Cracking the Chilean Spanish Dialect

Nestled between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Chile is often referred to as the “longest country in the world”. Indeed, along its 4,300 km (about 2,700 miles) of coastline, Chile features a vast amount of geographical diversity, including tropical enclaves, icy glaciers, fiery volcanoes, and the world’s driest desert. And apart from its natural diversity, the country is home to several important metropolitan hubs, with a growing population of over 16 million.

Just as Chile is geographically isolated from the rest of South America, it’s linguistically isolated, too: Chilean Spanish varies in several important ways from other Spanish varieties. If you’re hiking in the Andes, doing business in Santiago, vacationing in Valparaiso, or exploring the San Rafael Glacier, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with the Chilean Spanish dialect beforehand: read on to find out some of the grammar and vocabulary features that make Chile’s language as unique as its landscape.

TONE: Sung, not spoken

In the Spanish-speaking world, the Chilean accent has gained notoriety for its distinctive intonation. Especially in Santiago and the surrounding areas, Spanish speakers in Chile have a tendency to adopt a strongly rising-and-falling cadence to their speech; as a result, it’s often described as cantado (“sung”) rather than spoken. The following video shows some examples of native Chilean Spanish speakers, many of whom illustrate this phenomenon:

Unlike its eastern neighbor Argentina, Chile pronounces the letters ll and y as a vowel similar to the “y” sound in English words like “young” (in Argentine Spanish, they are pronounced like the “sh” sound in “sheep”). Chilean Spanish also has the tendency to reduce or entirely skip over the letter “s” when it comes at the end of a word or a syllable. For example, asking “¿Cómo estás?” would sound more like “cómo etá”.

RESPECT: Four degrees of formality

In most Spanish dialects, there are two degrees of politeness encoded in grammar: you use the pronoun in informal contexts when addressing your friends and peers, and usted in formal situations when addressing somebody in a respected position. These verbs also come with different sets of conjugations. In Chile, however, there are four degrees of formality, which involve an additional pronoun vos and unique Chilean conjugations, as you can see in the table below:

Level of formality Form Example: “ar” verb Example: “er/ir” verb
Very informal vos + vos conjugation hablar: vos hablái comer: vos comísvivir: vos vivís
Informal tú + vos conjugation hablar: tú hablái comer: tú comísvivir: tú vivís
Somewhat formal tú + conjugation hablar: tú hablas comer: tú comesvivir: tú vives
Formal usted + usted conjugation hablar: usted habla comer: usted comevivir: usted vive

Foreigners should be wary of using vos forms, which might come as a relief to language learners who are already struggling with the seemingly infinite verb conjugations in the Spanish language. Indeed, vos is used only in very informal situations between friends, and can be seen as disrespectful if used improperly. Therefore, to play it safe, foreigners should stick to the familiar conjugations.

VOCABULARY: Loanwords from indigenous languages

Chile is home to a sizable indigenous population: almost 5% of the population — that is, nearly 700,000 people — identified as being of indigenous origin. As a result, the language and culture of indigenous peoples such as the Mapuches and Quechuas have significantly influenced the Chilean Spanish dialect.

For example, the word laucha, which means “mouse”, derives from the Mapuche word “lawcha”. Other words borrowed from Mapuche include cuncuna (caterpillar), guata (stomach), and un pichintún, which means “just a little bit”.

Similarly, the word pucho comes from the Quechua word “puchu”, which refers to the butt of a cigarette; its meaning has since expanded to refer to the entire cigarette. Quechua influence is also seen in words like pita (rope) and encachar (beautify/embellish). Despite these words’ indigenous origins, you’ll hear them used frequently in both formal and informal speech.

From its natural wonders to its bustling cities, Chile offers a lot in a uniquely narrow and geographically rich package. As you have learned, the Chilean dialect is also unique in its own right. But don’t be intimidated by remembering the complicated vos conjugations or mastering the singsong-y rhythm of speech: with a little practice, you’ll be speaking Spanish just like a true chileno. If you’re looking to seriously perfect your Chilean Spanish — or learn any other Spanish dialect — consider taking tailor-made Spanish classes taught by a native speaker, either in your are or online: there’s no faster or better way to learn Spanish.