Colombian Spanish is one of the most varied we could hear all over the South American continent. Its untypical use of Spanish words, its colourful expressions and especially the slang of Colombia make it fun to listen to natives from different regions. Unlike other bloggers though, we don’t think Colombian is the easiest form of Spanish to learn. Their pronunciation can be hard to understand, especially on the Caribbean coast and in Cali, where many letters are dropped or even replaced (!). We hope this little beginner’s guide will help you find your way through a Colombian conversation!
This article will not teach you Spanish. If that is your goal, you will need more than a blog post: rather a mix of study book/online app, class and tandem practice.
This article is intended for people who already speak Spanish or have some secure notions of it, to introduce them to some handpicked particularities of the Spanish spoken in Colombia. Of course, there is not one kind of Colombian Spanish – each region has its expressions, its slang and its pronunciation. So there is much more to it for sure. But this is what we heard, what we understood, and found funny, useful or interesting.
Colombian Spanish Words & Slang
- A la orden
You’re sure to hear this sentence a dozen time each day! This is a singsong sentence used to call potential customers’ attention and is the favourite of basically every single seller in Colombia.
It is originally a military sentence meaning “At your command“. In the other Spanish-speaking countries we’ve been to, it’s probably only used by the military, but in Colombia, the army of shop assistants, market sellers and street vendors have appropriated it. So much so that they also use it as “you’re welcome”, along with “con (mucho) gusto“.
In the Antioquia department of Medellin, it is usual to add “Bien pueda“, which can loosely translate as ‘Be my guest’.
Note that these phrases will often be sunk into a full sentence telling you how happy they are to see you and everything they have for sale. It might result in something like this: “Alaordencaballerobienpuedabienvenidohaypulserashayponchoshaychompassincompromiso…”. The polite answer is simply “gracias“.
One of those shops might well be a “Fruver“, a shop selling “Frutas y verduras” (Fruit and vegetables). Colombia is famous for its wonderful fresh exotic fruit, so go on and indulge!
- ¿Qué más?
‘What else?’. This is how people usually ask their friends and relatives how they’re doing in Colombian Spanish. Don’t get it wrong: you don’t say that in the middle of the conversation, when the person has already told you something. No, this is the way you ask about someone as soon as you meet them. ” ¡Hola mami! ¿Qué más?”
“Papi” and “Mami” are such sweet-sounding words! You can definitely hear them all around Latin America, but not half as much as in Colombia. Despite coming from the words meaning ‘mum’ & ‘dad’, they’re used as nicknames for your friends and relatives, whatever their age. Many Colombians, being very warm and outgoing, use them also when addressing strangers.
- Usted/Su merced
You surely know “usted” as the polite form for ‘you’, said when addressing someone with courtesy. Its use can vary from country to country: the Spaniards and the Bolivians (for example) employ it with most strangers eg. in shops, while the Argentinians save it for special occasions. Well, in Colombia, its use varies from region to region, and the meaning can also change!
In some parts of the country, it is still used as courtesy. In many regions, people also apply it to friends and family, as you would of “tu” (or “vos” in Argentinian Spanish… and in the south of Colombia!). This creates a shift, so something must be found for the polite form. In the department of Boyacá (north of Bogotá), people use “Su merced” (also spelt “sumercé“), an archaic – and royalist – form that was generally abandoned when the Spanish conquistadors were sent back home. Except that in recent years, “sumercé” has also started to shift and to be used between friends and lovers.
What a mess! Unless you spend weeks rooted in one department of Colombia, you’re probably better off saying “usted” to everyone, everywhere! Keep in mind that Colombians are effusively polite and you might regularly hear them say “Sí señor/Sí señora” to their friend or even their child.
Why would Colombians come up with an alternative to the widespread diminutive -ito/-ita?! I don’t know, but they do, all of them, and very often. “Espera un momentico“; “Quiero comer un pastelico“; “Me gusta Green Mochilica“.
- Que pena
Even though “que pena” literally means ‘what a pity’, its is used in all Colombia as ‘excuse me’. You arrive late at a meeting? “Que pena“. You said something that was not correct? “Que pena“. You want to ask someone a question? “Que pena“. Seems a bit excessive, huh. But it might come in handy when you want to ask for the way to your hostel.
I never heard the Spanish word “pendiente” as often as in Colombia. You may never have to use it, but you will hear it often for sure! What normally means “pending” in Spanish is used here in its broader definition. When you are waiting for someone, expecting something or attentive, you are “pendiente“.
Part of our ongoing list of ways to say “cool” around the world! Chévere is said practically all the time so make sure you add it to you vocabulary.
Colombians also use “Bacano” – reminding us of the Brazilian Portuguese “Bacan” – although not as much. In Cali, cool people say “melo“. Lastly, you can hear the word “chimba” (often preceded with “tan”), meaning either ‘great’ or the contrary, depending on the intonation. “Que rumba tan chimba, parce! Chévere!” (What a great party, mate! Cool!)
- Parce, parcero
These words mean ‘friend’ and you can use them when talking to someone, in the same way you would use ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’.
Be careful though not to mix it up with “parche“, which is a meeting place, a group of friends, or something/someone very cool. I guess you could say something weird like “En el parche aparece mi parce, un parche del parche del parque“, but I wouldn’t if I were you.
- De pronto
“De pronto” means in Colombia what “de repente” means in Peru, and that is ‘maybe’. In the Spanish spoken in Spain, it means ‘suddenly’. How the word to say ‘suddenly’ evolved to mean ‘maybe’ is beyond me and this little guide.
Another example of a shift of meaning. If “regalar” means ‘to give as a gift’ in most Spanish-speaking countries, in Colombia it is used simply as ‘to hand over’. It is therefore not uncommon to hear in a shop a customer say “Señora, regálame esto” before paying for it.
Contrary to what we first hoped, this has nothing to do with a “vino tinto“, a red wine. In the country which is most famous for its cocaine and its coffee, the “tinto” is the latter. But not the good brew; we’re talking here about the water-washed stuff, probably instant coffee, that you can find for 20 euro cent on the street and at the bus terminal. Certainly not good, but oh so common!
I promise, the day you manage to utter a “Seño‘, regálame un tintico por favor“, they will ask you which part of Colombia you come from!
I’m adding this one even though it’s a word typical of the region of Medellin. A favourite activity of the Medellinenses, “puebliar” is to travel around your own region in order to get to know the small villages (“pueblos“) around.
Apparently, it’s known as “pueblear” in Mexico and in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world.
A Few Colombian Spanish expressions
Finally, we’ve asked our Colombian Couchsurfing hosts about their favourite expressions. I’ve put here their literal translation, in order to better transcribe the image. So many thanks to Luisa, Juan, Emir, Diosimar, Johana and Rafa for their colourful contributions!
- “Una golondrina no llama agua” = one swallow doesn’t call the water
When one person cannot get someone’s attention, a group of people can.
- “Le falta mucho pelo pa’ moño” = s/he still needs a lot of hair for a bun
When someone hasn’t got the knowledge or the skill yet to do something.
- “Una cosa es lo que piensa el burro y otra el que lo arrea” = The mule thinks one thing, the muleteer another thing.
A person won’t do as you wish as long as they think differently
- “Estamos cagados y el agua lejos” = We’re in the shit and the water is far
We’re in a mess and the solution is nowhere near.
- “Cada arepa tiene su queso” = Every arepa has its own cheese
My favourite! Whoever you are and whatever you like, you’ll find someone who understands you. Arepas are a food speciality that you can find all around the country. They come in different sizes and shapes and usually have cheese inside or on top.
- “No dar papaya” = Don’t give papaya
A very important expression you will need constantly as a tourist. It means that you shouldn’t look dumb, easy to cheat or rob.
- “Cali es Cali y lo demas es loma” = Cali is Cali, the rest is mountains.
Taken from the famous salsa song “Cali Pachanguero“, this saying shows the love of the Caleños for their city in the valley. The rest up there is unimportant.
- “Puro tilin tilin y nada de paletas” = I think it translates as Pure bling bling but no effort/no sweat
Quite simply: All talk and no action.
- “El ojo ardiendo y le echan sal” = His/Her eye hurts and they throw salt at it
When someone already has tons of problems and life comes up with even more. We’ve all known these situations, haven’t we?
I’m not sure whether all these are only known in Colombia. If you use them in your country, please leave us a comment below.
Colombian Pronunciation & Accents
As I said already, there are of course different pronunciations across that vast country. But to generalise and sum up what you might come across, let’s say that Colombians tend to swallow B’s and D’s, especially at the end of the word. All past participles will therefore sound like [-ao] or [io], for example sentada = senta’a or comido = comi’o.
Unlike with many other South Americans, there is no yeísmo in the Colombian pronunciation. It means that they distinguish the LL sound from a Y sound. In many regions, they make a hard “jhe” sound (like in Garage) when pronouncing the LL letter and a soft “ye” sound (like in Yeah!) when pronouncing the Y letter. Consequently, “Yo soy de Medellin” will sound like “Yo soy de Medejhin”.
You will surely have fun noticing all the peculiarities of Colombian Spanish during your travels in Colombia. It is probably one of the variations of the language with the most fantasy, so if you know enough Spanish not to feel lost straight away, you’ll get along well with these words and expressions. Have fun, parce!
Time to practice! Read our recommendations on what to see in Colombia.
Compare Colombian Spanish with our other Beginner’s Language Guides (work in progress):
What is your favourite word or expression in this list of Colombian Spanish?
Do you know any that is not in this guide? Tell us and we might add it!