Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Vos commands in Costa Rica

As I mentioned in a recent post, Costa Ricans use the same vos form as in other parts of Central America and in South America (most notably Argentina, but excluding the vos form in Chile).

I also gave a quick introduction to vos conjugations in the present tense, but I left out the imperative form. There's an easy way to fix this, because it's really quite simple.

For the verb hablar simply cut off the 'r' at the end. What you get is hablá, with the emphasis on the last syllable. If you read my last post on the voseo you'll note that this is simply the indicative form in the present tense without the 's' at the end.

When you're walking around downtown San José you'll notice that many advertisements will use vos commands. "Entrá y ahorrá", a store might say to entice you. "Jugá y ganá", might be a sales pitch to the foolhardy lottery player. (No offense to lottery players.)

Vos commands work the same for reflexive verbs, except that there's a spelling change when only one pronoun is attached to the end. For example, to tell someone to sit down you might say sentate, with the accent in its "natural" penultimate position, eliminating the need for the tilde. The same applies for commands with direct or indirect pronouns attached, provided there's only one. (When there are two pronouns attached the tilde will always show up, as the tonic syllable always requires a written accent mark when it is the thir-to-last--or antepenultimate--within the word.)

Let me know if you have any questions. As promised, I will soon address the issues of irregular vos forms and the history of the vos pronoun.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Word of the Day: Ocupar

Ocupar, which means 'to occupy' in Spanish, also means 'to need' in Costa Rica. This is perhaps one of Costa Rica's strangest words. Since it's used in this way so often, I recommend shying away from the word ocupar to mean 'to occupy' because it will likely confuse the locals. You should use more general verbs like 'estar' instead.

To illustrate the potential confusion with this word, I was at an internet café and I asked the guy where the bathroom was, to which he asked me "ocupa el servicio"? I responded somewhat facetiously, "no, pero quiero ocuparlo pronto". He then said, "entonces, no ocupa el servicio", to which I responded "no, todavía no ocupo el servicio, pero, sí, tengo que usarlo". He then understood my urgency, but I don't think he ever understood why we had those awkward moments.

All of this just to go to the bathroom. Be mindful of this word!

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”.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Word of the Day: Voseo

OK, most Costa Ricans don't actually use the word voseo--which is the use of the 'vos' as a second person singular pronoun--but el voseo is something that trips up many a foreigner, so I feel obligated to write about it now and then.

Regarding the use of vos is Costa Rica, one must keep a few important things in mind:

  • Vos is a perfect substitute for the pronouns , and Ud. that are taught in Spanish classes in North America (as well as in Latin American classrooms).
  • Ud. and vos predominate in everyday spoken language. While Costa Ricans know the pronoun , it is mostly relegated to two specific (but important) uses--speaking to God and speaking to a lover. (Bibles refer to God as .)
  • Ud. and vos are for the most part interchangeable, except that in most formal situations you will want to use Ud. My advice to travelers in Costa Rica is to use Ud. at all times, which tends to be a practice of many Costa Ricans, anyway.
  • Vos has its own verb forms in the present tense, but it uses the forms in the past and future tenses.
Regular vos conjugations are as follows:

  • tocar (to touch) --> vos tocás
  • comer (to eat) --> vos comés
  • decir (to say, to tell) --> vos decís
As you can see, it is simply a matter of replacing the 'r' with an 's'. As a matter of orthography you will also add a tilde to the last syllable, but that is simply because of a spelling rule.

It's also helpful to look at it as a cousin to the vosotros form, which it pretty much is. To make vosotros singular, forming the vos form, you simply do the following for -ar, -er, -ir verbs:

  • tocáis --> tocás
  • coméis --> comés
  • decéis --> decís
As you can see, the -ar and -er verbs take out the 'i' and the -ir verb takes out the 'e'.

This short lesson will be just about all you'll need to know about voseo in Costa Rica--or just about anywhere else on earth except for Chile. However, for those of you who would like to know about irregular vos forms and the history of the pronoun in both Spain and the New World, I will soon create a post on those issues.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Word of the Day: "hoy en ocho"

This put me through a loop during my first few months in Costa Rica. Whenever I wanted to schedule a meeting for a week from whatever day it was, I'd say "reunámosnos el próximo lunes ". Essentially, when it was Monday I would say "let's meet next Monday". To further clarify I would sometimes say "de hoy en siete días".

Then I watched the earth burst into flames right before me.

Costa Ricans will almost always project a week into the future by saying "de hoy en ocho". When I said "from today in seven days" they thought I was confused because I should have in fact said 'eight'. Apparently I was confused, because to me counting a full week into the future is counting the lapse of seven full days--not eight.

However, Costa Ricans will count the current day in their tally. If it's Tuesday and you want to meet the following Tuesday, you need to tell a Costa Rican "de hoy en ocho". Then, if you want to meet not the following Tuesday but the one after that, you have to say (hold on to your hat) "de hoy en quince".

Yeah, I know, fifteen is neither a multiple of seven nor eight. What Costa Ricans do is count the current day in their calculation for the first week. Then, the last day in that first week is counted, but it won't be counted a second time for the second week tally.

For example, if it's the first of the month your first full week ends on the eighth. That's eight full days, counting the first. Then, your second full week ends on the fifteenth, but for that week you're only counting days 9-15--seven days in total--because you have already counted the eighth day in your first week.

So, when projecting future engagements the first week is always eight days, and then each subseqeuent week adds another seven days. This might seem kind of counter-intuitive to you, but the system works quite well once you get it down.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Costa Rican Spanish Word of the Day: Tepezcuintle

The tepezcuintle ('paca' in English) is a large endangered rodent native to Costa Rica. When you travel to Costa Rica you won't likely see one, not only because it's endangered but also because it's quite shy and only lives deep in the countryside.

Unfortunately, hunting tepezcuintles and keeping them captive is still deeply rooted in local culture. People will hunt them for their food or trap them to breed them in captivity. To do any of this without a permit is highly illegal and carries considerable jail time. Still, people do it. Regardless of this activity, though, humans are encroaching on the natural habitat of the tepezcuintle--and other animals--making its long-term outlook rather bleak.

In rural areas of Costa Rica I have most often heard this animal's name pronounced as if it were spelled tepezcuinte (without the 'l' as the penultimate letter).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Measuring Land in Costa Rica

Land in Costa Rica is most often sold by the square meter, which is about 10.76 square feet. For larger plots of land, other units of measure become necessary. For example, rural land is usually referred to in hectáreas (hectares) or manzanas

A hectare measures 10,000 square meters.

A manzana measures 7,000 square meters.

Many Costa Ricans will also have a good idea of what an acre is, giving it an approximate 4,000 square meters--which is quite close to the more accurate 4,046 square meters. 

An approximation that seems a little more perplexing is the approximation of the lenght of a city block as 100 meters, which would make the total area of a city block a full hectare (100 X 100 = 10,000). However, the original idea behind the the manzana as a unit of measure was that it approximated the area of a city block. While this strange approximation does not create any functional problems because it is so widely accepted, it is nonetheless interesting for those of us interested in etymology. 

Another interesting approximation that Costa Ricans make is for the gallon, which is often assumed to be four liters. This gallon measurement comes somwehere between the 3.79 liters used in the United States and the 4.54 liters for the imperial gallon. 

Although I am stressing these approximations, it's important to point out that they're quite accurate. I would actually say that Costa Ricans generally have a better grasp on units of measure and their conversions than most people in the US. Costa Ricans--on average--have to economize on a daily basis. Costa Ricans are constantly calculating per-unit prices to stretch out their money as much as possible--in ways that most Americans are only now learning how to do. 

Word of the Day: Matricidio

Matricidio, slang for matrimonio (matrimony, marriage), playfully and melodramatically points out that your life ends once you get married.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Word of the Day: Guaro

Guaro is Costa Rican Spanish for a cane alcohol that's quite popular in the country. Cacique is the national brand and can be found at any local pulpería (rural general store) or supermarket. It is a relatively weak 70 proof and goes down smoothly without a very noticeable taste. In other Spanish-speaking countries similar products are called aguardiente. It is also very similar to the Brazilian cachaça that goes into its famous caipirinha drinks.

Guaro can also be synonymous with alcohol. 'Tomar guaro' as an expression usually implies drinking alcohol, regardless of the variety. Since my name is Tomás, many Costa Ricans would jokingly ask me "Tomás guaro"? Brilliant.