Learning the Language of Tango

2010 June 27
by Simba
El tango by Simba tango, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  Simba tango

If you don’t know the language of tango, you’ll miss out on a lot, and for once, I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense. One anecdote I remember from my early days of tango was being told of a workshop that started with the following announcement:  “This is an advanced class, hence it will be taught in Spanish…” I’m not sure who it supposedly was that said it, but I have a similar experience with Gustavo Naveira teaching in Buenos Aires with lots of foreigners present: –Is there anyone here that speaks absolutely no Spanish? (lots of hands in the air) No Spanish at all? (fewer, but still quite a few hands in the air) Then he would go on teaching in Spanish with a few very short, Lost in translation-style summaries in English every now and then.

The truth is that learning a little Spanish has been of tremendous value in the process of learning the tango. And with one noteable exception, all our main teachers the last few years have been Spanish only.

I remember our first trip to Buenos Aires, taking classes where the instruction sounded more or less like this:

Blah blah blah blah blah atras, blah blah blah blah, adelante blah blah blah blah ocho blah blah blah….

As time went by, the number of words we picked up grew, but atras (backwards) and adelante (forwards) and ocho were ones that stood out from the beginning. Fast forward to today, and my Spanish (well Catalan, really) colleague introduces me to a fellow Spanish guy as “the guy that speaks Argentine“. A bit of an exaggeration, but still, we’ve come a long way, and it really helps connecting with people when you go there, even if they actually speak English themselves.

Some Argentines insist they speak Castellano, not Español (Spanish), this is also a lesson from our very first trip, and we generally stuck to using the word castellano, as that seemed to insult or irritate noone, and made sure we knew they were no longer a Spanish colony 🙂 . Anquises argues that Español is the more correct term, though.

In the process of improving one’s understanding of a language, a good dictionary is priceless. I already got the dictionary of Lunfardo, a regular Spanish dictionary, what I was searching for was an Argentine dictionary, but that turned out to be uavailable even in one of the great bookstores in Buenos Aires, El Ateneo. The guy in the bookstore told us they used the Spanish ones in school and everywhere else.

While the Spanish dictionary will take you a long way, it doesn’t cover all the local usage. This was clearly demonstrated once as we went to the local pharmacy after looking up what we wanted in the dictionary, only to have them rolling over the counter laughing when we tried to put our newfound knowledge to work. What saved us was a little improvised acting combined with key Spanish words which finally revealed the term used in Argentina. A little body language trumps everything.

Also there are a lot of slang expressions, and we found the slang dictionary Puto el que lee (diccionario argentino de insultos, injurias e improperios) in a bookstore, and found it would fill in nicely. The Argentines have an astounding number of names for prostitutes and both female and male genetalia, which all come in handy when you want to insult someone or just talk to your friends in a playful manner (¡Che, boludo!). It also has a hilarious appendix with a few tables letting you construct your own insults very easily as well as illustrations, for example covering ‘Grandes hijos de puta del Mundo’ and ‘Grandísimos hijos de puta del Mundo’ and correspondingly for Argentina. Unfortunately, I’m not enough into Argentine politics to get all the Argentines.

Finally, one of the last days of our last stay, we started chatting about this with our great host, and he suggested we got the Diccionario del habla de los Argentinos. At last. This relatively recent publication actually passed our little test of words we learnt from some of our porteño friends, and we could look them all up in the dictionary. It was too late to buy it in Buenos Aires, but we ordered it  from Argentina via Amazon. Amazing that you can actually get all of these books on Amazon! A bit more expensive, but it comes with this fuzzy feeling inside when there is mail from Argentina in the mailbox 🙂 The illustration photo is from this dictionary.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 June 29
    Chris, UK permalink

    > ”This is an advanced class, hence it will be taught in Spanish…”


  2. 2010 June 30

    Useful topic. I was thinking of writing on it again a while back: no need now! I posted some notes in December, http://tangocommuter1.blogspot.com/2009/12/tango-and-tower-of-babel.html

    A bit extra: first, it seems only courtesy to learn a bit of the language, and basic Spanish isn’t that hard. Dance is body language anyway, and the Spanish/Italian tradition uses gestures a lot. But in addition to ‘atras’ etc., names of body parts are really useful: pies, piernas, rodillas, hombros, cabeza, etc.

    Knowing a bit of the language also brings you closer to the songs, and so closer to tango and the music. There’s an amazing poetic tradition out there.

    I did a workshop with Gustavo in London, and I was surprised how good his English is. By refusing to use it, maybe he was insisting that it’s really necessary to put in a bit of effort and learn some basic Spanish. Pedro Sanchez said that tango is a whole culture, and its language is Spanish. You need to speak it if you want to be part of it.

    I’m on the last pages of a grammar book, so I haven’t had time for http://www.lenguajero.com/ but it sounds useful. If you don’t already use it, it’s set up so that English speakers learning Spanish can talk to Spanish speakers learning English. You can select the country. A lot of Argentines want to speak English, and my guess is that few English speakers learning Spanish would want to sound like portenos, so I think we’ll be welcome!

    & thanks for the hint: Diccionario del habla de los Argentinos sounds really useful!

  3. 2010 July 1

    > Pedro Sanchez said that tango is a whole culture, and its language is Spanish

    Its language is music.

  4. 2010 July 1

    I don’t think Gustavo was actually refusing to speak English, he probably got carried away in Spanish, and the majority did understand Spanish. The other guy may sound baffling, but like tangocommuter points out, you actually need to know some Spanish to get into the culture. So in a sense you cannot be an advanced practitioner of tango without knowledge of Spanish.

    Thanks for an interesting comment and the lenguajero thing looks useful. Only no time for that kind of thing. My own Spanish learning has always been very ad hoc, talking, reading, and now also a little writing ensures small but continuing progress.

    While music is very important indeed, it is not really a language. Spanish, however, is.

  5. 2010 September 1
    Guillermo permalink

    A note on the “Spanish vs. Castellano” comment:

    There is no such language as “Spanish”, really. It’s just a label for “Castellano”. Spain has many languages: Catalan from Catalunia, Galician from Galicia, Vasco from Pays Basque, etc etc, and Castellano from Castilla. The latter was chosen as the official language of Spain, and brought to its colonies (i.e. all Latin America, etc).

    When you grow up in Argentina, they teach you at school that we speak Castellano. I remember my mom once explaining to me that, when I travel overseas, I will hear people say I speak such thing as “Español”, but that it’s actually Castellano.

    So, Castellano is the official language of Spain, and “Spanish” is sort of an international label. It would be like using “Iranian” for the Farsi language.


  6. 2010 September 12
    Farida permalink

    Sorry Guillermo, to disagree

    Spanish (español) is the official language in Spain, although some people, for political reasons, prefer to call it “castellano”. Most Spanish people call it “español”, although both names are considered correct.
    There are other minoritary languages spoken in Spain, but the only official in the whole country is the Spanish, so it makes perfect sense to call it that way. It is not an international label, it’s its name, all over the world.

  7. 2010 September 14

    @Guillermo & Farida, thanks for your comments, they add some detail and background I think. My impression was that, as Farida writes, both “castellano” and “español” are considered correct, and that which you choose is a (soft) political issue/statement. My reasoning was that using “castellano” has the lowest probability of insulting/irritating someone.

  8. 2012 February 7
    Dan Esker permalink

    You ought to actually think about working on creating this site into a serious authority on this market. You evidently have the knowledge on the subjects everyone seems to be looking for on this blog anyhow and you might even make some money off of some advertisements. Only a thought, best of luck in whatever you do!

  9. 2012 February 9

    I was actually present at the Naveira class you mention and I feel I should clarify a little. Gustavo & Giselle Ann offer seminars and classes in Spanish for the locals in Buenos Aires (and anyone else who wants to come along). They also offer more intensive and much more expensive workshops in Buenos Aires (and elsewhere) in English. On the occasion in question, what Gustavo said was, “Does anyone here not speak any Spanish? None at all?” Plenty of hands remained raised. And then he said (in Spanish): “well, for God’s sake, take classes then!” I have to say, I thought he had a point.

    Most of those present at advanced-level classes in BA at locals, foreigners resident here or regular foreign visitors and the majority of us speak fluent Spanish. There are often, however, one or two students present who don’t speak Spanish. For the sake of those one or two, the whole class has to often be painstakingly and sometimes clumsily translated into English, so that every explanation takes twice as long. And sometimes, if the teacher makes a remark in Spanish which is just a brief joke or something too minor to need translating, you will hear people shouting, sometimes in a very rude tone, “Hey! You! English! Speak English!” So, while teachers do not want to exclude any students, you can see how this kind of attitude can be extremely irritating. If you come to a large group class and are the only one who doesn’t speak Spanish, in effect you are asking for special treatment and I would suggest humility at the very least is in order. (Also, if I’m at the class, I will happily translate for you and help you if you don’t speak Spanish and I’m sure I speak for many other English-speakers here in BA).

    So, I definitely think it is worth learning Spanish if you can. While I know many excellent and sensitive dancers who speak little or no Spanish (some wonderful Korean and Japanese dancers come instantly to mind), understanding the lyrics will most definitely significantly enrich your dance. I provide a specific example of how this works in this blog entry:


    If you would like to investigate tango lyrics further, but are not a Spanish speaker, I recommend Derrick Del Pilar’s translations, which you can find here:


  10. 2012 February 20

    Thanks for your comment. Are you sure we went to the same class? This was years ago and he must be doing this all the time. Anyway I think we agree that learning Spanish is important, and behaving in class likewise. Take care.

  11. 2012 February 20

    Actually, I’m not sure we went to the same class. And I am certain that Naveira recycles his stories and jokes.

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