San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

English Words Receive Odd Twists in Spanish

The great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío wrote:

¿Seremos entregados a los bárbaros fieros?

¿Tantos millones de hombres hablaremos inglés?

¿Ya no hay nobles hidalgos ni bravos caballeros?

¿Calleremos ahora para llorar después?

(Will we be turned over to the fierce barbarians? | Will so many millions of men like us speak English? | Are there no more noblemen nor brave knights? | Will we remain quiet now in order to cry later?)

Darío, of course, was lamenting more than English words that have sneaked into Spanish. Nevertheless, linguists and patriots throughout the world have lamented the contamination of their languages by English.

The truth is that all languages incorporate foreign words into their vocabularies. There are hundreds of foreign words in English. Would you prefer a cappuccino or a latte? Are you an amateur golfer? Is your son in kindergarten yet?

Politics aside, it is interesting to observe the strange, amusing and sometimes confabulating changes that words make when they become incorporated into another language.

Here are some things that Spanish speakers, especially Ticos, have done to English.

It’s very common for them to use only part of an English expression. Paint thinner, for example, is simply called “thinner” in Spanish. But since Hispanics are confounded by the “th” pronunciation, they pronounce it as “sinner”.

By the same token, a sleeping bag is simply called an “esliping,” pronounced “eh-sleeping,” a paper clip is called a “clip” (pronounced“cleep”), electrical tape is called “taip” and a supermarket is called a “super.” In order, however, to distinguish a small grocery store with open shelves from a pulpería, which has everything behind the counter, the Costa Ricans came up with the silly oxymoron, “mini super”.

Then, there is the word for “tuxedo,” which is “esmoquin” (i.e. “smoking”).

I can only surmise that this comes from the term “smoking jacket,” though I am not at all sure just what a smoking jacket is.

Some words are spelled the same or nearly the same in Spanish as they are in English, but are pronounced differently. Some common changes that Spanish speakers make are to use their own vowel system (ah eh ee oh ou), interchange “b” and “v,” add an “e” in front of “s” plus consonant, and fail to pronounce final consonants and “h”s.

Take “cable,” pronounced “cab-lay,” and “radio,” pronounced “rad-ee-oh,” and “televisión,” pronounced “tell-eh-bees-ee-own.” “Corn flakes” is pronounced the same but with the stress on “flakes.”However, it seems to refer to any kind of breakfast cereal. The huge trucks we call “semis” because they are really half (semi) trucks pulling trailers are, rather logically, called “trailer” (try-lair) here. The word for “hotel,” coming from the French word “hôtel,” is spelled the same but pronounced, of course, without the “h”. Beware, however, of the word “motel”; in Costa Rican Spanish, a motel is a drive-in hotel for illicit sex.

Some words are nearly like English, but spelled and/or stressed differently. Take the words for “baby,” “bebé” (beh-beh); “cake,” “queque” (kehkeh); “donut,” “dona” (doe-nah); “football,” “fútbol” (foot-bowl – that which we call soccer); and “beefsteak,” “bistek” (bee-stek). Some Ticos say “picsa” instead of “pizza,” surely because the English “z” sound does not exist in Spanish.

Two of my favorite near-hits are the words for “backhoe” and “home run.” A backhoe is a “bajop,” pronounced “bah-hope,” though for the life of me, I can’t understand where the “p” came from. A home run is a “jonrón,” pronounced “hone-roan.”

Then, of course, there is the confusion about the pronunciation of brand names. A Tica acquaintance once asked a Gringo friend of mine to pick up some “doe-bay” soap for her at the grocery store. “All the stores carry it,” she told him. He looked and looked and came back confused and empty-handed. What she wanted was, of course, Dove.

Here are some others: Gerber is “hairbear,” Dodge is “doe-heh,” Ford is “for,” Budweiser is “budu-ay-sair,” and Lovable, a lingerie manufacturer, is “low-bah-bleh.” In a TV advertisement for “Sewing Wonder,” spelled in English, the announcer pronounces it “suing wonder.” Ironically, one of the few brand names that we pronounce exactly as it would be in Spanish, “Sony,” is pronounced “sunny” in a Tico advertisement.

Some strange things also happen with proper names that come from English. The name “John,” for instance, is inevitably spelled “Jhon” here. Costa Ricans who try to write my name usually write “Keit,” but sometimes write “Keith” instead. Likewise, names like “Wilbur” and “Gilbert” become “Wilberth” and “Gilberth.” This tendency to add the “h” after a “t” is especially strange given that the “h” is not pronounced in Spanish, and the “th” that we find in English words such as “theater” is one of the greatest stumbling blocks for Spanish speakers pronouncing English. Perhaps they are fascinated with it exactly for this reason.

Well, these are only a few examples of what can happen when English sticks its nose into Spanish.

Many of you out there may have other examples of Spanish words in English or English words in Spanish. Send them to me, and we’ll compile a master list.

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