Bolivia Stories and Tips

Speaking Bolivian Spanish

Waterfall Photo, Sorata, Bolivia

The Spanish immigrants who defined the future language of half-South America arrived from South-western Spain, and shaped the peculiarities of the regional dialects after their own. For those who learned Spanish as the Spaniards speak it, the South American versions are a bit difficult to comprehend at first. In Spain, the "c" is pronounced similarly to an English "th," however, in the whole of South America, the "c" and the "z" have been atrophied into an "s." The "ll" is a lateral consonant peculiar to the Spanish; in South America its pronunciation got lost and each region pronounces it differently, sometimes as an English "sh," sometimes as an English "j" and sometimes like an "ee." More than one variation can appear in a given area. The "y" in the middle of a word is treated as a "ll," adding thus to the complexity. Another peculiarity is that the "b" and the "v" are used randomly; for example, in Bolivia, the word "votar" (to vote) can be pronounced "votar" or "botar" (an archaic form of "to throw away").

Bolivian Spanish can be treated as a subset of the South American one; more often than not the "ll" is there pronounced as an "ee." However, Bolivians attempting to sound cool use the Colombian pronunciation, namely a "j," or the Argentinean one – a "sh."

The Bolivian Accent
Most Bolivians live in the Andean High Plateau, where the main indigenous group is the Aymara people. To emphasize a word, Aymaras pronounce one of its vowels longer than usual. The practice permeated into the Bolivian Spanish which tends to create unusually looooong words. The result benefits newcomers; Bolivians are slow speakers and the extra effect of enlarging vowels makes understanding them easier.

The Bolivian Vowels
The Aymara language has only three vowels "a," "i" and "u," while the Spanish has five; the result is that "i" and "e" can get mixed when pronounced by Bolivians. The same is true for the "o" and "u."

Pronunciation is important, but dialects are characterized by more than an accent:

The Diminutive
The Spanish uses a diminutive suffix, the "ito" (m) and "ita" (f), for nouns. In South America and Bolivia it is used to express care or love to the person addressed, and it can create startling effects. A sentence without at least one "ito" sounds harsh and impolite to the locals; but creates illogical constructions. For example, in a Bolivian market I was offered to add "aguita" (small water) to my coffee. The most startling word I ever met in this category was "muchito" (little much), a perfect oxymoron.

The Articles
The Aymara language lacks Indo-European articles, thus locals often confuse the proper use of Spanish articles while speaking Spanish. A similarly related problem is the confusion between the genders in the plural forms.

Archaic Forms
Bolivian Spanish froze in time, a silent testimony to other cultural idiosyncrasies. Some idioms date back some five hundreds years and are hard to understand for those who had learned the language elsewhere. "Grave" they say instead of the modern "serio" when something is "serious," "harto" instead of "mucho," for "much" and so on; learning all the variations takes some time. Some of the words adopted for modern words are equally strange: for example, the word "movilidad" (mobility) is used for car instead of "auto."

"God Will Pay"
In the far past, the Ayamara culture was shattered and its language almost destructed; the Ayamara language broke into several dialects and a substantial part of its vocabulary is made of adapted Spanish words. While listening to it carefully, peculiar idioms can be heard. "Dios pagara" they say, using the Spanish for "God will pay" whenever they want to say "thank you," a word originally missing from their harsh culture.

"To Know See"
Some constructions used in Bolivian Spanish are direct translations from Aymara. For example, t

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