Cashing in on the Colombian accent

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The World

BOGOTA, Colombia — At a sprawling office in Bogota, operators equipped with headsets and computer monitors speak in crystal clear Spanish to customers in Mexico, Chile and Spain.

They punch the clock for Unisono, one of more than a dozen international call centers located in Bogota, where a key attraction is the way people talk. By many accounts, the Spanish spoken in the Colombian capital is the most easily understood.

“When you’re selling something you need to be understood and to form friendships over the telephone,” said Ana Isabel Iglesias, an Unisono development consultant. “So you want a neutral accent.”

Bogota’s highly academic form of Spanish — which eschews sing-song intonations and the swallowing of letters common in other countries — is allowing the Colombian capital to cash in at a time of expanding international trade and globalization.

Colombia’s call centers, most of which are located in Bogota, employ more than 70,000 people, a number that is expected to double by 2012, according to Proexport Colombia, which promotes exports and foreign investment.

The fact that a Colombian accent can be understood all over the Spanish-speaking world has helped turn many of the country’s telenovelas, or soap operas, into overseas hits.

The Discovery Channel and The National Geographic Channel often use Colombian narrators for their Spanish-language broadcasts while Fox is filming a number of projects here. Another booming business is the dubbing of movies and TV shows.

“People like our accent,” said Henry Perez, who manages a Bogota studio where actors lay down the soundtracks for Spanish-language films, TV series and commercials. “They like how we say: ‘Ariel: the detergent that will get your clothes the whitest!’”

A Romance language that developed on the Iberian Peninsula during the 10th century, Spanish is now spoken by nearly 500 million people. Also called Castilian, it is the official language of 21 nations, including Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast of Africa.

But centuries ago as the Conquistadors imposed Spanish on Latin America and the Caribbean, local populations mixed Indigenous words with Spanish and developed their own dialects, accents and slang.

Seeking uniformity, the Royal Spanish Academy was founded in Madrid in 1713 “to fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance and purity.”

But homogeneity proved impossible thanks to the proliferation of indigenous languages, the slave trade, foreign invasions, immigration and regional quirks.

“We all speak the same language but there are many, many dialects,” said Jaime Bernal of the Colombian Academy of the Spanish Language.

That’s why a stupid or lazy person is a "boludo" in Argentina but a "guevon" in Colombia.  That’s why something that’s "padrisimo," or great, in Mexico is "chevere" in Panama.

Mexican Spanish has been heavily influenced by the Aztec Indians who spoke Nahuatl. An influx of Old World immigrants helps explain why the Argentine accent sounds faintly Italian. Chileans are known for their rapid-fire cadence and, like many nations, have adopted American words — like “man” instead of hombre.

Oddly enough, the Spanish spoken in Spain can be the most confusing because the “s” and “z” are pronounced as “th.”

“We should be the best Spanish speakers, but we’re not because we’ve lost a lot of words and we’ve got lots of Arabic influences,” said Iglesias, a Spaniard. “The purist Spanish is found outside of Spain.”

Many linguists identify Bogota as ground zero for good Spanish.

Located high in the Andes Mountains far from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the isolated Colombian capital was for centuries cut off from foreign and national immigrants. Bogotanos, in turn, rejected local indigenous groups and viewed Europe as the embodiment of high culture.

In addition, a series of Colombian presidents were poets, novelists and writers who took great care to speak and promote correct Spanish. One former president, Miguel Antonio Caro, founded the Colombian Academy of the Spanish Language.

So, it’s not surprising that the book “Correct Spanish for Dummies” was written by a Colombian, a university professor and linguist named Fernando Avila.

“At international meetings, if there’s a Colombian in the mix they always have us write up the minutes,” Avila said in a recent interview, “because they say our Spanish is the best.”

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