Chile’s official language may be Spanish—or Castellano, after the early Castillian colonizers, as it is known here—but natives and visitors alike will tell you that people here generally speak Chilean. Though the grammar and structure of Chilean Spanish are consistent with standard Spanish spoken around the world, Chileans fill their sentences with colorful slang that they tear through at breakneck speed.
Some of these words have been adopted from indigenous tongues like Quechua (guata means stomach, and guagua means infant, for example) and Aymara spoken in the Andean north, or Mapudungun, spoken among the Mapuche indigenous group of the south. Others have their origins in English, while others seem to come from absolutely nowhere.
Mastering Chilean vocabulary is only half the battle. Before touching down in Santiago or crossing the border from Bolivia, Argentina or Peru (where, Chileans will tell you, they speak the most beautiful Spanish), you should be aware that Chilean pronunciation can be as challenging as the vocabulary. Chileans are known for speaking fast and slurring their words, often dropping consonants, and ignoring final s’s.
Coming prepared with a basic arsenal of Chilenismos will help you appreciate the vivid, jumbled mess of words spoken on streets from Arica to Punta Arenas. Below is our short list of essential Chilean Spanish:
Hueón: A catch-all word in Chile, it most closely approximates ‘guy’ or ‘dude’, but has a huge range of possible meanings which require years for a foreigner to fully grasp. Can be used as a verb, ‘huevear’, which means anything from ‘have fun’ to ‘annoy’. Comes originally from the word ‘huevón’, informally used elsewhere in Latin America for ‘lazy’, among other things. Be careful how you use it in Chile—it can be derogatory.
–po: This suffix doesn’t mean much of anything, and yet it is ubiquitous. Chileans can (and do) attach it to the end of virtually anything. Common usages include: sí po (yes), no po (no), claro po (of course), vamos po (let’s go). Do your best to ignore it and you shouldn’t have too much trouble.
Bacan: The most common and current way of saying “cool.” You may hear other words that mean the same – pulento, for example, is more old-fashioned, perhaps equivalent to English “hip” – but bacan is unavoidable.
Cachai: Pronounced Ka-chay, this word comes from the American verb “to catch,” and means the same as English phrases “got it?” or “you know?” In fact, the word in its most common form is a peculiarly Chilean conjugation of the infinitive cachar, but most of the time you will hear it this way, sprinkled liberally through Chilean conversation.
Al tiro: Meaning “right away,” the phrase translates literally as “at the shot.” Stories abound for the origins of the phrase, but revolve around the fact that country workers in the old days used to be called to lunch by the sound of a gun or cannon shot.
Fome: Simply means “boring.” In Santiago some young people will describe Sunday as Fomingo, combining fome with Domingo, the word for Sunday.
Filo: Basically means “okay,” “fine,” or “nevermind.” It stands in for unenthusiastic assent, rather than eager acceptance. Not to be confused with bacan.
Carretear: The all important Chilean verb means “to go out,” and describes the nocturnal activities of perpetually night-life hungry Chileans around the country, and particularly in the cities of Santiago and Valparaíso. Even older Chileans will think you’ve gone to bed early if you tell them that your carrete (the noun form, meaning “night out”) ended before 5 am.
Though Castellano is by far the most commonly taught and spoken language in Chile, indigenous groups have worked to keep their native languages alive alongside it, particularly the Mapuches and their native Mapudungun tongue, and the indigenous people of Easter Island, who continue to speak Rapa Nui. Nowhere are these native tongues more evident than in the names of cities, towns, lakes, rivers and mountains throughout Chile. Names like Iquique, Llanquihue and Bio Bio are all testaments to the cultures that first developed these distant and isolated lands.