The Curious Case of Colombian Spanish
Finally putting those Spanish speaking abilities to the test and planning a backpacking trip through Latin America?
Then I highly suggest making Colombia your first stop!
Not only is Colombia of the cheapest countries to fly to from the States, but it also offers some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, delicious food, and a rich, diverse culture.
Read on to learn some colombianismos, and speak Spanish like a Colombian!
- 1. The Colombian Case of Usted, Tú and Vos
- 2. Colombian Accents
- 3. Popular Colombian Phrases
1. The Colombian Case of Usted, Tú and Vos
Colombian Spanish is easy, especially if you stick to one way of directly speaking to a person. As you may already know, Spanish has numerous ways of saying “you” and “you all” with varying degrees of formality.
In our high school Spanish classes, we’re introduced to both sides of the spectrum, both formal (usted) and informal (tú, vos) ways of saying “you.”
Colombian Spanish speakers tend to use usted almost always when directly speaking to a person. They use it to the point where it’s probably the only word you’ll hear for “you.” Very rarely will you hear Colombians talking to each other with tú, although it’s not entirely unheard of.
So, in the case of Colombian Spanish, you’ll want to subscribe to using usted instead of tú. When you’re talking to your best friend, mother, father, grandmother, child, teacher, coworker or even a complete stranger you’re meeting for the first time, you’re going to be hearing and using usted.
There’s almost never a point in Colombian Spanish where you switch over to tú because you’re more intimate or comfortable with someone, as is the case elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. Even though friends and family are usually referred to as tú in most Spanish-speaking countries, this isn’t true for Colombians.
There are only some parts of the country (namely the coast) where tú is preferred. Otherwise, usted is innate in Colombian Spanish. So much so that people from other Spanish-speaking countries at times get offended, or simply ask Colombians to stop speaking to them with usted and to speak to them with tú.
¡Deja de hablarme con usted, trátame de tú! (Stop speaking to me in usted, refer to me as tú!)
It’s kind of like a dead giveaway—if you constantly hear usted, then you may very well be dealing with someone from Colombia. (Of course, there are other Spanish-speaking countries that have embraced usted just as wholeheartedly).
If you’re going to speak in the third person usted form, make sure you always use the actual word usted within the sentence. This will help. It’s more clarifying. Trust me, it won’t sound weird, this is really how Colombians speak! Check out these examples:
¿Qué pasa con usted? (What’s going on with you?)
Ya le dije a usted. (I already told you.)
¿Y usted por qué no me llamó? (And why didn’t you call me?)
The word usted is so overplayed in Colombian Spanish that it has lost its sense of formality.
It’s not that Colombians don’t ever use the tú form.
They do use the second person singular, and they use it a whole lot. What they don’t like is the word tú itself. What I mean by this is that, even if you barely hear the word tú, that doesn’t necessarily cut out te, which is essentially part of the second person form of address.
Get it? Colombians popularly use te, without a problem. It’s just the word tú they have something against. For example, here’s a totally acceptable thing to say:
Te traje café. (I brought you coffee.)
In the case of te traje café—as opposed to le traje café—the te helps you indicate to whom you’re referring. The thing about le is that it can get confusing because you could be talking to someone directly or you could be talking indirectly about someone else (el, ella).
Since Colombians are native Spanish speakers and clearly masters of their own language, they’re capable of mixing up their talk without sounding “off.” If you want to only stick with usted form and say “le traje café“ because it’s easier and less confusing, make sure you say “le traje café a usted.“
If you do hear any sort of informality, it’s a toss up whether you’ll hear the rare Colombian tú or the more common vos, which lies in a nebulous area between informal and formal speech.
Many countries in Latin America attach different levels of formality to this form of address—though usually it’s considered a tad less formal than usted, yet a tad more formal (or just more appropriate) than tú.
In some parts of Colombia, vos is thought of as more appropriate to use than tú in most social situations.
So, to really sound natural in Colombia, you’ll want to master the wacky vos conjugation system. This style of speaking is mainly heard in the cities of Calí and Medellín—but even then, not everyone uses it. Regardless, go prepared!
Oh yeah, this is the kind of stuff they don’t teach you in school. This is how you get to sound more like a native.
If you’ve spent your Spanish journey only using tú, you’ll probably need to drill these other forms of “you” into your mind by listening to native Spanish speakers use them.
You’ll hear tú and usted basically everywhere in the Spanish-speaking world, but to practice vos you’ll need to look out for resources specifically from countries like Colombia, Argentina, and Uruguay. Look for a language learning program that can expose you to all these different varieties of Spanish.
For example, FluentU is an online language learning platform with bite-sized Spanish videos curated for language learners, all categorized by topic and difficulty level. Each video comes with a key word list, interactive subtitles and a full transcript of the video to help you identify when the native Spanish speakers use each form of “you” and the context behind that linguistic choice.
2. Colombian Accents
There are general accents, and then there are regional ones.
The general accent belongs to the country of Colombia as a whole, and the regional accents come from the diverse regions and cities within the country. They’re a bit similar but have slight differences.
General Colombian Accent
Generally, Colombians tend to mispronounce certain letters of official Spanish words. This tendency is called comerse las letras (eating letters).
I’m not saying that every single Colombian does this, but the majority of Colombians do. This may exclude professional newscasters, television hosts and radio sports announcers because they strive to have clearer, more neutral accents for their jobs.
Typically, los Colombianos se comen los B’s y los D’s (Colombian’s don’t pronounce their B’s and D’s). This is only true towards the ends of specific words. Rationally, they must correctly pronounce the beginning of a word if starts with a B or a D, but if these letters fall elsewhere in the word, then it’s more likely that they won’t bother to pronounce it.
Here a few example words (usually in the past tense) that get mispronounced by Colombians:
Sentada (meaning “seated,” feminine) becomes senta-a
Cansado (meaning “tired,” masculine) becomes cansa-o
Líquido (liquid) becomes líqui-o
Nombrado (meaning “named,” masculine) becomes nombra-o
Notice that it’s nearly always the second-to-last letter of the word that gets “eaten” or ignored. Also, note that when Colombians speak in the present progressive (English’s “-ing” form) the D’s are properly pronounced as they would be in Spanish. For example, these verbs conjugated in the present progressive are pronounced as normal:
If the second-to-last letter is directly between two vowels, as the first set of examples shows, then it will be “eaten” and mispronounced. If it isn’t set up like that, then it’s normally pronounced, as is shown with the present progressive examples above.
Yeísmo is when Spanish speakers don’t distinguish between LL and Y, so they go ahead and make a regular Y sound for both LL and Y. This is very common throughout Latin America.
The key is to remember that some Colombians don’t recognize yeísmo. They distinguish the LL sound from a regular Y sound. Non-yeísmo speakers make a hard “je” sound when pronouncing LL and a soft “ye” sound when pronouncing Y.
So, yo and ya will sound like jo and ja, respectively. There will be a noticeable difference—which you won’t hear with yeísmo calling the shots—between cayó (fell) and calló (he was quiet, he shut up).
If you already have this down pat, then you’re ahead of the game in parts of Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. There are no hard and fast rules about who does and doesn’t do this, but it’s good to know while in Colombia since you might hear it.
But why is this important? Because it helps make you a better speller! Even native Spanish speakers confuse the spellings of certain words due to the phenomenon of yeísmo. Common yeísmo errors include writing yave instead of llave and writing yuvia instead of lluvia.
Regional Colombian Accents
Throughout Colombia, there are dialects and distinct accents that stray from the technicalities of “proper” Spanish grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
Here’s a list of the different regional accents of Colombia. Be sure to explore these different regions and accents while traveling—or while hanging out on YouTube!
Rolo or Bogotano — This accent is heard in the area around the country’s capital, Bogotá.
Paisa — This way of speaking hails from the area around Antioquia, to which the nearest city is Medellín.
Valluno — This is heard in the area of Valle del Cauca, located in southern Colombia, where the nearest major city is Calí.
Pastuso or Andino — This is from the southwest region of Colombia, where the major city is Pasto.
Costeño or Carribeño — This accent is from the northern coastal areas of Colombia, near the Caribbean.
Chocó or Pacifico — This is the accent from the department of Chocó, on the Pacific coast.
Isleño — This is an accent from Colombian islands that are located in the Caribbean.
Cundiboyacanse — This accent is from the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, which are located in the central-northeastern part of the country.
Opita or Tolimense — This accent belongs to the departments Tolima and Huila.
Santanderano — This dialect is mostly spoken in the northeastern part of the country that borders Venezuela, and in the city of Santander.
Llanero — This accent is spoken near the eastern Andes region that also borders Venezuela, and it has been influenced by local indigenous languages.
Amazónico — This is the dialect of the Amazonian region of Colombia.
3. Popular Colombian Phrases
The guide to Colombian Spanish can’t be complete without a few staple phrases that’ll fully thrust you into the Colombian language and culture. The following phrases are some of the most common must-knows in the country. For a more extensive list of Colombian slang words and phrases, click right here.
A la orden
This is the phrase you’ll hear the most in Colombia, especially if you’re getting all touristy, taking cabs and going out shopping. “At the order” is the literal translation, but it means something more akin to the English “at your service.”
If you make any sort of business transaction, the vendor will say a la orden afterward or as you exit as a way of thanking you.
Not only that, but vendors will repeat these words like a broken record in hopes of grabbing your attention so you’ll shop at their stores and markets. Taxi drivers will also shout this at you from the middle of the street so you know they’re not occupied and you can hop in their cars.
Here we’ll give you three great phrases for the price of one:
Hágale pues (do it already, go for it)
Bueno pues (alright then)
They’re similar phrases, but still very different. What they have in common is that they’re very commonly said throughout Colombia—and even other Latin American countries.
The key word here, though, is pues.
While other Spanish-speaking countries might frequently say bueno or hágale, what separates Colombians is the special word pues. Yes, that’s a word used everywhere in the Spanish-speaking world, but Colombians really throw it around like crazy. Sometimes they’ll even add pues before and after a word, like this:
¡Pues hágale pues! (Well, do it already!)
Pues, bueno pues. (Well, alright then.)
Pues… pues que… (Well… it’s that…)
¡Vaya pues! (Go already then!)
Pues mira… (Well, look…)
Pues sí, pues no… (Maybe yes, maybe no… / More or less)
Hablamos pues (Well, let’s talk then)
Okay, I’ll stop, but I hope I’ve shown that pues can be used quite literally for anything. It’s the equivalent of an English speaker’s habitually-inserted “like.”
A lo bien
This is a popular Colombian phrase that expresses certainty and concern.
I know it looks like it translates to “at the good” or something equally odd, but this phrase actually means, “seriously”, “truthfully” or “really”. You can even slap on a question mark and say “¿a lo bien?” to inquisitively ask “seriously?” or “really?”
It’s the equivalent of the more general Spanish en serio, which isn’t heard much in Colombia. Here’s an example of how you might hear this phrase:
Nunca he ido al playa, a lo bien, nunca iré. (I’ve never been to the beach, to be honest, I’ll never go.)
¡Qué pena con usted!
This is the favorite Colombian way of saying “sorry” or, in essence, “sorry I’m not sorry about it.”
You know when you bump into people on the street, but you really don’t care because you’re in a rush to get somewhere? Or how about when you’re at a bar trying to order a drink first?
Even though Colombians are expressing slight sorrow and pity for your (minor or major) loss in life, they’re noting that they’re gaining something from your disadvantage. This means it’s probably not even a sincere accident—sad, but true!
Definitely don’t use this phrase to express real, extreme remorse. It doesn’t really work the same way. Rather, reserve it for those little “I’m sorry, pardon me for pushing, excuse me for interrupting, didn’t mean to be late,” instances.
In case you’re wondering what the literal translation is, it’s “what pity/shame/embarrassment for (with) you.”
Okay, so let’s dip into a little history here. The phrase su merced is actually a derivative or contraction of vuestra merced, which is the archaic version of usted. It’s like our old English word “thou”—vuestra merced goes back a long way (to the year 1100!).
What does it actually mean? “Your mercy.”
Isn’t it cool to know that Colombians still use this phrase in some manner today? They commonly use it to convey the ultimate politeness, something that’s even more polite than usted.
In some areas of Colombia, including Cundinamarca and Boyacá, su merced is the only way parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents are addressed. In these places, su merced actually ends up being pronounced more like su mercé. The D is silent.
In any given situation, it can replace the word usted. It’s also used to address people whose authority is unknown. In other words, stick with su mercé and everyone will love and respect you! It may sound weird, but it’s totally common. Here are a few examples of how this can be used:
Y su merced, ¿qué dice? (And you/thou, what do you say?)
Lo que mande, su merced. (Whatever you say, boss.)
Pues, ¡se acabó! (Well, it’s over!)
There you have a gist of Colombian culture, language and attitude to get you prepared for your next trip.
Enjoy these colombianismos, and keep on learning!