Buttery Italian? Rapid? Lyrical? What Spanish sounds to foreigners, and why.

I once asked someone what Spanish sounded to them, and the response I got was that it sounded ‘ghetto.’ I found out later that she comes from a reactionary faction that is intolerant of immigration to the United States. Especially Mexicans. If I had known this before, I definitely wound’t have asked her. But deep down, as a Spanish-speaker, and huge admirer of the language, I know the language doesn’t sound ghetto. I decided to get a deeper insight about what Spanish sounded like. I learned Spanish as a first language, so its really hard for me to describe the physical description of the language. I’ll start off by explaining the first two responses that I thought were hysterical. Of course, most of these responses were a response to different situations in which people had heard Spanish.

I asked a good friend who is from The Philippines and speaks Tagalog as her mother language. Keep in mind that Spanish is relatively alive in The Philippines. She said Spanish sounds ‘common’ or a language that is well-grounded in communicating practical information. An interesting response given that early Spanish is essentially an offshoot from a  common language; the language of commoners that was called Vulgar Latin, that oftentimes was crude and highly metaphorical. The Spanish word for horse caballo, was in Old Spanish, caballvs. The V was pronounced like an English schwa in words like “Uh-oh” or “up”. But that what commoners said. The ruling class of the Roman Empire didn’t refer to a horse by caballvus, but intstead–equus, which is where the word equestrian comes from, a horse riding sport. Caballvs, according to Jean Benoît-Nadeau and Julie Barlow in The Story of Spanish, was the commoner’s way of joking about the animal the nobility mainly utilized; it meant something like “Beast of burden.” But the modern standard word for horse that was once “vulgar” prevailed. Caballvs -> Caballo. Another example is leg. The nobility referred to leg as crus, while commoners called it perna (ham), but leg is now widely understood as pierna.   

I then decided to ask another good friend who was a Portuguese-speaker. I know I was bound to get an interesting response. After all, linguists have found that Portuguese and Spanish have a lexical correspondence of  9 out 10; both tongues are almost identical.  According to this Lusitanian (Portuguese-speaker), Spanish sounds like “kids’ talk.” She added that children–before going through formal education–are born speaking Spanish. The Spanish pronoun for she is ella. It is pronounced ‘eya’. And that’s what Brazilian kids babble until their first teachers “clean up” the Spanish and break the bad news that the Portuguese pronunciation of ‘eya’ is ‘ela’. Jean Benoît and Julie go further and explain that the only historical difference between Spanish and Portuguese–aside from being different languages–is that Spain was conquered by Muslims, Visigoths, Greeks, Celts, and Phoenicians, but all those nations reached present day Portugal only after. These same authors describes Spanish as a “buttery Italian.”

Another major theme I found across asking several others is that rapidness of Spanish. In Lingo Lingo Lingo Lingo Lingo Around Europe in Sixty Languages, Gaston Dorren describes that a conversation in Spanish is similar to hearing a shoot out of machine guns. The Spanish fire more syallables per second than its sorrounding languages; 7.82 syallables per second, compared to 6.17 in English and 5.97 in German. This gives Spanish its percussive sound. But in the great scheme of things, Latin langauges sound more “rapa-da-tat-uh-tat”, whereas English to Spanish-speakers resembles something like “Trarshk-tark-shrark-druhk-rark.”

Gaston adds that the Atlantic Ocean and the distance between the Americas and Spain does create something of a language barrier. Just like Americans sometimes have some difficulty understanding British Cockney, a conversation between Spaniards and Latin Americans can be stressful. Both Spanish’s are mutually intelligible, but it well known in the hispanosphere that Latin Americans speak at a much slower space than their European counterparts.

But that’s just basic phonology of Spanish works. It is a language that synchronizes syllables, meaning that the duration of syllables remain fixes regardless of accent. Perhaps, that’s why English-speakers describe Spanish as being more upbeat and jovial than language. Not to mention that the first two most utilized phonemes (basic sound unit in language) in Spanish are ‘a’ and ‘e’, whereas English they are ‘s’ and ‘t’.

Here is a list of other responses from individuals I asked what Spanish sounded to them. Of course, the people I asked know no Spanish, or were learning it as a second language:

“Jovial and joking-sounding”

“Fast and beautiful.”

“If it isn’t from Spain, it sounds ghetto.”




“Sloppy Italian.”


“So awesome! I love the sound so much!”

“Utilizes the front of mouth more than English. It’s Italian, but with noticeably different inflection patterns.”

“Quick and choppy.”

“More exciting than French, but less exciting Italian.”


“Sounds like ‘car’mel.’”

“Expressed accuratley. Words sound accurate to what is being said. The word for skull in Spanish calavera looks and sounds like a skull.”  

“The Mexican dialect sounds very nasally while the Iberian dialect [from Spain] sounds like a watered-down Italian.”

El E’pañol Chileno: The Language of Snooki, Neruda, and Pinochet

Several years ago, Lonely Planet, a how-to series and survival guide on traveling to various countries worldwide, came up with a Chile & Easter Island edition and described the Chilean spirit in what I believe to be the most accurate:

“Centuries with little outside exposure, accompanied by an especially influential Roman Catholic Church, fostered by a high degree for cultural conformity and conservatism in Chile. If anything, this isolation was compounded during the Pinochet years of repression and censorship. Perhaps for this outsiders often comment on how Chileans appear more restrained than other Latin American nationalities: they seem a less verbal, more heads-down and hardworking people.

But the national psyche is now at its most fluid, as Chile undergoes radical social change. The Catholic Church itself has become more progressive. Society is opening up, introducing liberal laws and challenging conservative values. Nowhere is this trend more evident than with the urban youth…”

Chilean attitudes towards politics are more mercurial than ever before.There exists a noun describing being detained by law enforcement or for something to go wrong, clotear. The reference goes back to syndicalist leader, Clotario Blest, who was arrested several times for instigating several leftist movements during when Chile was experiencing an abuse in human rights. Nowadays, lo clotearón or se cloteó mean they arrested him and it went bad, respectively.

Aside from politics, Chile boasts an interesting linguistic phenomena for Spanish. For one, Chile is the most southernmost Spanish-speaking country on the planet. The formidable Andes mountains act as a border between Chile from Bolivia and Argentina, the latter two already being two distinct dialects: español de las tierras altas (Spanish of the highlands) and español argentino (Argentine Spanish). This has made Chile linguistically isolated. You would expect to see radically different features between the original Spanish of Castille.

In my first post. Every Spanish-speaking country unfairly gains up on Chile for their seemingly sing-song talk and their wild use of intonations. But it shouldn’t always be a subject to frown on. In fact, I befriended a gentleman who traveled to Ecuador. I can’t remember if the main reason was to learn Spanish, but it wasn’t going very well for him until he visited Chile. The intonation may have helped cleared up indiscernible vowels.   

Like other Spanish-speaking countries who adopt terms from indigenous languages, the Mapuche nation is emblematic of Chile and Argentina. It is estimated that there are 1.7 million Mapuches. The Mapuche has not been satisfactorily classified with another language, therefore it is considered a language isolate. Mapuche has crept into Chilean Spanish mainly under semantic fields in foods, animals, plants, and textile works. The most commonly used are: pololo/a (boyfriend or girlfriend), ruca (house) but commonly known as precarious homes, chape (braid), guata (stomach), and laucha (mouse). Of course, the Chilean would most likely have said novio, casa, trenza, estómago, and ratón. Chile has a considerable migration from Europe that is non-Spanish. Chucrut is Alsatian-derived, sükrüt, meaning chocolate. Marraqueta from the French Marraquette, a pastry. Rosbif from the English, roast beef. Parka for a heavy winter jacket, but it is disputed whether the word is derived from English, Russian, or Samoyed.

The animalification of people is another characteristic of Chilean Spanish. Andar pato (being duck) means “being without money”. Caballo (horse) is synonymous with “magnificient”. Chancho (pig) is synonymous of dirty, glutton, or undesirable person. However, when chancho is used by someone to describe their weekend lo pasé chancho (I thoroughly enjoyed it). In English, we usually describe women and men by “ladies and gentlemen”, but colloquial Chilean prefers cabra (doe) for women and cabro (goat) for men. However, if your girlfriend says ando cabreada (I’m doed), it means she’s fed up about something you did. Being gallo (rooster) is good for men who want to be seen as good men es un buen gallo (he is a good rooster). But it is less desirable to be called a pollo (chicken) or pavo (turkey) meaning inexperienced or stupid, respectively.

The use of voseo, the second person singular pronoun (tú, vos, or usted) has been a constant battle among all 21 Hispanic countries trying to convince that their use is “correct.” Chilean Spanish is the only dialect that combines the usage of both voseo and tú; voseo for verb conjugations, but tú for pronouns. It’s the ultimate and most effective compromise!

Take a simple verb such as walk–caminar. The present indicative form of the verb for half of the Spanish-speaking including Spain world would render camináis. The other half including a country like Colombia would say caminás. But Chileans say caminái. Where all Hispanics will say ¿Quieres empanada? (would you like a turnover?), Chileans will drop the final S and substitute the final E with a stressed I–¿Querí empanada?


The political pamphlet below shows very well the originality and fluidity of Chilean Spanish. It is almost a guarantee that anyone who has never traveled to Chile or is familiar with the dialect will not makes sense of the propaganda. The translation in English is “I’m not paying attention. Get it?” Where “pesco” means attention and “cachai” means to understand. Cachai derives from the English verb “to catch.”

Click on the link to hear Chilean Spanish: Infieles (Cheaters) 18+