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Before we moved to Chile, my ex and met with a Chilena who runs a summer program at one of the best law schools in Santiago. I forget exactly what our connection was with her, except that when people found out we were going to Chile they crawled out of the woodwork with their own Chile stories, giving pointers, sharing stories, sending us to expensive Neruda-related productions at the Kennedy Center in DC, etc.

The woman we met was about 35, absolutely normal and lovely in every way. She warned us about living in certain areas, explained the pituto (favor system not unlike nepotism but not limited to the family) as if it were completely normal, and in general spoke very positively about Tseelay. In Tseelay it’s like this, and in Tseelay it’s like that, she explained to us, hopeful that we would love Tseelay as much as she did.

I was down with the program, happy to learn about traditions and cultural mysteries I could get tangled in, but I also wondered why she kept on saying Tseelay. It’s Chile (CHI-lay), right?

Or is it? The pronunciation of the sound we spell ch in English is a point of contention here in that skinny country next to Argentina. It is a shibboleth, which is to say, a social test of in-groupism and out-groupism based on pronunciation.

There are essentially two main ways ch is pronounced in Chile. One of them is a strong Ch with a kind of an s in there somewhere, yeilding Tseelay. The other is more of an sh sound you use when shushing someone, which gives you Sheelay.

I’ll give you exactly one guess as to which of the two pronunciations is uppercrust, considering the fact that the person who runs a summer law program favors the former. Do you say chalas or shalas (sandals), Wachington or Washington? To be honest, I don’t come in contact with a lot of people that use the sh-sound, which is partially because many people know it’s lower class and correct themselves, and partially because class distinctions are so strong, I’d be unlikely to come in contact with alot of sh-sayers to begin with. I haven’t had to train myself to distinguish between ch and sh, because it’s a distinction that is alive in well in my English, class be darned. Most people look at ch and sh as one sound, pronounced differently, depending on your class.

The funny thing is that where everyone comes together when they call someone “washita rica” (lit: beautiful orphan, used as a term of endearment for a woman in the countryside). Here we have a sh sound, always, even when the upperclass would normally not deign to utter that sound. The difference is that while the lowerclass country folk use the expression seriously, the uppercrust city denizen uses it as a joke. Both to compliment the person at hand and to make fun of poor country folk.

These are chark-infested waters, I tell you.