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.

Four levels of politeness in 17th-century Spanish

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read lately is Christopher J. Pountain’s A History of the Spanish Language Through Texts (London: Routledge, 2001). For the so-called Golden Age of Spanish literature, Pountain especially chooses texts by standardization-minded authors who inadvertently offer many details of the popular speech of their time. The following passage from Gonzalo de Correas’s Arte de la lengua española castellana (1625) suggests a much more complex system than the one found in Peninsular Spanish today, which is down to just tu and usted (and when I moved to Spain in the early millennium, I was urged to use usted much more sparingly than foreigners – on the basis of learning materials from Latin America – usually feel they should).

Devese tanbien mucho notar la desorden, i discordante concordia, que á introduzido el uso, ora por modestia, ora por onrra, ò adulazion. Para lo qual es menester primero advertir, que se usan quatro diferenzias de hablar para quatro calidades de personas, que son: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu… De merzed usamos llamar à las personas à quien rrespetamos, i debemos ò queremos dar onrra, como son: xuezes, cavalleros, eclesiasticos, damas, i xente de capa negra, i es lo mas despues de señoria. Él usan los maiores con el que no quieren darle merzed, ni tratarle de vos, que es mas baxo, i propio de amos à criados, i la xente vulgar i de aldea, que no tiene uso de hablar con merzed, llama de él al que quiere onrrar de los de su xaez. De vos tratamos à los criados i mozos grandes, i à los labradores, i à personas semexantes; i entre amigos adonde no ai gravedad, ni cunplimiento se tratan de vos, i ansien rrazonamientos delante de rreies i dirixidos à ellos se habla de vos con devido rrespeto i uso antiguo. De tu se trata à los muchachos i menores de la familia, i à los que se quisieren bien: i quando nos enoxamos i rreñimos con alguno le tratamos de él, i de vos por desdén. Supuesto lo dicho, en las tres diferenzias primeras de hablar de merzed, él, vos, se comete solezismo en la gramatica i concordanzias contra la orden natural de las tres personas, xeneros i numeros.

The disorder and disconcordant concord which usage has introduced, whether through modesty, respect or adulation, should also be noted. For this it is necessary, first, to state that four different ways of speech are used for four qualities of person, namely: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu … We usually call people we respect by merzed, such as judges, gentry, clergy, ladies and black cape people, and it is the highest after señoría. Él is used by older people for someone they do not wish either to call merzed or address as vos, which is lower, and typical of masters to servants; and common and village people, who are not accustomed to using merzed in their speech, address as él people to whom they want to show respect from their class. We call servants and grown up boys vos, and labourers, and such like people; and among friends where there is no gravity nor ceremony vos is used, and so in speeches made in front of kings and addressed to them vos is used with due respect and old usage. Children, younger members of the family and loved ones are called ; and when we get angry and quarrel with someone we call them él, and vos to disparage them. Bearing in mind the foregoing, in the first three of speaking (merzed, él, vos) there are violations of grammar and agreement against the natural order of three persons, gender and number.

One wonders how much this system was really agreed upon by all, and how much it was an idealization of shifting norms across time and space. The Hungarian I learned from Zsuzsa Pontifex’s Teach Yourself Hungarian back in the 1990s seemed to present a straightforward four-level system too: te, maga, Ön, tetszik. However, foreign learners are told very quickly that maga has been on the way out for decades, and if used today is just as likely to be pejorative as it is to tend towards showing respect. In other descriptions, the tetszik address is either replaced by another form of address, or a fifth level is added to the system.

Similarly, of the four-level system I’ve often heard proposed for Romanian – tu, dumneata, dumneavoastră, domnul/doamna – the second is rarely heard in Transylvania and the last is only heard from waiters at high-class restaurants who are clearly aping the French experience.

Iberian divergence

Here’s a fun little bit from Philippe Wolff’s Western Languages: AD 100-1500 (London: Phoenix, 2003):

Karl Baldinger has collected together the features charactertistic of the divergent development of the Iberian languages in the following sentence:

Sp.: El ocho de enero, el hijo ciego llegò a la huerta con un cesto lleno de piedras y una paloma de color blanco.

Cat.: El vuit de gener, el fill cec arribà a l’horta amb un cistell ple de pedres i una coloma de color blanc.

Port.: No dia oito de janeiro, o filho chegou à horta com um cesto cheio de pedras e uma pômba de côr branco.

(On 8 January, the blind son arrived at the garden with a basket full of stones and a white dove.)