Chile Stories and Tips

Interlude: Chilean E-Spanish

Atacama Desert Photo, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

I have reviewed several South American countries until now. Invariably, on the paper they all seem similar. They use Spanish or Portuguese as main languages, where ruthlessly colonized by Spain or Portugal, eradicated native cultures, gained independence early in the 19th century and since then experienced incredible amounts and types of inner violence. All these are true, but once on the ground things look different.

Food is heavily influenced by location. Altitude, adjacent water sources, ground fertility and weather patterns dictate the available ingredients in a given area. Traditional native dishes can be found even today in Bolivia, Paraguay and other cultural pockets. However, nowhere the differences are as obvious as with the language used. I wrote extensively on Bolivian Spanish, due to its Aymara and Quechua influences (especially on the Andean High Plateau area). Unlike Bolivia, Chile is completely dominated by Spanish. I saw an Aymara school in Arica, but all denizens spoke exclusively Spanish among themselves. All signs were in Spanish, including the one at the Aymara school. This area of modern Chile was never part of the Inca Empire; Aymara and Quechua speakers arrived here during colonial times. That means Chilean Spanish is something else; but what is it?

A characteristic of Spanish is its theoretical flatness: no tones, no most emphasized word, and equal length vowels. Reality is different. In every zone an underlying sing-song is applied to the spoken language. Vowels are then elongated or shortened, modulating the sound of the local dialect. In certain areas, some consonants are skipped. Moreover, several Spanish consonants are ill defined and changed wildly. The "ll" and the "y" feature at least three different sounds each, while the pronunciation chosen depends exclusively on cultural parameters. Pronounce "yo" (I) and your Spanish background would be pretty much defined.

The first time I visited Chile, I could barely speak Spanish, though I understood the Bolivian and Argentinean dialects. Bolivian Spanish is slow due to its use of Aymara and Quechua long vowels, making it easier to understand. The first Chilean I met was in the Bolivian bus leading me downwards to Arica. He was the conductor and was asking me for my ticket; the request was simple, yet I was lost and we moved to English. While at the Chilean immigrations booth I just guessed out what I was being told; the sounds uttered by the guards were meaningless. Luckily, there were no surprises there. Once in Arica it took me a while to begin recognizing a language I thought to know properly.

The problems were various. First, a final "s" was invariably skipped; unluckily that’s the Spanish plural. Everything became singular. Then, when two consonants appeared together (not a very common occurrence in this vowels-oriented language), one of them was shortened or obliterated. Syllables were not separated; the pause between words was in the range of milliseconds (or was it microseconds?). The underlying sing-song was very different than in other places. Foreign words beginning with an "s" and another consonant following it received extra vowels; "stadium" became … "estadiun," because no Spanish word ends with an "m" the letter is automatically transformed into an "n." Non-existing consonants in Spanish were accommodated: "busch" would be pronounced "boos-ch." The result was almost unintelligible.

For those of us speaking languages with semi-vowels, another difficulty exists; a semivowel would almost invariably be added to words ending with an "s." I always need to verify if the speaker said "dos" (2) or "doce" (12), "tres" (3) or "trece" (13). The semivowel is seen by locals as an insignificant puff of air.

More often than not, Spanish is uttered very quickly, and this is a very surprising characteristic. Usually there is a correlation between the way a language is used and the surrounding culture. Compare the rapid English of New York with the languid one in New Mexico. Spanish doesn’t behave like that. You can see the most lethargic people almost falling asleep while standing next to their equally stagnant llama. Did they grow up there? It is difficult to imagine them moving at all. You approach them and ask for directions. Incredibly, the mouth of the answerer becomes then independent from that immobile body. The unstoppable – and apparent random – shower of long vowels that follows must make some sense to the speaker, but even the llama looks with proud wonder at that prodigious orchestra of sounds. E-spanish.

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