The Chilean vernacular borders on being its own unique language. Many hapless study abroad students with already limited Spanish wander unwittingly into a linguistic universe for which classes could never prepare them. Even veteran speakers can struggle with the infinite nuances of Chilean Spanish. One word, on top of being uniquely Chilean, still remains enigmatic even to those who use it.
Photo by Sandra Marín
Po, while not essential for communication, finds its way into every corner of society. Listen in on a conversation between two Chileans, and after sorting through the more obvious huevons and cachais every other word, po will play a prominent role. Its use is one of those cultural subtleties that can represent a new level of integration for a foreigner who takes command of it.
So what does it mean? Good question. Chileans also have trouble defining it. Maria Angelica, a host mother who has years of experience adapting her Spanish to foreign students and explaining modismos (slang), even has trouble deciding its real meaning. “It comes from the word pues (well), but doesn’t really mean that,” she ventures. After wading through its potential uses but not finding a definition, she gives up with “Chuta. No sé, po. (Damn it. I don’t know… po.)”
Photo by Teresa Smith
It seems that no definition can properly encompass po’s meaning. One can still figure out where to use it though. As Maria Angelica suggests, it is a shortened version of pues. As some speakers would similarly use pues as an interjection at the beginning of a phrase to emphasize it, Chileans put po at the end. However, the flow of conversation usually means that po can appear in the vast majority of phrases, even multiple times in one sentence.
It takes a long time to figure out how to use po in conversation, but working with it ultimately helps foreigners mix better with Chileans. Conversations become visibly more relaxed and engaged with these subtle hints of cultural understanding. Many Chileans also get excited, laughing and pointing out to others that an outsider can actually pick up on their slang, which many admit as excessively difficult.
A foreigner who masters the nuances of po (among other modismos) represents a solid effort to understand and integrate with Chileans. Po also gives non-native speakers an emphatic expression that, after living here long enough, functions much better than any English phrase might in order to get the point across. In all cases, while few, if any, are able to define the word many understand that it is central to Chilean dialect.