Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

Spanish is Not One Language, or: Costa Ricans Talk Funny, or: Why None of My Latino Friends in Texas Will be Able to Understand Me

When people told me we don’t learn “real life” Spanish in school, they meant we don’t learn Tex-Mex Spanglish or even Mexican Spanish.  And that’s true.  But we also don’t learn Spanish from Spain, Argentinian Spanish, Costa Rican Spanish, or Lived-In-Chile-Until-I-Was-Ten-But-Learned-All-My-Curse-Words-And-Sexual-References-In-Mexico Spanish.

So the question is, what did we learn?  All I know is, when I told someone from Mexico I like torta (textbook: cake), he asked me what was so special about a sandwich.  Then, when my mamá tica put tortas in front of me, I was surprised to see neither cake nor a sandwich, but rather meat patties.

Guys, there are eleven different words for “straw” in Spanish.  Ask a tico for a popote and they’ll think you’re one confused gringo who’s making up words.  And although I don’t personally have experience with it, I imagine a Mexican would have the same reaction if you asked for a pajilla.

And then there’s pachuco, or tico street slang.  It’s so integrated into the culture that with nearly every new word I learn in conversation, I have to ask if it’s a palabra tica or not.  And a lot of the time, people have to think about it for a second to be sure.  So even for those who speak Spanish, tico Spanish takes some getting used to.

I’ve started picking up slang a lot more this semester, both because I understand Spanish better and because I have more tico friends.  When two guys my age talk to each other, they don’t speak Spanish.  They speak what I like to call “Mae”, as that’s the most common word.  Mae is like dude or bro, but used a lot more commonly than the two combined.

“Mae, I went to the store yesterday, mae, and this mae kept looking at me like he knew me, but mae, I’ve never seen him before in my life.  Mae, I don’t know…”

I never really listen to conversations between my host brother and his friends.  It’s too much effort to keep up with all the slang and weird phrasings.  I kind of just sit back and count the “maes”.

One of my mamá tica’s favorite things to do when guests are over is demonstrate my tico vocabulary.

“Renee, how do you get home from school?”
“Vengo a pata (I walk).”
“And what were you doing this afternoon?”
“Ruleando (napping).”
“And what do you need to find when you get back to the U.S.?”
“Brete (work).”

Actually, any tico laughs and thinks it’s cute when the gringa throws a slang word into a conversation or discussion.  I’ve found it’s a good way to break the ice when people aren’t sure how to talk to the foreigner.

To be fair, we have our regionalisms in English, too.  The English say “trousers” instead of “pants”, the Australians say “boot” instead of “trunk”, and the Yankees say “you guys” instead of “y’all” and “semi” instead of “18-wheeler”.  But at least we can all agree that we’re speaking the same general type of language.

Not so much with Spanish.

One unique thing about Costa Rican Spanish is that they use usted instead of tú for everyone.  This means they use the most formal form of Spanish to address not only professors and elders, but also friends, family, children, and pets.

I was chatting with a friend from Texas through facebook in Spanish, and without even thinking about it, I was using usted.  Finally, she told me, “Renee!  I’m not OLD!”

In Mexico and most places other than Costa Rica, usted is only used as a form of respect, usually with older people.  I imagine the English equivalent to mixing usted and tico words in conversations with friends would be like framing every text or facebook message to my best friend like a formal letter.

“Dear Mary,
Haha, I know, right?
But here’s the deal, I’ve got too much stuff to tell you over fb, and also, I miss your face, so skype meeeeeeee!*

*Inspired by real conversation.

For me, though, tú is the strange form.  I have to think extra hard to use it, and when I try, I usually end up with some weird mix of tú and usted in the same sentence.  At one point last semester, I saw a Walmart billboard or something that used the tú form, and I remember thinking, “Well, that’s mighty familiar of you, Walmart.  I didn’t know we were on that level.”

Ticos rarely use tú, but every once in a while, you’ll encounter some weirdo that uses vos.  What the heck is vos?  I didn’t learn that in my Spanish classes.  Turns out, it’s yet another conjugation, the equivalent of tú in formality and meaning.  It’s not too terribly complicated since it’s the same as tú except in present tense and some irregular imperatives, but it still throws me for a loop.

¿De dónde sos?
¿Qué querés?
Vení por aquí.

If you mention the idea of vos to a gringo that’s only taken formal classes in Spanish, he’ll think you’re talking about vosotros, which is the informal “y’all” form they use in Spain.  Vos was originally derived from vosotros as the singular form, but now in Spain, it’s considered archaic.  In Latin America, it’s used in some parts of Central America, Argentina, and Uruguay, as well as certain regions of other countries.  Since textbook Spanish tends to have a bias towards what’s spoken in Spain (even if the professors don’t make us learn vosotros), vos isn’t even mentioned.

It’s like a secret verb conjugation.  And I just let you into the club.  You’re welcome.

Anyway, long story short, no matter where I go or how good my Spanish becomes, I’ll always have a little tico in my Spanish.


3 thoughts on “Spanish is Not One Language, or: Costa Ricans Talk Funny, or: Why None of My Latino Friends in Texas Will be Able to Understand Me

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