From chamuyo to insults in other languages

Betina González

One of the greatest achievements of a person who learns a foreign language is to dream about it. One is knowing how to use insults well. For many years, I have taught Spanish to American students. It’s always funny to hear them use words like “idiot” or expressions like “what a shit.”

The foreigner who uses localisms can be good, fall into social disgrace, or go through directly dangerous situations because, although copying sounds and idioms is an excellent way to learn, it is necessary that you always remember that any imitation borders on mockery. Maybe that’s why my use of English during the ten years I lived in the United States was always correct. Just in case, insults and linguistic complications are reserved for conversations with my colleagues and best friends. The most dangerous to my brain are harmless expressions taken from sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld, although one can never be sure of the nature of one’s danger in linguistic spontaneity. I remember a Colombian friend who destroyed his relationship with an American woman because of his return to the language of television. It seems that the wrong use of the word “whatever” can be a disaster in the field of love.

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Returning to Buenos Aires, I continued to teach foreigners for a while. These children, suddenly immersed in the speed of the porteños, immediately noticed three characteristics of “Argentine” speech (few have the idea that in other parts of the country there are other expressions and tones): our compulsion to cut terms and words, give nicknames, and invent unique expressions. They like to be able to use expressions like “finde,” “chamuyo,” or “qué mala onda” and the prefix “re” everywhere. I must explain to everyone that I do not respond to “Beti,” because it still happens to me to some strangers in networks—the karma of the Betinas, I believe.

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The beauty of these Argentine tools is that they keep the language moving. Lunfardo is not a dead glossary. Some words have been very successful and have been used since the tango era; others have fallen into disuse. I no longer teach Spanish to foreigners, but luckily at the university I have young students who force me to follow the vocabulary. That does not mean that I include phrases like “diver,” “estar en una,” or “ahre” in my dealings with them. I know very well that you can fall into social disgrace if you are a foreigner posing. as a local. In fact, recently, talking about what happened in his faculty, a very young friend confided in me that I hate it when teachers use words like “calm” to seem closer to their students. I was surprised by the complaint, but I understood it immediately: just because you use certain terms, you don’t speak the same language as someone else. Students logically want the knowledge they seek in classrooms not to be “more of the same,” and that also has to do with how words are used.

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