Manejas el cachai?
Whether you like it or not, your Spanish, as compared to other people’s Spanish, whether or not they are present, is a frequent topic of conversation in Chile. I have a friend that says that when people tell you you speak Spanish well, it means you don’t. I have not had that experience, but she’s probably right. I speak well, and sometimes people comment on my Spanish (but more often on my accent, which is slight, but evident, specifically in the pronunciation of s, j and r (but not so much rr)), but I have no reason to think that they’re being either facetious or polite. In fact, as I write this, I have just spent a week in La Serena with a friend, in Spanish without great drama, except for when we were watching the videos of people eating surstromming, because the friend is heading to Sweden for midsommar, and that is a thing, the little putrefying herrings in a can. I did finally learn the word for slimy, which is ligoso, which is handy, as previously I’d been stuck with chicloso, which means gummy, mocoso, which means snot-like, and viscoso, which as you might guess means viscous, but none of them have the well, sliminiess of slimy. Like I said, handy. I shall use it with vigor.
Speaking of using words, and your Spanish, Chilean Spanish is famous for being heavy in slang. We have random Mapundungún words, like huincha, which means measuring tape, or tape, though we have a perfectly good expression for this in Spanish, or huacho, which means bastard (as in a child), or a single (as in a sock), not to be confused with huachita, which is a term of endearment. There is also coa, or jailhouse slang, and from this we get words for the various money denominations, gamba is 100 pesos and quina is 500, and luka is 1,000, and also the word for the jail itself, which is la cana, which leads to expansion to things like “se fue a Canadá,” when the person in question did not, actually go to Canada, but is in fact, in jail. Which is pretty funny when your friends actually do go to Canada, but I digress (surprise!)
And there are expressions, oh! there are expressions. I have dictionaries full of expressions and a brain full as well. Del chincol al jote, from a to z (or sparrow to buzzard), meaning the gamut, without any specific criteria. This was another gain from this weekend. A word to the wise, you do have to look at the source of your slang, to know how urban or rural it is, or how old-timey. I have several friends from “regiones” (from outside of the metropolitan region) who have a veritable quiver of country expressions, like “se me fue en collera,” meaning, it all went to crap, or got out of control, but is actually rodeo talk, for when that pesky calf gets away. Igual se entiende. People will understand you. But it’s still a little weird, like calling jeans dungarees.
I don’t know if Chilean Spanish has more slang than other Spanish. Perhaps it does. As I tried to explain to my friend the (admittedly) ridiculous expression in English that is also related to draft animals, “I don’t have a horse in that race.” It doesn’t matter to me at all if Chilean Spanish is more or less slangy or intelligible than other kinds of Spanish. I trust in the human animal to develop words and expressions and ways of expressing ourselves, on matter what the method of communication or language we share. Go evolution.
But back to Chilean Spanish, and how well you speak it. When it is revealed that you speak Spanish (well, or at beginner level, or in between), the conversation then turns to whether or not you understand Chilenismos. Some of which are admittedly unrelated to the very thing they mean to express, like how “matar la gallina” means “to have sex,” or not something you’d have thought of before, like “aburrido como ostra,” which means “as bored as an oyster.” To be fair, English expressions win no prizes either, and in the freshness department, Spanish beats English with “fresquita como lechuga,” over “fresh as a daisy.” Lettuce being more indicative of freshness than daisies, at least the way I see it.
And yet the public test of whether or not you understand Chilenismos is unrelated to any of these expressions. You don’t get credit for understanding (or saying), “tengo pa rato” (I have to wait/do this for a long time before it ends), or saying, “me comí el medio sandwich,” where, almost inexplicably, that means you ate a giant sandwich, despite the fact that medio would seem to mean (and sometimes does mean) half.
The thing everyone wants to know is whether you understand the word “cachai,” and implement the semi-nonword/verbal tic “po.”
Cachai comes from cachar, an imported verb that has come to mean “get it/understand/realize.” Chileans will try to tell you that it comes from the English “to catch,” but I personally, with some years of English-speaking under my belt, would say that cachar is more similar to “to get,” than to catch, except in the expressions “I didn’t quite catch that,” and “Did you catch that?” which is more about hearing than understanding anyway. It acts mainly as “get it?” or “you know?”
The uses of cachai are numerous. It acts as a tag question “No quiero ir, cachai?” I don’t want to go, you know? Or so signal something important, “Cacha la wea!” Check this out (usually something yet to be told). wea and huevón etc will have to be for a later entry, or search around, and you’ll find plenty of exposition). No caché means “Oh, I didn’t understand, or I didn’t notice that.” No había cachado? I hadn’t noticed.
Cachar is also one of the very first expressions that you hear when you move to Chile, as people are constantly checking in with you both as a person and a foreigner, to see if you “get it.” I would say it was probably at day .5 (not 5, but 0.5, as in about 8 hours in) when I started to notice el “cachai,” and since it occupies the same place in the language as “you know?” or “get it?” or “understand?” it was a) almost impossible not to assimilate immediately and b) very evident what it means, and how to use it.
Po is also very simple. It follows both yes and no nicely “Sí po” or “sipo,” and No po (which almost never appears as nopo). Again, not grammatically stymie-ing, just a little tic, like saying “Yep” and “Nope” instead of “yes” and “no.” Po also acts as a bit of verbal punctuation, and often comes at the end of a sentence, perhaps when you don’t want to say “y’know?” but want to give a little punch to what you said. “No quiero ir, po.” is more “I really don’t want to go.” than just “I don’t want to go.” Again, a first-order Chilenismo, the kind of thing you notice after about 5 minutes of talking to a Chilean. You do not have to be taught these things, they just seep in, like whatever slang all the hip kids use in the US these days (which I have no idea about for a generation and several thousand kilometers worth of reasons).
So why do people ask, when trying to evaluate how well you have assimilated Chilean Spanish into your world, whether you understand (or use) cachai and po? It’s an extraordinarily low bar, like asking someone in English if they got it when you said “you know,” or “um.”
It would be easy enough to build a test consisting of a complex sentence filled with truncations, slang, expressions, and using the rule-bending conjugation that doesn’t exist (except it does), that turns the 2nd person singular ending for cachar into -ai, instead of -as as it should be. FWIW, not just cachar, also andar as in “dónde andai?” for where are you going, and pretty much every other verb (but ojo, the ending for -er and -ir verbs is just -i as in no te preocupí for don’t worry..
And yet (in my experience) nobody does this with the complex convoluted sentence of impenetrable Chilenismos. Everyone asks you this incredibly low-bar question about cachai and po. For a long time I thought it was because they didn’t know that those things about Chilean Spanish are incredibly easy to absorb, and couldn’t figure out how to ask something more complex, or didn’t even know what that more complex thing would be. But coupled with the “you speak good Spanish,” comment, applied to people whose Spanish, by most metrics is, in fact, not particularly good, I have come to a different conclusion.
Rather than a real test, I think it is a way to include, rather than exclude you. By asking you something simple and silly, your answer is likely to be in the positive, “yes, I get that!” and “Yes, I know how to use that,” both of which build community, like asking people if they think the south of Chile is pretty or if they like the beach. It also serves as a way for Chileans to establish that they feel there is something special about them, something unique, worth noticing, such that if you mixed a room full of Spanish-speakers together, Chileans would still be easily identified, and perhaps most importantly, would be able to identify each other. And you too, if you can use these two words like a pro.
***I do not doubt that every single one of my friends and everyone I’ve ever met in Chile could put together a sentence I wouldn’t understand, or that only a longtime resident of Chile with constant slang immersion might understand. That is why this question about whether I understand low-order Chilean Spanish words was so baffling to me.