Upon arriving in Chile and hearing Chileans speak for the first time, you might come to the conclusion that everything in Chile is tiny. You’ll learn that Chileans use the diminutive form of most nouns just for kicks, and a few select others in the augmentative form.
In Spanish, the diminutive form of a word is made by adding “ito,” “ita,” or “illo” to the end. So you never just drink water, you drink aguita. You don’t just go to sleep, you go to tutito. When you’re hanging out with the guys, you’re with the chiquillos. Even a Great Dane would be aperrito. When you stuff your face with food, you’re called chanchito (little pig). To show people affection, you give them a besito.
You have actually had to implement a bread budget for the marraquetas, hallulas, pan amasado, sopaipillas, pan de completo, and pan de molde you eat on a thrice-daily basis.
Upon hearing the frequent use of the word “taco,” a newbie to Chile might salivate, don a bib, and stock up on salsa, but as a cultural Chilean you know that “tacos” are, unfortunately, traffic jams…not loaded tortillas.
This oft-used Chilean slang term has a billion hard-to-pin-down meanings that vary depending on the context and specific pronunciation. Some common usages can mean “dude,” “bro,” “jerk,” “a-hole,” and simply “thing.” You understand a fraction of its usages…and that’s pretty much on par with any true Chilean.
The micro is the public city bus; the bus is the inter-city bus. The micro is crowded, run-down, and sometimes unreliable while the buses can be quite luxurious.
Fondas are little makeshift restaurants / bars / dance halls set up during Chile’s fiestas patrias (Independence Day celebrations). Each fonda has a theme and some offer up a slice of old school Chilean tradition with cueca, terremotos, and completos while others let you rave with your college friends. There’s even one called the Jane Fonda (spelled Yein Fonda, the Chilean way).
In other countries, you fawn over the puppies you pass in the streets and yearn for the slobber of a dog you can call your own, but with Chile’s myriad mangy mutts roaming around in the streets, you’ve sort of overdosed on dogs. (But there are still a select few you fall in love with.)
It’s well past lunchtime but not quite dinnertime and your stomach’s a-rumbling. It’s time to indulge in your late afternoon tea-and-something-with-bread snack called once, adapted from and named after the British elevenses.
And if you’re in Santiago, relationships are made and broken over whether you root for Colo Colo or Universidad de Chile.
In your native Gringoland, you appreciate a solid arm’s length between you and the person you’re speaking with. In Chile, even strangers talk to you within kissing distance. And let’s not forget that Chileans kiss everybody.
You know that the proper thing to do when visiting a friend’s house is to bring a small gift.
Chileans often perceive their country to be much more dangerous than it actually is, and so they feel the need to warn foreigners that “Chileans steal,” and when my Chilean friend got his cell phone stolen from his pocket in Barcelona, he joked with his friends that the culprit was probably Chilean.
What Windex is to Greek fathers in popular Hollywood films, avocados are to real life Chileans. They’re not just a versatile food but a skin moisturizer, hair conditioner, and herbal remedy.
If you want hot water in Chile, you first have to light a finicky gas appliance called a calefont. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem worth it.
Chileans are very formal and still use the “usted” form of “you” when addressing elders, strangers, or people of authority. This gesture of respect has been so ingrained in you that you’ve taken to curtsying upon exiting a room.
You know that Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is some of the best in the world, and you’re ready to defend the underdog against the more internationally recognized Spanish, French, and even Argentinian wines.
With the abundant — almost exclusive — use of slang, profanities, and idioms, and the rapid and abbreviated pronunciation, the Chilean language is sometimes misunderstood even between Chileans. The fact that no one understands you when you speak is actually a sign you’re adapting to the language.
Chileans love to elongate certain syllables, and certain expressions are curiously pronounced the exact same way by every Chilean.
“Puuuuucha. Qué laaaaata. Qué foooome.” “Qué weeeeno” “Weeeena, weon” “Yapo!” “Vamo’ altiro” “Vamo’ pa’lla” “CuÁtico!”
With the desert to the north, the Andes Mountains to the east, icy Patagonia to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, you’ve learned that Chile is an island apart from South America with its own unique and diverse language and culture.
And really, you are.
Photo: Javier Andres Castro Flores