What’s up with the VOS? 5 Keys to Interpret Argentinian Spanish
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What’s up with the VOS? 5 Keys to Interpret Argentinian Spanish

Ximena Lama-Rondon

TL;DR: Argentinian Spanish is one of the most peculiar ones in South America. The key to understanding it is to adapt your ear to its pronunciation and to be ready to deal with the "vos".

Ahh, Argentina! Not only are you one of the largest countries in South America, or the one with the most Nobel Prizes – you are also the one with the juiciest beef and (arguably) the strongest wines.

Unlike its more touristy counterparts, Argentina is the kind of country that deserves an extended stay. However, if you truly want to find the best empanadas in Buenos Aires, or make the most of your tango partner, you are going to need to learn how to understand the locals.

And this is where things get tricky!

Learning Argentinian Spanish
Want to talk to her? Learn Argentinian Spanish first!

To say Argentinians have a distinctive way of speaking is quite the understatement. How is Argentinian Spanish different? Even people who speak very little Spanish can usually recognize its soft consonants and steady melody. But it's actually full of other tiny differences!

What is Argentinian Spanish?

Argentinian Spanish is sometimes considered to be halfway between a regional accent and a full blown dialect.

Although it is often equated with its entire country, this variant of Spanish is actually spoken along the entire basin of the Rio de la Plata River – which encompasses most of Central Argentina alongside all of Uruguay and a small piece of Paraguay. Because of this, most linguists prefer to call it “Rioplatense Spanish.

However, this is significantly harder to pronounce. Plus, most of us outside of Argentina learned to interpret Argentinian Spanish through Telefé high school sitcoms. These are all produced in Buenos Aires, where Rioplatense Argentinian is at its thickest.

So what's Behind the Argentinian Spanish Accent?

Just like the country in general, Argentinian Spanish was shaped by the massively diverse origin of its people. The language began as the same form of Andalusian Spanish that was brought into Latin American in the late 15th century. However, instead of blending with Nahuatl or Quechua, it blended with the local guaraní language spoken by the region’s natives.

Then, after the Spaniards settled, Argentina became a hub for immigrants, refugees, and entrepreneurs from across Europe. The largest of these groups were Napolitans, who already had their own variant of Italian that was slightly closer to Spanish than the capital’s.

Close your eyes and listen to Messi give an interview. Can you hear a hint of Southern Italy? Even now, both accents have the same intonation. When they first arrived, many Italian immigrants found it easy to blend the already similar languages together, creating a creolized language known as lunfardo.

After a few generations of State-sponsored schooling and standardized national TV, lunfardo regained a mostly Spanish grammar, but kept many distinctly Italian features.

Modern Italians remain pretty good at interpreting lunfardo slang, by the way:

5 Keys to Interpret Argentinian Spanish

So let’s pretend it’s 2022 2023 already and that you have just landed at Ezeiza. It's time to turn the sounds around you into the type of Spanish you are already familiar with.

So how to speak Argentinian Spanish? Follow these 5 rules:

1. Swap that Shushing for a Y

Beyond the intonation, the most distinctive feature of Argentinian speech is the amount of soft “shushing” sounds – but the SH is not a letter that appears frequently in the Spanish dictionary.

In reality, that /SH/ sound is meant to be a Y or LL. So flip that ¡Esha me shamo sha!And turn it into ¡Ella me llamó ya! (She called me already).

2. Let the orders fall strong

Another key feature of Argentinian Spanish is that it likes to change which syllables it stresses. By default, most Spanish words let their force drop in the syllable before the last. When giving commands (what grammar nerds call the “imperative mode”) this stress usually switches to the very first syllable.

So in Standard Spanish “He calls” would sound “Él llama”. “Talk to me” (the command) would be LLÁ-mame”. In Argentinian Spanish, they would use “lla-MÁ”.

Don't get tangled in the differences with the Argentinian Spanish accent!
Don't get tangled in the differences with the Argentinian Spanish accent!

2. Remember the Vos…

So far, we have only seen ways in which Argentinian Spanish sounds different. Now we move onto the complicated grammar stuff.

When talking to you, Argentinians will replace the standard informal “tú” with a “vos”. This feature is not uniquely Argentinian, as some parts of Colombia and Central America also use the pronoun “vos”. However, where Central Americans use the Vos as a sign of respect, Argentinians use it for all casual or intimate situations.

3. …And how to use the verbs next to it

If you are having a beer with anyone in Buenos Aires, expect them to use the vos form exclusively. And this means that all verbs will sound differently, too.

The Vos form is usually accompanied by a unique conjugation. This is sharply different from the one used with in the rest of the region. On the bright side, it is also more predictable than standard Spanish verbs.

At least when dealing with the second person singular, forget everything about irregular verbs, and just follow this simple pattern:

  • For –AR verbs: end it in ás (tú cantas becomes vos cantás)
  • For –ER verbs: end it in és (tú corres becomes vos corrés)
  • For –IR verbs: end it in ís (tú dices becomes vos decís)

Sounds simple enough? It may take a little bit of time to get used to, especially when everyone is talking very quickly.

5. Carry your special dictionary

In both English and Spanish, it is an unspoken rule that slang terms should stay out of formal settings. Most would not use dude or chamo in front of our bosses, or refer to a policeman’s big testicles (at least, not to their faces).

Argentinian Spanish is very informal
Pictured: a fun, informal street with no policemen

Argentina is a very informal country, however, and a lot of its unique slang is considered perfectly acceptable for polite company.

So keep an eye out for the following words:

  • Che: A uniquely Argentinian greeting. Kind of like “What’s up!”
  • Pibes and Pibas: Replaces chicos and chicas for “guys” and “gals”
  • Minas: Young women
  • Bondi:  City bus
  • Pollera: Replaces falda and means “skirt”
  • Boludo and Boluda: A person with big testicles. It’s not a compliment, but it’s not an insult either. You can use it as "dude".
  • Guita: Replaces dinero and means “money”

So how to say hello in Argentinian Spanish? Just try "¡Che, boludo!" before asking for the beer guita.

So How to Keep it All Together?

Chances are that you won’t be able to learn the flow and peculiarities of Argentinian Spanish overnight. Instead, you will have to adjust your ear slowly at first, paying extra attention to everything you hear

The first few days may be rough. If you want to get a head start, why not start the process earlier? Tune in to some Argentinian shows like Por amarte así and spend a few days hearing how Argentinians speak when nobody else is listening – consider it your private Argentinian Spanish lessons!

At Lingopie, you can access hundreds of subtitles TV series and movies in Spanish. This is a great way to learn Spanish online without even realizing it – and you can test it out for 7 days for free here.