Argentinian and Rioplatense Spanish

In the streets of Buenos Aires, the Spanish you hear is different from the one you hear on the streets of Madrid. Given that 6,000 or so miles separate the capital of Argentina from that of Spain, this does not come as much of a surprise. Let’s have a look at what makes Argentinian Spanish unique.

Rioplatense Spanish is a dialect of Spanish spoken in the River Plate basin (Río de la Plata Basin) of Argentina and Uruguay. It is what you may know as “Argentinian Spanish”.

Other dialects exist in Argentina, but Rioplatense Spanish is used in two of the country’s most populated provinces, Buenos Aires (which contains the capital city) and Santa Fe. It also extends to the Patagonian region in southern Argentina.

The terms “Argentinian Spanish” and “Rioplatense Spanish” are often used interchangeably because, given its use in Buenos Aires, Rioplatense Spanish stands out as the most visible form of Argentinian Spanish. But to be precise, the terms differ slightly as Argentinian Spanish includes a broader spectrum of regional dialects.

Before explaining what makes Rioplatense Spanish unique, we have to talk about voseo. Voseo is the use of “vos” instead of “tú”. It is an essential part of Rioplatense Spanish, but it can also be found in other varieties of Spanish, like Central American Spanish.

I. Voseo in Rioplatense Spanish: talking about “you” differently

If you want to speak and understand Rioplatense Spanish, or all the Spanish dialects of Argentina, you must learn how voseo works.

Voseo can vary according to the region you’re in, but it always implies that the informal second-person singular pronoun “tú” and the prepositional object “ti” are replaced by “vos”.

Here are some examples of how voseo works in Rioplatense Spanish:

Tuteo Voseo
Te hablo a ti (I’m talking to you) Te hablo a vos
Voy contigo (I’m going with you) Voy con vos
[Tú] Eres increíble. (You are amazing) [Vos] Sos increíble

Notice how “eres” becomes “sos” in the last example. This is because the pronouns “vos” and “tú” are associated with different verbal forms.

Notice also the accentuation and how it changes the diphthongs in the following examples.

Tuteo Voseo
comes mucho. (You eat much). Vos comés mucho.
puedes hacerlo. (You can do it). Vos podés hacerlo.
Nunca recuerdas nada. (You never remember anything). Nunca recordás nada [vos].
¿Vienes más tarde? (Are you coming later?) ¿Venís más tarde?
¿Sales el sábado? (Are you going out on Saturday?) ¿Salís el sábado?

The stress shift is derived from the elimination of the “i” in ancient “vos” inflections: vos coméis, vos podéis, vos recordáis, etc.

The voseo also affects the imperative forms of the verbs:

Tuteo Voseo
Come un poco más. (Eat some more). Comé un poco más.
Recuerda las reglas. (Remember the rules). Recordá las reglas.
Ven aquí. (Come here). Vení aquí (or acá in “Argentine Spanish”).
Escucha esta canción. (Listen to this song). Escuchá esta canción.
Espérame ahí. (Wait [for me] there). Esperame ahí. (Stress in “ra”).
Ve a tu casa. (Go home). Andá a tu casa*.

* We don’t use the imperative form of the verb “ir” in voseo, instead we use the imperative form of the verb “andar” (“anda”) with the stress in the last syllable.

II. Usage of tenses: keeping it simple

In Rioplatense Spanish, we prefer the simple past over the present perfect.

Tuteo Voseo
Aquí no ha pasado nada. (Nothing has happened here). Acá no pasó nada.
Hemos venido en son de paz. (We’ve come in peace). Vinimos en son de paz.
¿Han cenado tus amigos? (Have your friends had dinner?). ¿Cenaron tus amigos?

An exception occurs in the subjunctive mood. We would say “espero que no haya pasado nada”, “no creo que hayan venido en son de paz”, “no me importa lo que tus amigos hayan cenado”.

We also keep it simple when we talk about the future. Normally, in Rioplatense Spanish, we don’t use the future tense to describe actions that will happen later. The future tense is limited to expressing doubts about what might happen in the future: “¿pasará algo?”, “¿vendrán en son de paz?”, “¿cenarán tus amigos?”.

But we want to affirm that something will happen, that someone will come in peace, that our friends will have dinner, etc., we opt for the equivalent of “going to” in English —a verbal phrase built through the verb “ir”.

Following the previous example:

Tuteo Voseo
Aquí no pasará nada. (Nothing will happen here). Acá no va a pasar nada.
Iremos* en son de paz. (We’ll go [somewhere] in peace.

The exact word should be “vendremos” but it doesn’t sound too natural here.
Vamos a ir en son de paz.
Mis amigos cenarán. (My friends will have dinner). Mis amigos van a cenar.

III. Vocabulary: what is lunfardo?

Lunfardo is an argot that originated in the late 19th century among the lower classes of the Rio de la Plata basin but now extends to all social strata, most likely thanks to tango.

Lunfardo supplies Rioplatense Spanish with a unique lexicon and can be considered a key part of the dialect.

It is influenced by the languages of immigration currents in Argentina, mainly from Italy, but also includes words derived from French, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish Caló (a mixed language spoken by Romani people in Spain), and a few loan words from indigenous languages such as Quechua, Mapuche, and Guaraní.

Lunfardo also features an inversion of syllables called vesre (from “revés”, meaning “backward”, similar to English back slang).

Word Origin Meaning
Afano (verb: afanar) Old Spanish Robbery / to steal
Groso Brazilian Portuguese Important, skilled
Bondi Brazilian Portuguese Bus
Lorca Vesre (“calor”) Heat
Ofri Vesre (“frío”) Cold
Lope Vesre (“pelo”) Hair
Feca Vesre (“café”) Coffee
Laburo (verb: laburar) Italian (“lavoro”) Work / to work
Chau Italian (“ciao”) Bye
Pibe Italian (“pivello”) Boy
Mina Italian (“femmina”) Woman
Matina Italian (“mattina”) Morning
Gamba Italian (“gamba”) Leg
Yuta Italian (“giusta”) Police
Yeta Italian (“iettatore”) Bad luck
Naso Italian (“naso”) Nose
Quilombo Kimbundu (“kilombo”) Mess
Garpar Vesre (“pagar”) To pay with money
Junar Caló (“junar”) To know
Chamuyar Caló To lie or persuade
Gil Caló Dumb
Morfar French (“morfer”) To eat
Cana French (“canne”) Police / Prison
Pilcha Mapuche (“pilcha”) Clothes
Pucho Quechua (“puchu”) Cigarette
Choclo Quechua (“choccllo”) Corn
Gurí Guaraní (“ngiri”) Boy

According to the Ministry of Culture of Argentina, there are approximately 6,000 terms that belong to lunfardo. However, this is not a static number because the usage of words varies.

While some words might fall into disuse, the Argentine Academy of Lunfardo states that about 70 new words are added to lunfardo each year.

Here are some examples of how the lunfardo can be used:

—¿No fuiste a laburar? Sos un gil, te van a rajar. —Después les meto un chamuyo. “You didn’t go to work? You are an idiot, they are going to fire you.” “I’ll cook something up later”.
Abrigate, que hace un ofri… Wrap yourself up, [since] it’s very cold.
Me voy a fumar un pucho. I’m going to smoke a cigarette.
—¿Querés un feca? —No, mejor vamos a morfar. “Do you want a coffee?” “No, we better go eating”.
Vi una mina con unas gambas hermosas en el bondi. I saw a woman/girl with beautiful legs on the bus.
Garpale o vamos todos en cana. Pay him/her, or we’re all going to jail.
—¿Cuánto te costó esa pilcha?
—Ni preguntes, fue un afano.
“How much did that cloth cost you?” “Don’t even ask, it was a robbery” [too expensive]
—Tremendo quilombo armaron esos pibes. —Sí, ahí viene la tuya. “Those guys made a huge mess.”
“Yes, the police is coming.”
¿Quién es esa? No la juno. Who is that [woman]? I don’t know her.
¡Gracias por cubrirme, sos un groso! Thank you for covering me, you are amazing!

¡Che, vos!

“Che” is an interjection used as a vocative to attract someone’s attention in Rioplatense Spanish. It is said that Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara used it a lot, and that’s why his Cuban allies nicknamed him “Che”.

The origin of the word “che” is unclear. What we know is that it is not only present in Argentina and Uruguay, but also in the neighboring Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil), some areas of Paraguay, the Falkland Islands (also written as chay), Valencia and Catalonia (where it is spelled as xe), and even the Philippines (a colony of Spain until 1898).

The expression “¡che, vos!” equates to “hey, you!” in English, although the word “che” by itself is sufficient to call someone’s attention in Argentina and Uruguay.

¡Che, María! ¿Me pasás el mate? Hey, María! Can you pass me the mate?
¿Adónde vas, che? Hey, where are you going? / Where are you going, dude/buddy/etc.?

IV. Pronunciation

Rioplatense Spanish differs from other varieties of Spanish through its pronunciation as well.

The main characteristic of Rioplatense Spanish in terms of pronunciation is the use of yeísmo, a phonetic phenomenon in which the double L and the consonant Y are pronounced like the English sound “sh”.

Therefore, in Rioplatense Spanish, there is no phonetic difference between “playa” (beach) and “caballo” (horse). We say “plasha” and “cabasho” like Y and LL are the same letter. Phonetically, it is [ʃ] instead of [ʎ].

Only people in some northern provinces of Argentina make a difference between these consonants. There, words like “lluvia” (rain) can sound more like “iuvia” than “shuvia” - just like what happens in the rest of Latin America.

We also have seseo, a phonetic phenomenon in which both the S and the Z sound like an S (phonetically: /θ/ sounds like /s/). This is also common in other areas of Latin America and even Spain, such as the zones of Andalucia and the Canary Islands.

Additionally, in Rioplatense Spanish, we mix up the sound of “ñ” with “ni”. In phonetics: /ɲ/ turns into /nj/.

These features lead to several homophones that aren't found in Iberic Spanish, such as, for example:

Casa (house) Caza (hunt)
Asar (to roast) Azar (random)
Valla (fence) Vaya (from the verb ir, meaning to go)
Calló (from the verb callar, meaning to shut up) Cayó (from the verb caer, meaning to fall)
Huraño (unsociable) Uranio (uranium)

You have to take this into account when talking with someone who speaks Argentinian Spanish. Sharpen your ears and consider the context for a more appropriate interpretation of what is being said.