More adventures in Latin American Spanish

Argentina was a rather surprising experience. In Spain, where I had learned Spanish, the stereotype of the Argentine in television and films must be based on people from Buenos Aires: one hears the same invariable accent with no hint of the immense variety that one would actually encounter in Argentina. As I cycled west across the country, I found the regional accents clearly changing every 300 km or so.

Once I reached the provinces of La Rioja and Santa Fe, I was shocked to discover that the dialect here had not experienced the shift of *y (and *ʎ > *y) to /ʒ/ like Rioplatense Spanish and the Argentinian stereotype. Instead, it was *r that had shifted to /ʒ/, while *y remained /y/. My first inkling of this was when rápido ‘fast’ was increasingly heard as [ʒapiðo], but it happened to instances of word-medial *r as well and took some getting used to in fast speech. A child came up to my wife and I at a campground and asked if we had seen a man in a [ɣoʒaroxa], and only after a minute of thought did I realize he was looking for someone wearing a gorra roja ‘red hat’. Weeks later, in Chile, while I was cycling on the motorway, another tourist stopped his car to ask me if he had missed the turnoff to [βiyaʒika], i.e. Villarrica. I laughed, thinking that he was lucky to have come across a non-local who could understand his question.

I have seen it claimed in several popular sources that the dialects of western Argentina are transitional to Chilean Spanish, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Not only does the shift of *r to /ʒ/ stop at the Andes, but the intonation of Chilean Spanish is vastly different. The Andes serve as a mighty wall. For the first week or so in Chile, I had to concentrate very hard to understand what people were saying, and I could sympathize with the many Spanish speakers who point to Chilean Spanish as the most difficult to understand of all the Latin American varieties. Fortunately, after that first week, my difficulties vanished and the local speech came to feel entirely normal.

I’m not quite able to determine what phonetic quirks set Chilean Spanish apart, and I’m not sure that if I hear this accent qua accent again in some other part of the world, I would be able to trace it to Chile. However, the Chilean colloquial lexicon is very sui generis, and I’m sure I’ll be able to immediately identify Chileans by the presence of certain words. People are very fond of the item ueyá/ueyón, which is not only a generic word for ‘thing’ rather like Philadelphian English jawn, but apparently even works as a exclamation and more. Chileans also tend to end sentences with po’h, a reduction of pues and a particle which has an exotic, non-Spanish air about it, as if something from an East Asian language.

Curiously, while Argentines accepted my use of vosotros without batting an eye, Chileans have been much more ready to make fun of me for it. They complain that the mere existence of such a form is silly, because Spain is the only place in the world where people say that. (Clearly Chileans never get to talk to a Spanish speaker from Western Sahara or Equatorial Guinea.) Once when having dinner with several upper-class and well-educated Chileans, I found tiresome the company of a writer-who-should-know-better who kept claiming that vosotros, and not the word itself as much as the grammatical form in general with its verb marking, was an innovation that appeared in Spain after the colonization of the New World; my appeal to Latin *‑atis etc. was dismissed because, as a foreigner, I surely cannot have any understanding of the history of the Spanish language.

Hopefully, after making my way through Uruguay, Argentina and especially Chile and finding it entirely possible to communicate with the locals (with perhaps a few days of acclimatization), I can now travel in the remaining countries of Latin America without fear. Still, it is always the variety of the language in the place where you first learn it that sounds the sweetest, and I am very much looking forward to passing through Madrid next month.

Valparaiso

Valparaiso, essentially Chile’s second city, is both a struggle and a joy for the touring cyclist. While the main business and shopping areas of the city are located in a flat expanse known as the El Plan, the residential areas and many things of touristic interest are spread over several dozen hills. The streets going up these hills have ridiculously steep inclines and not only is it impossible to cycle up them, but even pushing a loaded touring bike requires that one stop every few steps for a breather. Once we safely stored our bikes at our lodgings, we hoped moving around would be easier, but even on foot Valparaiso is a brutal place. A series of funiculars (ascensores) links El Plan with the hills, but these were built a century ago when settlement had not yet spread so far up.A funicular at the top end of the line, with its counterpart far below, and a panorama of the surrounding city. Today, people are living much higher along the hills, and even after one has paid 200 pesos to ride a funicular several dozen meters up, there is still a lot of grueling walking left to be done. Continue reading Valparaiso

South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso

In Vicuña we experienced an earthquake, only the first of many during our time in Chile. The locals went about their business completely unperturbed, and explained that this was no terremoto (‘earthquake’ as the sort of cataclysmic event that razes cities and brings tsunamis), but rather a mere temblor (‘earthquake’ as only a brief shaking of the ground and all the loose items in the house). For us, not used to making such a distinction, it was still a foreboding introduction to this part of the world.

A half-day’s cycling from Vicuña brought us to Chile’s Pacific coast at the city of La Serena.Stretch of sandy beach with coastal developments and mountains in the background. We were surprised to find an almost perfect simulacrum of southern California: sprawl, car culture, row homes, a dry landscape, and plenty of conspicuous consumption. As mentioned before, we too were in consumption mode, so happy to have left Argentina with its import-substitution policy and low-quality products, and here the supermarkets were bigger than in Vicuña. We stayed with some local cyclists in the neighbouring port city of Coquimbo, which does feel a little like the poorer cousin of La Serena, but the “bad neighbourhoods” there are on top of the hill where no visitors need go, and generally the coastal and other low-lying areas are just quiet residential districts like in any other developed country. There was nothing of especial touristic interest in these two cities themselves, but during the days we stayed here, we cycled back and forth between Coquimbo and La Serena several times along the long seafront promenade, which was a relaxing place to be in late December, still the low season. On a clear day, you can turn away from the sea to a view of a snow-covered Andean peak. Continue reading South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso

Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale

The Paso Agua Negra (‘Blackwater Pass’) is one of many crossings from Argentina to Chile over the Andes. This pass reaches an altitude of 4770 meters, with a good-quality unpaved road but very little traffic, so it has become increasingly popular with cyclists. I read several stories of crossing here (like the excellent description at Andes By Bike) that described it as a smooth journey, so I expected that it would go equally smoothly for us in mid-December 2015. Things were more complicated, however. Continue reading Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale

West along Argentina’s RN150

From Chamical we cycled a day up to Patquía, where we turned onto the RN150 highway heading west. Patquía itself is a tiny town with no drinking water from taps and a lot of dust. We had to ask at the petrol station if we could pitch our tent there, a request that was readily granted – perhaps due to the vast distances between towns, petrol stations in rural Argentina are quite happy to help cyclists, motorcyclists, or hitchhikers out with camping sites and free wifi.

We didn’t know how feasible it would be to cycle the RN150 west. It passes through the desert of the provinces La Rioja and then San Juan, with very few settlements. Furthermore, a substantial portion of it was only finished in October 2014, so there hasn’t been any time for roadside businesses to appear. We nonetheless decided to risk it, but we each took many extra liters of water. Continue reading West along Argentina’s RN150

La Rioja: desert and dying villages

After crossing the Sierra Central, we had to cycle a few dozen kilometers north through the rest of Córdoba province. The scenery was much the same as before the mountains, but it was starting to get hotter. We got from Salsacate to Villa Carlos Paz, then decided to call it a day. Villa Carlos Paz is a fairly large town and a major crossroads. It has a free municipal campsite near the river, though it is one of the most neglected municipal campsites we’ve seen among many (toilets closed forever, the ground covered with thorny plants). Continue reading La Rioja: desert and dying villages

Cycling over Argentina’s Sierra Central

Continuing our westward journey from Córdoba meant going over the 2000-meter passes of the Sierra Central, Argentina’s other major mountain range besides the famous Andes. We originally planned on the RP34 road, which has asphalt and leads through the Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito which serves as a sanctuary for condors. A fellow cyclist recommended a lesser-known road, the RP28, which brought us into some impressive terrain with very little traffic.A cyclist carrying panniers in front of the Los Gigantes rock formations Continue reading Cycling over Argentina’s Sierra Central

Across Argentina’s Entre Rios province

Crossing the bridge from Uruguay near Fray Bentos brought us into a rather different place: things a little shabbier here (though nowhere near what I expected from hearing that Argentina has been an economic basket case since long before I was born), and there is something in the distances between things and the demeanor of the locals that told us that we had arrived in a “big country”. Continue reading Across Argentina’s Entre Rios province

Adventures in Uruguayan and Argentinian Spanish

Except for a few very brief orders made at Mexican restaurants in North America, these last few days in Uruguay and the Entre Ríos province of Argentina was the first time I had ever spoken Spanish outside of Spain. All in all, what surprised me is how easy it was to communicate on both sides, in Uruguay at least. I could imagine someone who learned some particular regional variety of UK English having some problems in the American South, for example. Even when I used more recently-coined colloquialisms common to Spain, rural Uruguayans understood me. I do find that a bit puzzling, since the Uruguayans to whom I spoke claimed to have virtually no contact with Spanish of Spain: no music or films or television, and Latin America is a large enough market to sustain its own publishing without having to import any books from Spain. In Argentina, however, I’ve been forced to start adapting to their way of talking in certain contexts.

Over the years, other foreigners who learned Spanish in Spain have told me that going to Latin America would require avoiding vosotros and the verb coger ‘take’, but I find that an exaggeration. No one I met seems to mind the use of vosotros as the second person plural, and the indicative endings are so close to the vos forms used here that nobody would be confused by the morphology. While the verb coger has become an obscenity here, no one batted an eye when I used it in its Spanish meaning ‘to take’. Speaking with ceceo provoked no jokes at our expense.

The main aspects of pronunciation which required a brief moment of adaptation was the seseo and the pronunciation of *y/λ as [ʒ]. Once I crossed the border into the Entre Ríos province of Argentina, I started to hear people dropping final /s/, a common development in varieties across Latin America. Otherwise, it feels like everyone here speaks “clearly”. The major differences found were naturally lexical ones:

  • For ‘tap, faucet’, grifo is understood, but apparently only canilla is used here.
  • For ‘tent’, carpa is used here, though tienda has generally been understood.
  • Uruguayans understand los aseos/los servicios for ‘toilet’, but they say el baño, and I’ve found that I have to use the latter in Argentina to be understood.
  • For ‘peanuts’, people here say maní instead of cacahuete, and Argentinians don’t even understand the latter (if the word is explained to them, they tend to laugh at it).
  • For the simple small-town eateries in Entre Ríos, everyone says comedor, which elsewhere means ‘dining room’. I wonder if my asking Hay un restaurante por aquí? suggested that I wanted something posher than these little communities could boast.