We had a rather wildeyed taxi driver take us to the bus terminal in Bogota. He was from the country all right, and had a way of hollering hoarsely whenever he wanted to speak which was often. They like to drop letters out of words, in Colombia, though it is generally practiced around the Caribbean, from what I can tell. Spanish is a language with shorter vowel sounds, which is what makes it sound so rapid, I suppose. It goes quickly enough, but not quickly enough for some, and in various parts of the world various inconvenient sounds are neglected or changed. In the Caribbean coast and islands, for example, the letter S receives some unusual treatment, not being recognizably pronounced as an S in many instances, if pronounced at all. The Spaniards have their own way of lisping some sibilants, though they have a way of preserving locutions that strike my ear as wildly archaic (as if they were to use thees and thous and forasmuches and we beseeches in English, though that is not strictly a parallel comparison, but more of a suggestion). In Colombia it is plosives that suffer, though they suffer elsewhere, notably in the Caribbean where the attitude toward all things is pretty casual.
So the common preposition ‘of’ = ‘de,’ is often no more than an E when it happens between destinations or sometimes between other obliging plosives. The Spanish R in many ways resembles a Spanish D and it is often treated the same way, resulting in the curious expression, “Paondevas?” instead of “Para donde vas?” It is a common tactic of the unlearned to drop the last ‘ra’ in Para in many places, however, and not just the unlearned, so that ‘pa’ for the preposition ‘for’ or ‘to’ is practically a common word. One of the ways to take a Spanish speaker by surprise, when said Spanish speaker is not expecting fluent Spanish from you, is to subtly begin dropping letters that way. Not egregiously, mind, because it is just too much of an incongruity, like speaking Spanish with a really sing-song lilt the way the ranchero hicks in Mexico do, which is also worth doing from time to time.
In the case of the taxi driver, he had the habit of substituting Js (which in Spanish, you must remember, are a kind of velar fricative) for his Fs (which in no way resemble velar fricatives, being your usual labiodental fricative even in Spanish). “Ya se jue pa’ya,” you see, will mark you as a country bumpkin. Its allure is that it moves more fluidly and quickly and the result is not at all indistinct, and a remarkably economical way of saying “Ya se fue para aya,” which is perhaps why it appeals to the poor.
‘Mano,’ they call each other, instead of ‘Hermano,’ or ‘mana,’ in the feminine. In Mexico they use the word ‘Büey’ corrupted into ‘Güey,’ but it is considered vulgar and impolite and a sort of mild form of swearing (at which no Spanish speaking nation that I know of outdoes the Mexicans) which common people (male, of course) use to address each other regularly, whereas in Colombia ‘mano’ is not at all discouraged and another taxi driver went so far as to call me ‘mano.’ “No mano, esque por ahi ay una manifestacion y no hay paso.” (‘Buey’ is a gelded bull, or an ox, and I believe it comes from the bullfighting world, hence the onus, though I merely speculate. It reminds me that once when at some place of public bathing in thermal waters I answered my little brother who was about five or six, saying “No way!” and one of the Mexican women heard “No, güey!” and said, “Ay, le dijo ‘güey’ al güerito [small, fair person]!” to which her sapient husband replied, “No, le dijo que de ninguna manera,” which was funny but also lets you know not to overpronounce that Spanish G, but let it flow like an English W with a little bit more emphasis. One of the ways English speakers give themselves away is by overpronouncing the consonants, besides lengthening all their vowels—when attempting Spanish, that is.)
It struck me from the moment I heard the ‘Chao’s (soft ch, remember, not a sound like a K) in the airport that I would need to adjust my Mexicanized spanish. ‘Arto,’ they say instead of ‘mucho’ or ‘bastante.’ “A si, hay arto y tienen artas tiendas.” Orale pues, I think, and realize they don’t use ‘orale, ande, andale, camara’—admittedly cheesy, that last, and usually followed by the monotonous ‘güey.’ I received blank looks when making the query “Mande?” I found it an incredibly difficult habit to break and only near the end succeeded in producing the requisite ‘Que?’ To seem more authentic you can stutter it as the Colombians often do, ‘Queque?’ and that last is helpful when expressing incredulity, but you have to do is slower than you would for a mere interrogative ‘What?’
In Colombia they don’t much use the word ‘dinero’ commonly, resorting to the word for silver almost exclusively: ‘plata.’ “Deme toda su plata o le pego un tiro!” “Listo!” which means ‘ok’ or ‘certainly,’ or ‘I understand,’ or many other forms of assent and compliance besides the dictionary entry, ‘ready.’ In Mexico when you are invited to enter they say ‘pase,’ but in Colombia they say ‘siga’ and they say ‘siga’ for everything. The DAS at customs kept saying it to get people to move up to the next available booth, you hear it when you darken the door of a restaurant, when you enter any establishment where your wallet might be welcome, or are welcomed to somebodies house.
In Mexico it would be extremely vulgar to use the verb ‘coger’ but in Colombia that is how you get the bus and anything else you might want to grab. In Mexico you might run into trouble if you say or get offended if somebody abruptly says ‘tranquilo’ and makes a motion with a flattened hand. In Colombia it is supposed to be reassuring: “I’ll take care of it,” or “I’ll take care of you,” and it means ‘be calm’ or ‘calm down,’ which you can see they might take badly in Mexico.
Few Mexicans would recognize the word ‘gaseosa’ or the even more esoteric ‘ducha,’ but if you want soda or a shower in Colombia, that’s what you’re going to have to say. If you want some strong, black coffee say ‘un tinto,’ and if you want to be polite in Boyaca say ‘su merced,’ or as our neglected taxi driver might have put it, though he was from the wrong department to do it, ‘sumerce.’ Where the custom of speaking in politeness to others—equals, superiors, though perhaps not inferiors—as ‘your mercy’ came from is one of the things it would be interesting to find out.
The biggest change for me was to hear everybody in Boyaca using the familiar pronoun ‘tu.’ It is like theeing and thouing in English, I suppose—and not what I mean when I say the Spaniards speak in a way that seems wildly archaic “Os ruego que os sentais”–type stuff—and it wasn’t commonly done there when I was growing up. We called it ‘tutetiando’ and considered it effete.
Como cambian los tiempos, Venancio! Que te parece? Es la influencia de la tele.
I am happy to say that I did not once say, ‘Gracias, eh’ but instead managed a few ‘muy amable’s, though I did not bring myself to greet with the mere ‘Buenas,’ or the even more idiomatic, cheery ‘buenas, buenas,’ or to utter the downright locally idiosyncratic ‘juimonos, mano!’ to my brother the other taxi driver.
“No son vainas, mano.”
“Tranquilo. Cinco minuticos.” [not as you might expect, ‘minutitos,’ and it has nothing at all to do with a mere five minutes but more like half an hour and always involves the obligatory glance at the wrist whether it has a watch or not]