Saturday, March 28, 2009

Not the King's Spanish

***Here's an article I wrote a long time ago for La Cadena, the quarterly newsletter for Peace Corps Costa Rica. It gets a little heavy on the linguistic analysis, but it is worthwhile if you plan on spending any considerable amount of time in Costa Rica. Keep in mind: most of what you find here is most characteristic of the rural areas in Costa Rica. So, you should read this if you care to veer off the beaten path in your Costa Rican travels ***


Not the King's Spanish

10 examples of non-standard Spanish from the field

You may hear all the time, “el español se pronuncia como se escribe,” and vice versa. There is some truth to this statement, as you probably understand what people mean when they say it; nonetheless, there are many things that people say in our sites that would never be acceptable in a term paper at the Universidad de Costa Rica. For those of you who sometimes wonder whether you are hearing standard Spanish in your [Peace Corps] sites, here is an unordered list of ten examples of common non-standard language in Costa Rica .

  1. Strong vowel, ‘e’, changing to a weak vowel, ‘i’. This phenomenon is easiest to spot in verbs that, in the infinitive form, end in ‘-ear’. The verb ‘chinear’, for example, is most often heard as [chiniar]. This weakening of the ‘e’ to an ‘i’ changes the number of syllables in the word from three to two , making the difference quite noticeable. (That is, if you are aware that both forms exist)
  2. Más + superlative. The use of ‘más’ with a superlative is something that, just like most other things, when heard often enough, begins to sound normal. “Se puso más peor todavía,” someone might say to you. In this case, the ‘más’ makes the sentence redundant, being the rough equivalent of saying in English, “it became even more worse.” This can be said more better.
  3. Más + bueno or más + malo. Most of you probably know that the superlatives for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Spanish are single words, ‘mejor’ and ‘peor’, respectively--but after a while ‘más bueno’ or ‘más malo’ just might sound normal.
  4. Irregular preterit forms in second and third person plurals. I am referring to the verbs ending in ‘-jeron’, such as dijeron, tradujeron, condujeron, etc. These irregular forms, in spoken language (at least in my site), often revert back to the regular verb ending ‘(j)-ieron’. Use these verbs as you wish in your site, but keep in mind that ‘they said’ or ‘you all said’ is written ‘dijeron’ in Spanish.
  5. Venir v. ir. The difference between ‘venir’ and ‘ir’ can sometimes be confusing, and Costa Ricans don’t seem to help matters by their overuse of the former at the expense of the latter . One time after an English class my host mother said to me “se le vino un alumno”. I was a bit confused, because I didn’t remember seeing anybody new in class. Then she reminded me that my host brother left class early because he was feeling ill. We then had a friendly discussion about the wording of her initial statement. “Se me fue un alumno,” I insisted. I still do insist.
  6. 'Traer’ in the preterit form. In the third person forms of the preterit, instead of using the standard ‘trajo’ for the singular and ‘trajeron’ for the plural, some people use the forms ‘trayó’ and ‘trayeron’, respectively. This might come from a natural association with the verb ‘caer’, due to the same ‘-aer’ ending. The third person preterit forms of ‘caer’ are indeed ‘cayó’ and ‘cayeron’, but ‘traer’ is different. I don’t know why, but it is.
  7. The verb ‘copiar’. While Costa Ricans often pronounce an ‘i’ when the written form is an ‘e’ paired with another strong vowel, I have encountered an example that is, in a certain sense, the opposite. In the first person present indicative form of the verb ‘copiar’, I have heard many people say [copeo] instead of [copio]. By changing the ‘i’ to an ‘e’, you end up adding a third syllable to a word that has only two syllables in its standard form. This non-standard form also moves the tonic syllable away from the verb stem . This does not make the ribosomes happy. (For those who are at least slightly sane, this last comment is a Billy Madison reference)
  8. Gender confusion. It happens to the best of us, especially on Calle 15 and Avenida Central toward the end of a long night of partying in San José. Words that are feminine are often mistaken for masculine words, and vice versa. This is sometimes so common that a non-standard form becomes, to a certain extent, standardized. Take, for instance, the word ‘costumbre’. This word is feminine and it requires a feminine article in its standard form. In my site, however, I have heard ‘el costumbre’ many times, never recalling a time hearing ‘la costumbre’. Also, ‘la calor’, which is a non-standard form of ‘el calor’, is very common, especially in rural areas. These gender changes occur so often in certain areas that they become the accepted local standard. Only time will tell whether these changes will catch on in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world.
  9. The subjunctive of ‘haber’. This is one of my favorite verbs, which I often say is synonymous with ‘un oso’. Get it? A bear? I’m a big idiot. Anyway, in rural Costa Rica (as well as in other countries), the subjunctive form of the verb ‘haber’, ‘haya’, is pronounced [haiga]. Although I have resisted acquiring this non-standard form, I must admit that not only is it easier for me to slip in that in ‘g’ sound when using the subjunctive form, but also that the non-standard form ‘haiga’ is easier to understand in certain situations.
    • For example, in the sentence ‘No creo que haya azúcar en el café’ the form ‘haya’, having preceded an [a] sound, tends to create one syllable for the two ‘a’ vowels, hardly distinguishing itself phonetically from the indicative form ‘hay’ in the sentence “Creo que hay azúcar en el café”.
    • On the other hand, if we use the non-standard form ‘haiga’ in the sentence we get an unmistakable subjunctive form : “Espero que haiga azúcar en el café”. You still might not be impressed with this word, ‘haiga’. Oh well—it’s your loss.
  10. Adverbs as adjectives and adjectives as adverbs. An adverb like ‘bien’ is often used as an adjective in place of ‘muy’. This should come as no surprise to you, as people probably use it all of the time, but it is good to know that this is not formal written Spanish. I, myself, say ‘bien bueno’, but my Mexican cousin, who is an incurable grammarian, always tells me that I sound uneducated. I simply tell her that it’s because I’m from Wisconsin.

In your sites, as well as all over the Spanish-speaking world, you will also find people using adjectives as adverbs. For instance, ‘él corre lento’ is the most common way to say ‘he runs slowly’. However, to be grammatically-sound in written Spanish, you would need to write ‘él corre lentamente’, ‘lentamente’ being the proper adverb. It might not be easy to go against the grain, to always say adverbs where adverbs are formally prescribed, but when you are writing you should always use your “mente”.


Anonymous said...

Great post , but here you are true idiosyncrasies of Costa Rican speech with common examples of bad grammar and mistakes due to lack of formal education (haiga, trayó) which are found within non-educated Spanish-speakers in may places. Think of me (a ESL, Spanish speaker) traveling to California and coming up with ain't+negative, mixing you're & your, too and to, etc as typical examples of California speech. Umm.. not really. Tienes que separar las churras de las merinas ;-)

Thomas Carmona said...

My intention was not to label anything as proper, improper, typical, or atypical. The intention of the article was simply to forewarn Peace Corps Volunteers in Costa Rica of certain non-standard speech they may encounter in rural areas.

I purposely steer clear of normative statements about how educated people ought to sound. There are thousands of references out there that do that. Instead, I try to shine light on other ways that people use language, ways that you won't find in the classroom.

So, maybe I fail to separate las churras de las merinas, but I do so intentionally.

Kook said...

haiga, and la calor, were more common in the past, when almost all of costa rica was rural.

pharmacy said...

I have been in Costa Rica many times, it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world