Artillery Row

Linguistic confusion

Dominic Hilton has more trouble with English than Spanish in Argentina

When I moved to Argentina three years ago, I fully expected to be baffled by the language. Childhood trips to Spanish-speaking countries had taught me how to say a handful of words, including “hello,” “goodbye,” and “Coca-Cola.” But on the flight from London to Buenos Aires I learned that in Argentina no one says “goodbye” the way the guide books teach you. And as I stood in the snaking queue at immigration, it dawned on me I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce the name of the city that I planned to live in.

Forget the local Spanish, then. Nowadays, what baffles me most is the local English

Ezeiza was raucous and chaotic—the kind of South American airport you see in Hollywood movies. It was barely sunrise, but the place was swarming with thousands of people, all yelling and gesturing like they were at a football match. I looked in desperation round the arrivals hall, half of me worrying there’d been a coup, the other half panicking that maybe this pandemonium was just how Argentines communicated with one another. There was no obvious way of finding out. Words—both incoming and outgoing—failed me.

In an airless corner of the hall hung an enormous sign that said FOREIGNERS, so I went and waited there. Three hours later, a border agent barked something incomprehensible in my direction from inside his little booth. I touched my index finger to my breastplate—the universal sign for “Who, me?”—and he waved me over with an impatient hand. “I am very sorry, sir, but I do not speak any Spanish,” I told him, in Spanish. “I therefore understand none of the words you are now saying to me.” I had practised these phrases over and over again during the thirteen-and-a-half-hour flight, and still I bungled them at the moment of truth.

Slumped in his chair, the agent seemed genuinely unimpressed. He peered into my passport, stroking his stubble. I could smell the pungent tang of cigarette smoke through the little strips in the Perspex partition. “Speak English?” he eventually asked, in English, without looking up at me.

I wiped some of the sweat from my brow. Somewhere behind me, an American couple were brashly voicing their frustrations in a language I did understand, which made it hard to concentrate. “Yes!” I said, as if something I’d been doing since I was a toddler was now evidence of an exceptional intelligence. “Do you?”

The agent snapped shut my passport like he was catching a fly, a dark frown wrinkling his heavy brow. He spoke in a low and jaded voice. “None.”

My fears only grew during my first weeks in Buenos Aires. “Here in Argentina, we don’t speak Spanish,” my Spanish teacher, Gabriella, told me one evening. “We speak castellano, which is a very complicated and traditional version of Spanish. Castellano, or Rioplatense as it is also known, is said to date back to Roman times.”

This made zero sense to me, but I said nothing, because I didn’t know how to.

My new friends weren’t much help, either. “Give it time,” they kept saying about my lack of linguistic capability. “You’ll be fluent before Christmas.” I’m not sure which Christmas they had in mind, but whenever I asked how, exactly, my hopeless pipedream might be realised, they became handwavy and received sudden phone calls that they needed to take. Attempts to procure practical advice only elicited vague and abstract answers full of words like “organic” and “linguistic osmosis.” For months, I sat around in cafes and restaurants, ordering endless wine and coffee, waiting for the mysterious language just to seep into me. Which, for some reason, it never did.

Things further complicated when I learned by accident that everyone around me was in fact speaking something called Lunfardo, a local slang of which I had never heard. “Lunfardo is the language of the tango,” my tango instructor, Gisela, tried to explain during an afternoon dance class. “Born in the prisons, it was originally spoken by criminals to hide messages from the guards. The jargon of the underclass became popularised through the lyrics of tango songs, and now everybody uses it—even the elegant ladies of Recoleta as they sip their tea and nibble their cakes. Think of lunfardo as a rich and playful mix of Spanish, Italian and French.”

I had my head in my hands. I didn’t want to think of anything, least of all lunfardo. Gisela knew how to use English words like “jargon,” “sip” and “nibble”. I’d only just learned that my neighbours were speaking Italian and French.

Skip forward to today, and my castellano has mercifully improved, thanks in large part to apps I’ve downloaded onto my phone. I now know better how to deceive locals into believing that I understand what they are saying. “Yes, yes, of course, of course,” I say, gesticulating theatrically like a seasoned porteño, as the people of Buenos Aires are commonly known. “That sort of crazy thing happens to me all the time, too! Let’s go eat some beef!”

Forget the local Spanish, then. Nowadays, what baffles me most is the local English. The other day, a girl walked past me wearing a homemade face mask, the words CRISIS: FUCK OFF lovingly bedazzled in sequins across her hidden mouth.

You see a lot of that in Buenos Aires. English swearwords, I mean. It’s as if swearing in a foreign language doesn’t count. Oh, those? I imagine people saying. Forget about those. They’re just some random four-letter words. No one understands, or bothers with translating them. Let’s go eat some more beef!

Every day I see tote bags that say things like FUCK WORK, which I’ll grant makes some sort of sense, or FUCK LIFE, which I’m not sure does. But I once gaped disbelievingly as a sweet old granny pulled her little trolley around the corner of my building, sporting a sweatshirt that said FUCK YOU CUNT.

I tell myself that she can’t have known what it meant—can she? We do, after all, have dictionaries and computers and smartphones—not to mention Google Translate—in Argentina. Somewhere in the region of forty per cent of Argentines claim to speak at least some English. Is it really possible that the little old granny thinks she is one of them? If so, what on earth is her story?

Walking around the city, I routinely jot down the better English slogans I encounter. There’s a lot of profanity, for sure, but the worst thing is the endemic imprecision. Ungrammatical graffiti is literally wall-to-wall, but in Argentina the vast majority of misused English occurs on T-shirts.

One time, a bodybuilder in wraparounds prodded me on the shoulder, and when I spun on my heel, affronted, I found myself staring at the words COME ON BABY, LET’S WE FIGHT, emblazoned in dripping red letters across the front of his compression vest. Instinctively, I lifted my fists to shield my nose, but it turned out Señor Muscle was just lost. He asked me for directions to the nearest pharmacy, but I couldn’t remember the word, or words, for “straight on”.

Her T-shirt boldly stated: I MAKE MYSELF LAUGH, I SHOULD

Another time, I was sitting in a favourite coffee shop, reading a book about W.G. Grace, when a pair of youths charged in, whirling between the tables while giggling in a high-pitched, cartoonish way. I glanced up to see what I took to be two art students from the city’s prestigious university. Intelligent types, I figured, able to effortlessly interpret highly conceptual performance pieces, and that sort of stuff. Only, the young man in the orange culottes with the tonsured hair stood at the counter wearing a child-size T-shirt that read FUNNY: HAVE A GOOD TIME. His companion with the green fringe and septic lip ring stood next to him, contemplating the chalkboard menu. Her T-shirt boldly stated: I MAKE MYSELF LAUGH, I SHOULD.

“Honestly, who manufactures these things?” I asked my girlfriend over a romantic dinner that evening. “Are there no English-speaking sub editors to be found anywhere in this godforsaken country?”

On the boulevards of Buenos Aires, for every person who NOT CARES there’s someone else telling you that TODAY IS DAY or encouraging you to GO TELL NOW. I’ve stopped noticing the countless ‘motivational’ atrocities, invariably worn by the kinds of people who never look in the mirror. There’s a note on my phone that simply reads: “Guy slumped in doorway. Finger stuffed up nostril. T-shirt stretched over gigantic belly. Slogan: WINNERS ARE MADE NOT BORN.”

Very occasionally, you do see something that works, though it’s almost certainly by accident. I once watched two lovers swinging their arms playfully as they walked hand-in hand through one of the city’s parks. They were bright-eyed and big-haired, throwing their heads back when they laughed, clearly in the first throes. The man’s T-shirt read: BAD DECISIONS MAKE GOOD STORIES. The woman’s: YOU GET ONE CHANCE, DON’T MISS IT. I thought that was kind of perfect, though I may be getting desperate, grasping for logic that simply isn’t there.

And I remember how awkward I felt one hot afternoon trying to make small talk with a mother in a sporting goods store. Her name was Soledad, or Sole for short, and she was shopping for gym clothes with her two teenage daughters. All three of them seemed unduly fascinated with my being English, which is one evergreen bonus of living abroad. I tried not to blush—really, I did. But my eyes… they kept straying downwards, towards Sole’s extraordinary bosom. It was impossible not to look. Right there, extoled across her impressive, reproduction breasts, were the words I SAY YES TO EVERYTHING.

Strong independent women like Soledad are thick on the ground in Buenos Aires, so naturally the city has a liberal supply of apparel and homeware claiming THE FUTURE IS FEMALE and GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING. But it’s hard to beat the sheer bluntness of WOMEN ARE BETTER THAN MEN, which I saw on a T-shirt in the neighbourhood ice cream parlour, or THIS GIRL DOES EVERYONE ANYONE ANYTIME, which I suspect is not quite the inspiring and powerful message its adolescent wearer intended to convey.

What’s strange is how few slogans one ever sees in Spanish. I suppose there’s just no market for them. The English language, battered and abused as it routinely is, still carries a certain social cachet down here at the bottom of the world. MISTER GOOD TIMES. YOU TRIP ME UP. SAY HI TO SEXY. Yet more signifiers of stuff I still don’t understand about my adopted country.

The only other possibility, I suppose, is that all the Spanish-language T-shirts are promptly boxed up in the factories and exported to English-speaking countries. If so, here’s hoping that they are all similarly crude or thoroughly ungrammatical, and that their wearers remain delightfully clueless. If I close my eyes, I can picture her now: a sweet old granny pulling her little trolley around a corner in Stow-on-the-Wold, sporting a sweatshirt that says LA CONCHA DE TU MADRE.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover