Gringo Lingo, Learning Spanish in Buenos Aires

Argentinean Reverse Slang

Elaine Tannous

By | September 28, 2010 | 7 comments

When traveling to different Spanish speaking countries you can expect to find that each region has their own twist on the language, their own specific dialect. You should also expect to stumble a little at first trying to get your footing in each new style. But I have to say, I’ve been in Buenos Aires for a little over a month now, and these linguistically perplexing Porteños* keep throwing me curveballs.

The newest curveball to trip me up is known to the locals as “verse” or “al reves”. “Al reves” is a Lunfardo* mutation where you take a two-syllable word and flip the syllables. For example, café becomes feca, and tango becomes gotán. On occasion, flipping the syllables of a word changes the meaning. For example, a galan. A galan is a man who is popular with the ladies, whereas a langa is a man that thinks he’s good with women, when really everyone thinks he’s kind of a joke.

So far langa is the only al reves word that I’ve found that has an alternate meaning (though I’m eagerly hunting for more). For the most part, al reves is used with everyday words like the words for street or glass.
A Porteña friend of mine taught me a trick for detecting al reves words. The trick is to repeat the al reves word over and over, and when you repeat it you should be able to hear the original word in between. I’ll try to illustrate:

For example, mina- the Lunfardo word for a beautiful woman. When turned al reves mina becomes nami. Now repeat out-loud and pay attention to the boldfaced letters.

nami nami nami nami nami nami

You should’ve been able to hear mina between every nami. And if you couldn’t, well I outlined them in boldfaced letters- Now get your head in the game.

Maybe you’ve noticed that there is a chain of pizza restaurants in Buenos Aires called Zapi. If you ignore the absence of a second ‘p’ you get:

zapi zapi zapi zapi zapi zapi

Try reversing calle the word for “street”. Calle becomes lleca:

lleca lleca lleca lleca lleca lleca

Or maybe the word for glass, vaso:

sova sova sova sova sova sova

One more just to drive it home- bathroom, baño:

ñoba ñoba ñoba ñoba ñoba ñoba

Right about now you might be banging your head against your desk and asking yourself, “Why? Why must they confuse me so? I thought I was getting the hang of it all, and now they’re reversing words…” To be honest, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve heard a few theories tossed around by some of the locals I interviewed but I’m still on the lookout for a solid answer.

What I do know is Castellano (pronounced “Ca-ste-sha-no”) is, by no means, an easy dialect of Spanish to master. However, with its influences from languages all the over the world, it is extremely interesting. A little frustrating at times, Castellano is a beautiful and alive dialect of Spanish that will certainly keep you on your toes.

Send us a request for some suggestions for good Spanish schools in Buneos Aires if you would like some help learning the Lunfardo basics or improving your Spanish while you are here.

(1) Porteño- refers to a person who is from or lives in the port city of Buenos Aires
(2) Lunfardo- form of slang used in Buenos Aires. An extensive language all on it’s own, Lunfardo is known for its use of word-play as a means of masking more “colorful” language. Originally made popular by Tango music, Lunfardo was born in La Boca, where immigrants (the majority from Italy and Spain) moved at the end of the 19th century and brought their native language with them. A mix of many world languages, Lunfardo is still used heavily in Buenos Aires.

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  1. Raul Duke

    29/09/2010 - 7:32 pm

    A few more examples for you guys: doctor = tordo(a), hotel = telo, quilombo = bolonqui

    1. Elaine

      30/09/2010 - 3:38 pm

      Thanks Raul! Appreciate the additions! Feel free to add on anytime!


    06/10/2010 - 1:58 am

    Well….not only the argentinians do it, but the London cockneys also do some kind of word games to use a slang, but I think that they do more like a kind of rhyme.

    -Why do argentinians, and even some uruguayans do that of PARLAR AL VÈRRES ?

    Well, it was an old custom from tango times, and it shows informality, to avoid appearing stuffy while talking, or to pretend working class roots

    In USA some blacks also modify words….like niggah

    Other thing done, is contracting words, americans also do it, like I”m gone, instead of “I m going to”

    We sometimes say ME VOY PA LA ZAPIE, instead of ME VOY A LA PIEZA “I am going to the room”

    greetings from Uruguay…

    Where we speak lunfardo, very similar to the argentinians

  3. Barbara

    19/10/2010 - 9:58 pm

    i have to say no worries!! only old people do that, like my dad who is 50 but young people wont use lunfardo at all…

  4. Andrea

    14/12/2011 - 2:20 pm

    Here is another with different meanings:
    hotel: like in English, an hotel for passangers.
    Telo: a place where rooms are rented for 1 hour or more. Couples go there to make love.


  5. Bell

    27/05/2012 - 6:35 pm

    My friend, you seem to be confused about what castellano is. It’s the language they spoke in Castilla, one of the old Spanish kingdoms. In Spain they spoke a variety of languages- castilian, aragones, basque, catalan, galician- but when the so called Catholic King and Queen unified the country they imposed the castilian language as the language of bureocracy, diplomacy and education (behind latin, that is). What people nowadays refer to as Spanish IS castilian. Think of it this way, in Britain, a lot of languages are/were spoken, English is one of them, there was Welsh and Scot too (along with a good nuber of smaller dialects). English eventually won over, partly imposed by the government partly by the radio and TV. The difference is, King James I didn’t start calling it “British” to ensure it won over the smaller languages, like King Fernando and Queen Isabela did. All over Latinamerica we speak Castilian, and that’s the way we most usually refer to it (I never call it Spanish except when talking to foreigners, and so do most people). What we speak in Buenos Aires and Uruguay is called the dialecto rioplatense (or the River Plate dialect).

  6. Marcelo

    07/06/2012 - 4:20 pm

    Yo vivi en bs as unos años, ahora estoy en brasil, soy brasilero, hable mucho lunfardo e mucha jerga, aprendi a camuflar el acento, y lograr hablar con venezolanos, peruano, bolivianos, porto riqueños, siempre tatando de assimilar y produzir su mismo acento, y al saber portugues e castellano, entendes el italiano, si sabes los 3 y mas el ingles, entendes el alemano, y asi vas desde que sea todo del misma etimologia y sea decendiente del latin, note que en el portugues es diferente, ellos no cambian las palavras, ellos las diminuen ejemplo. para, pra, pa
    tiene el mismo significado.