Of the aspirated 's,' yeísmo and 'che, boludo'

One of the things that makes the porteño brand of castellano so lovely to listen to and so hard to understand is the aspirated ‘s.’ When an ‘s’ or a ‘z’ in a word falls between a vowel and a consonant it is barely pronounced. In its place comes a little puff of air, either from the back of the throat or the front of the mouth, depending on the sounds of the following letters.

Here are some examples: ‘Pascua’ (Easter) comes out sounding like ‘pahqua,’ kiosko’ (kiosk or corner store) becomes ‘kiohco,’ and ‘busco’ (I look for) becomes ‘booh-ko.’ It’s fantastic, really, but when a local is speaking to me quickly, it means I sometimes miss a words entirely. That ‘s’ is a dangerous little guy.

Between two vowels, the ‘s’ is pronounced, as in ‘asi’ (so) or ‘eso’ (that). If the ‘s’ ends the word, as in ‘es’ (is), it’s also pronounced. Though in some parts of the country if the following word begins with a vowel, the sound vanishes. I’m told that in the northern regions of Argentina ‘los ojos’ (eyes) would be pronounced “lo-ojo,” with only the slightest sound, a kind of very short whisper, to mark where the ‘s’s would be.

Another little linguistic trick porteños use is referred to as ‘yeísmo.’ This is the habit in the local dialect (and many others in the Spanish-speaking world) of pronouncing the ‘ll’ as a ‘y’. But more than a ‘y’ it’s usually accompanied by a ‘shh’ sound in these parts. This means ‘calle’ (street) is pronounced ‘cashay,’ ‘castellano’ pronounced ‘casteshahno.’ Oh, how these fine folks sing. I tell you. If you want a taste of either the aspirated ‘s’ or yeísmo, listen to some Argentine tango or, for those with a more indie musical inclination, the local up-and-coming band Onda Vaga.

This is among the most remarkable linguistic habits of the porteño. But if you come down here to visit you’d probably notice something else first. Pretty much anywhere you’re wandering in the city you are likely to hear someone playfully turn to a friend to say “Che! Boludo!” This could roughly translate as the lunfardo equivalent of “dude, balls!” And yes, ‘balls’ as in ‘testicles.’ The word ‘boludo’ has incredible dynamism in this city. It can be a particularly strong insult if used in the wrong context, but among friends it is a very common, almost endearing–‘che’ and ‘boludo’ are nearly interchangeable among close company. Both words can easily translate between genders. Young girls and women very often refer to each other as ‘che’ or ‘boluda.’ The word ‘boludo’ can also become a verb. If I want to say I spent the day screwing around instead of working, I’d say “pasé el dia boludeando.” People, things, situations, actions, all can be referred to using some form of  the word ‘boludo.’ A ‘boludez’ is a stupid thing or event, for example.

If you will permit me to make a very broad generalization, I’d say the ability of Spanish language speakers to make nouns into verbs, verbs into substantives and back again really gives them a linguistic edge–so much can be played with, re-appropriated, mixed.  Any word can be made one’s own. Just one final example: one porteño way to indicate the verb “e-mail” is “mailear.” If that’s not just fantastic, well, I don’t know what is.

I’ll leave you with an only partially related anecdote. I’ve been befriended by one of the kioskeros (the guys who work at the little corner stores) whose post is just a block from my house. The other day we were talking and he asked if I was on Facebook. It took him a good three sentences of explanation to get me to realize that ‘Facebook’ is here pronounced “fayeboohk.’ I don’t know what you call that in linguistic terms, but I like it anyway.

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