By Marcela de Vivo

It is often remarked upon how the English spoken by Americans isn’t really “English,” but within the small area of the United Kingdom—or even just England—a diverse range of accents and slang can make one person almost unintelligible to their neighbour.

This language barrier becomes even more pronounced when time and vast oceans separate the native tongue from the soil to which it was transplanted. Any Spanish speaker from Spain will tell you that the same language spoken in South American countries may be called “Spanish,” but they would be hard pressed to understand exactly what their Southern brethren are saying, unless they learned the country’s particular dialect.

Chilean Spanish stands apart from other Latin American dialects, due partly to the blend of indigenous languages from the original natives. As regional dialects vary from country to country, even those who speak fluent Latin American Spanish can run into miscommunication while in Chile, sometimes leading to funny results.

Background

Chilean Spanish is part of the “American Spanish group” (in contrast to the Old World varieties), alongside Mexican, Caribbean (Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, and northern Colombia), Central American, Plata River (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay) and Andean-Pacific (Peru, Ecuador, western Bolivia, Colombia and western Venezuela). Chilean Spanish is in a group by itself, unlike most other countries, which are grouped together in distinct regions.

Of the 16 million Chileans, over 90% speak Spanish as their primary language. Similar to Andalusian Spanish, it is a dialect that can be challenging for speakers of the Castilian version (from Spain) to understand.

Many indigenous groups lived in the region prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, however, only 11 percent of the population is indigenous today. Many languages have become extinct or borderline extinct as the native population waned.

After the Spanish, who began intermarrying with indigenous peoples, populated Chile, the connection and reinforcement of the original Castilian Spanish began to fall away, leading to the development of this new dialect.

Differences from other Spanish dialects

Chilean Spanish has a great deal of distinctive vocabulary and slang. Many words are borrowed from neighbouring Amerindian language, Quechua. Chilenismos also borrow heavily from the native language, Mapudungun, primarily for names of plants and animals.

There are few regional divisions within the country, with the Spanish spoken in the Northern, Central, and Southern areas being relatively consistent throughout. Areas like Aysén, Magallanes, Chiloé, or Arica have greater differences, especially in the accent. There is remarkable variation in the Spanish spoken by different social classes, as well, centering on the usage of “voseo,” amongst other grammatical quirks.

Other languages spoken in Chile

Chile has seven living languages and several extinct or nearly extinct languages. Some of the indigenous languages include Mapudungun, Quechua, Rapa Nui, Huilliche, Central Aymara, Kawesqar (only 20 remaining speakers), and Yamana, which is spoken by only one person and will soon be an extinct language. Spanish is not the only language imported from Europe; several thousand Chileans also speak German, though the numbers of people who speak it have been in decline since World War II. Chilean Sign Language is a developing language; tens of thousands use the language, and is encouraged by the country by including the sign language in its bilingual-bicultural approach to education.

If you’re planning a trip to Chile, or are just curious about chilenismos, read this guide and check out our common Chilean slang terms to get a feel for the difference in the language.

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