If you're learning Spanish, then you might know that it's the official language in 21 countries. So it’s no surprise that there are a lot of accents, local slang, and many differences in vocabulary across the Spanish-speaking world.
Uruguayan Spanish is no exception. This variety has its own unique features, such as the use of the voseo atípico (more on what that means in a second!), or the pronunciation of “y” and “ll” with the sound sh.
In this article, you'll get a complete guide to Uruguayan Spanish, so you can connect better on your travels, or with Uruguayan friends and family. Are you prontos?
An Introduction To Uruguayan Spanish
Uruguayan Spanish, as its name indicates, is the Spanish spoken in Uruguay, a country with about 3.5 million inhabitants; most of them (1.3 million) live in its capital, Montevideo.
This makes Uruguay a country where the capital has a strong cultural, social, economic, and linguistic influence. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone in Uruguay speaks the same way!
Broadly speaking, we could divide Uruguayan Spanish into three large regions:
- Montevideo. This is the accent spoken in the capital of the country and its surrounding areas. It’s very similar to the porteño accent; that is, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, which is located on the opposite bank of the Río de La Plata. And when we say very similar, we mean exactly that. Actually, there’s little chance that a foreigner (or even a local to either of those places!) will be able to distinguish Buenos Aires and Montevideo accents unless they have a very trained ear.
- Rural areas of Uruguay. Many Uruguayan departments located in the northeast of the country share some dialectal features with Entre Ríos, one of the provinces on the Argentine northeast coast.
- Border areas with Brazil. In the north of Uruguay, especially in the departments of Artigas and Rivera, people often speak with a Brazilian-sounding intonation. And in this region, you'll often come across portuñol; that is, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish words. In fact, the portuñol of this border region has legal recognition, and the State calls it “Uruguayan Portuguese”. Some examples of words in portuñol are abeia (“bee”; abeja in Spanish and abelha in Portuguese) or despaciño (“slowly”; despacito in Spanish and devagarinho in Portuguese).
Uruguayan Spanish: Main Characteristics
As you've seen, the Uruguayan Spanish is not the same throughout the country. However, there are some characteristics that you'll find in every region:
- Pronunciation of “ll” and “y” as sh. Uruguayans —as is the case in many Latin American countries— have merged the sounds of the “ll” and the “y”: both are pronounced the same, in a phenomenon known as yeísmo. But, unlike other countries, this sound doesn’t sound like an i, but rather like a sh—exactly, as if you were asking for silence. Thus, a phrase like Yo quiero que llueva (I want it to rain) would be pronounced Sho quiero que shueva.
- Voseo atípico. The voseo atípico or atypical voseo is the combination of voseo (the use of the pronoun vos) and tuteo (the use of the pronoun tú). In atypical voseo, tuteo and voseo are exchanged. Let’s take a look at voseo atípico with some examples:
|English||Voseo (used in Argentina)||Tuteo (used in other countries)||Voseo atípico (used in Uruguay)|
|You have||Vos tenés||Tú tienes||Tú tenés|
|You are||Vos sos||Tú eres||Tú sos|
|You want||Vos querés||Tú quieres||Tú querés|
|You sing||Vos cantás||Tú cantas||Tú cantás|
- Fillers such as bo and ta. Every Spanish variety has its own fillers—words or expressions repeated frequently in speech. In Argentina it is common to say che; in Chile, po, and in Peru, pe. In Uruguay there are two very widespread fillers: bo and ta.
- Bo is used for emphasis, attracting attention, or showing surprise. For example: ¡Bo, qué tarde es! (Hey, it’s so late!).
- Ta comes from the word está, a conjugation of the verb estar (to be). In this case, está (and ta) mean something like “ok” or “I got it!”.
Rioplatense Spanish vs. Uruguayan Spanish
Uruguayan Spanish is a variant of Rioplatense Spanish; in other words the Spanish that is spoken on both banks of the Río de La Plata. These territories are: to the west, Argentina —in particular, Buenos Aires and Patagonia— and, to the east, all of Uruguay.
Rioplatense Spanish is extremely similar and, as we have said before, there's little chance that a foreigner would be able to tell the Uruguayan accent from the accent spoken in Buenos Aires. But… Why does this happen?
Well, you need to know a bit about Uruguayan history! In the second half of the 18th century, the current territories of Argentina and Uruguay were reunited in the Viceroyalty of the Río de La Plata under the Spanish Crown, with its epicentre in Buenos Aires.
After independence from Spain, the troops of Buenos Aires conquered Uruguay, although in the end the Uruguayans regained control of Montevideo. All this has made both banks of the Río de La Plata share many cultural elements, including a very similar accent.
But, beyond the obvious phonological similarities in Uruguayan Spanish and the Spanish of Buenos Aires, there are a lot of vocabulary differences!
Next, you'll discover some Uruguayan words and expression, and their equivalents in the Rioplatense Spanish of Argentina and the Spanish used in other countries.
|English||Uruguayan Rioplatense Spanish||Argentine Rioplatense Spanish||Other dialects|
|Kid||Gurí/gurisa or botija||Pibe/piba||Chaval/chavala (in Spain), chamaco/chamaca (in Mexico)|
|Sneakers||Championes||Zapatillas||Zapatillas or tenis (in Mexico)|
|Earrings||Caravanas||Aros||Pendientes (in Spain), aretes (in Mexico)|
|Apartment||Apartamento||Departamento||Apartamento or piso (in Spain)|
|Sandwich||Refuerzo||Sánguche||Bocadillo (in Spain), emparedado or torta in Mexico|
|Gas station||Bomba||Estación de servicio||Gasolinera|
|Pop corn||Pororó||Pochoclos||Palomitas de maíz|
|Sweet potato||Boniato||Batata||Camote or papa dulce|
There are also many words in Uruguayan Spanish that come from the Italian immigration that happened in South America between the 19th and the 20th centuries. That's why you'll often hear words like laburo (meaning “work”, from Italian lavoro) or pronto (meaning “ready”, from the Italian pronto).
5 Must-Know Uruguayan Expressions
In Uruguay there are some typical expressions that you’ll hear them all the time if you go there!
Let’s see what they are:
1. ¡Vamo’ Arriba!
Perhaps the quintessential Uruguayan phrase. Vamo’ arriba means something like “Come on!”, and is used, normally, to encourage someone or to express happiness about something:
- ¡Ganamos el partido! ¡Vamo’ arriba! (We won the match! Come on!).
2. No Tiene Gollete
This popular Uruguayan expression means that something has no logic or makes no sense. The gollete is the neck of a bottle or bottleneck, so you're literally saying that something “has no neck”!
- Este asunto no tiene gollete (This issue has no solution).
3. Armar Relajo
Armar relajo means “to make a mess”. There are other variations of this expression, such as hacer lío or hacer un desastre, although you’ll definitely only hear armar relajo in Uruguay.
Let’s look an example with this expression:
- Los estudiantes arman relajo cuando el profesor no está (The students make a mess when the teacher isn’t there).
4. ¡Agarrate, Catalina!
It’s a phrase that Uruguayans use when they want to warn that something surprising is about to happen. The origin of this expression dates back to the 1940s in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Catalina was a young trapeze artist who had lost her entire family in accidents at the circus where she worked. Every time she went on stage, the audience yelled at her “¡Agarrate, Catalina!”. Let’s see an example:
- Se viene una tormenta… ¡Agarrate, Catalina! (A storm is coming and it will be very strong!).
By the way: In Uruguay, there's a murga band called Agarrate Catalina (murga is a typical Rioplatense music style) and it’s characterized by lyrics that mix humour with protest. You should definitely have a listen!
5. Matemáticamente, Tenemos Chance
This curious expression means “Mathematically, we have an opportunity”, and its origin comes from football (this sport is so important in Uruguayan culture!), more precisely from the times in which the Uruguay national football team was classified in the World Cup.
However, the expression has become so widespread, and now it’s used to refer to the fact that there are certain possibilities of achieving something, although few:
- No creo que lleguemos temprano, aunque, matemáticamente, tenemos chance (I don’t think we’ll get there early, although, mathematically, there's a chance).
Final Thoughts On Uruguayan Spanish
Can you think of reasons to visit Uruguay?
There are plenty: beautiful beaches —its beach Punta del Este is one of the most famous ones in the world—, a cosmopolitan and safe capital —Montevideo is the capital with the best quality of life in all of Latin America— and, above all, people are very friendly.
So, if you go to Uruguay, and we don’t blame you if you want to, you already know the most common expressions and how to understand people's accents. ¡Vamo’ arriba!