it deserves a distinction. This form of Spanish, is unique to the Rio de la Plata region. And while there is no blanket Argentine accent, the one held by porteños is thought to be the most representative (because big cities will never not try to claim everything). But where does this particular brand of Spanish originate?
If the ubiquity of pizza or Spanish colonial architecture didn’t tip you off, Argentina, and specifically Buenos Aires, are places heavy with immigrant influence. The Spanish colonization in the 16th century brought the Spanish language to the region where it maintained its “purity” until the end of the 1800s.
Purity essentially means a Spanish most similar to that spoken in the Iberian peninsula (Spain in this case) with a primarily Andalusian affect. Andalusia is the region where most Spanish colonists originated. From Andalusian Spanish, Argentines take their aversion of the use of vosotros, opting for ustedes instead.
It wasn’t until the around 1870 when the Paris of South America, one of the biggest ports at the time, received its second heavy bout of immigrants, most notably Italians. The Italian influence can still be felt, and heard, across the city.
The presence of Italian in Argentine castellano is no joke. Research shows that the intonation of the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires is closer to Neapolitan Italian than any other language. After searching through around audio archives and comparing them with other vocals from across the world, linguists identified the neapolitan lilt as the closest relative to our porteño Spanish. Research was also able to trace this exact shift to the arrival of the tanos. It’s safe to say that the hand gestures that most Argentines use are also a transatlantic gift from their fernet loving country people.
Aside from the intonation, the Italian language found a way to literally embed itself into the lexicon of the city. Say hello to my little friend lunfardo, a slanguage that emerged from the cross cultural mish mash that occurred when La Boca’s streets filled with Italians. The city provided the perfect petri dish for the linguistic fusion that continues to dominate porteño vocabulary today. Lunfardo has a heavy association with a seedier side of Buenos Aires and is said to have its origins in jails where — mostly Italian— inmates developed their own code to avoid being understood by guards.
Nowadays, lunfardo is pretty integrated into daily slang; to learn more about why you should drink feca before going to laburo, read our lunfardo breakdown here.
And if you’re still missing some audible proof, then I point you in the direction of Dustin Luke, a yanqui whose viral video of him speaking like any old Facu is a mainstay in the Argentine Youtube cache. His linguistic feat garnered him significant fame (our dance tutorial videos could only dream).
*May 9, 2016: The terminology was edited to reflect the current working definition of Rioplatense Spanish.