Speaking in tongues

Engl-ish                     Mexican-ish                        Cuban-ish

Tray                            Charola                                Bandeja
Bus                              Camión                                Guagua
Screwdriver                 Desarmador                        Destornillador
Washer (plumbing)      Empaque                             Zapatilla
Truck                           Troka  (Troca)                    Camión
Sidewalk                      Banqueta                             Acera
Swimming pool            Alberca                               Piscina
(To) crush                    Apachurrar                         Aplastar
Rug                              Tapete                                 Alfombra
Owl                              Tecolote                          Búho, lechuza
Turkey                          Guajolote                            Guanajo, Pavo
Say what?                     ¿Mande?                            ¿Cómo? 
Eyeglasses                    Gafas, Lentes                     Espejuelos

If you think of speaking a language as gymnastics, then bilingualism is more like wrestling, a sport more inexact and difficult to follow particularly when you are dealing with English and two variants of Spanish.

Rancho Santa Clara’s multicultural flagpole. 

Although I can converse in English and Spanish, my Spanish effectively became stunted when I came over to the United States fifty years ago at age fourteen, and went on to speak English almost exclusively from there on. Things got even more complicated when we moved to Mexico seven years ago and my Cuban-ish clashed with Mexican-ish.

The Spanish of the educated classes is understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world, transcending differences in vocabulary and colloquialisms. An educated Mexican and a Cuban–and a Chilean and a Spaniard–can all agree on autobus, aplastar, lentes and piscina and converse accordingly.

But when you drop in the local hardware store or San Miguel’s Tuesday market, you’d better keep your Mexican-ish handy if you expect to transact business quickly.

Of course, one Spanish variant is not “better” than other. It’s not like Parisians scoffing at Quebecois  French, a pretty silly exercise. (Then again, Parisians can be quite silly and self-important a lot of the time.)

In fact, Mexican-ish, with its sing-song quality spiced with Indian words, is much more pleasant to the ear than Cuban-ish, which is a faster, staccato, and often mangles individual words.

Many American friends think I have it made, being a Spanish-speaker in Mexico. But in fact I  have to learn new words every day. Just a few days ago, after reading a road sign, I learned that acotamiento means the shoulder on a highway. A dirt road in Mexico is called a camino de terracería. 

Stew’s brother may have figured out the best way to learn Spanish when he visits us: In his pocket he keeps a word list that he constantly updates and is not embarrassed to inflict his Minnesota brand of Spanish on the locals.

My informal bilingualism sometimes can be hard on the brain. A conversation about a complex topic, like science or economics, can strain my teenage-level Spanish grammar and vocabulary.

Then I slip into a sort of mental acrobatics–listening to a sentence in highfaluting Spanish, translating it, or in effect processing the concept into English in my head, and finally trying to formulate a response back in Spanish.

It can be an express route to a migraine. And my interlocutor may notice a split-second delay in my responses, like TV correspondents in Afghanistan being interviewed via Skype.

I stand in awe of professionally trained translators of the type who work at the United Nations, who dash back and forth between two language worlds, while being exquisitely careful with regard to nuance and diplomatese lest they start an international incident with a clumsy turn of phrase.

Translators of fiction are also remarkable, in how they can accurately express not only the factual details of a story but also the style, rhythm and other quirks of the author. And linguistic virtuosi like Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende, whom I have read in English and Spanish, can have plenty of quirks.

During my two weeks in Cuba I was happy to discover that my everyday Cuban-ish is pretty much intact, including some untranslatable Cuban expressions and a full complement of obscenities.

But occasionally I still got stuck if someone dove into a discussion about, say, the future of the proletarian revolution, even if it really doesn’t have any.

As I collect and digest my daily quota of new words, both in English and Spanish, I’ve noticed one needs to be careful, very careful.

Subtitles in American movies can have huge discrepancies in the translations. I almost suspect that Spanish subtitles are prepared by nuns cloistered somewhere in Mexico who feel obligated to soften the blow of purple English.

So “mother****ing something-or-other” in the subtitle comes out as maldito, or “damned,” which doesn’t quite capture the impact of the original dialogue. 

A final warning about local patois when you travel: Some words can be dangerous. Papaya is a fruit in Mexico but ask for it in Havana and the waiter may excuse himself while he goes around the block to find a young girl with lust in her eyes.

You better stick with fruta bomba until you leave the island, unless papaya is really what you are looking for.


4 thoughts on “Speaking in tongues

  1. Anonymous

    Well…despite having learned practically all of my Spanish either in Mexico or from Mexicans in the USA, I now find that I speak more Cuban-ish than Mexican-ish. LOL. Frankly, I can't even understand Cubans. LOLThat said, some of your Cuban-ish words I've never heard like guagua and espejuelos. Maybe Defeños and Cubans tend to speak a more educated, e.g., standard, Spanish than what you hear in SMA? Certainly my university-type friends in DF look down their noses at barbarismos like “troca.” If I said something like, “Aparca la troca por allá,” I'd probably get slapped. Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhere sometimes English has a surprisingly wide variety too. Take tonic and grinders. That'd be soda and a sub elsewhere.


  2. Here, mis vecinos del rancho say things like, “Acá viene el agua.” for “Here comes the rain.” “Rayos de luz.” for “relámpagos.”. And, “La troca está rompida y no sirve.” There are more. Also it seems like the favored farewell salutation is “Ándale, pues.”Saludos, Don CuevasÁndale, pues.


  3. Don: “Andale, pues” is my favorite Mexican expression, along with “¡Orale!” or “¡Hijole!Now tell the truth: Is there really a place called “Medio de nada”? What kind of a town is that?al


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