San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Language Bits & Pieces

Some things about Spanish in Costa Rica don’t require an entire article to explain; here are three bits of miscellany to consider.

Blame It On Columbus

A trustworthy authority wrote me a letter reprimanding me for claiming in my article about “cunning cognates” that the word “hindú was used in Costa Rican Spanish to refer to a native of India (TT, July 27). She recalled a professor of hers who used to point out, “Hay indios hindúes, indios musulmanes, indios cristianos, indios jainistas, indios judíos e indios budistas” (There are Hindu Indians, Muslim Indians, Christian Indians, Jain Indians, Jewish Indians and Buddhist Indians). She is right, of course. After all, how would we feel if the Indians (from India) identified anyone from the United States as a “Protestant”?

On the other hand, what’s an average guy to do? The befuddled Columbus, thinking he had landed on the other side of the world, labeled the natives “indios” and messed it up for most languages. For a very long time, we “Americans” – yet another misnomer – used the at-that-time acceptable word “Indian” to refer to those whom we now call “Native Americans.” Moreover, nowadays, if someone uses the word “Indian” to refer to a native of India, he is likely to be misunderstood and accused of being politically incorrect.

To add insult to injury, the word “indio used to have – and unfortunately still does in some places – a negative meaning in Costa Rica. Perhaps the Ticos just got fed up and decided to avoid the dreaded word “indio” altogether and call American Indians “indígenas” and Indians (from India) “hindúes,” only, alas, to fall into yet another faux pas.

If so, I don’t think they have largely noticed their blunder. They still call all Asians “chinos” with equanimity. Only Asians? Not a chance. They call anyone with, you know, slanted eyes “chino/a.” As I have pointed out more than once, the verb “chinear” (to pamper) comes from the slant-eyed (indígenas) nursemaids who cared so tenderly for their “white” charges. It is my impression that Costa Ricans don’t generally dwell on political correctness. Aside from the economically based Tico-Nica conflict, they are not, for the most part, prejudiced. When all is said and done, this is a culture in which people can refer to a, uh, queen-size woman as “gorda” not only without it being an insult, but considering it downright affectionate.

Singular or Plural?

Almost everyone is familiar with the instances in which Spanish uses a plural when it seems that a singular is required. Indeed, we use these expressions – “Buenos días,” “Buenas tardes,” “Buenas noches” – all the time. Many people are not familiar, however, with the instances in which a singular is used when it seems that a plural is required. Often (but not always), when Costa Ricans are speaking of a quantity of items, be they tomatoes, children or problems, they use a singular, rather than a plural:

Voy a comprar tomate, limón y vainica (I am going to buy tomatoes, limes and green beans).

Todo niño paga (All children pay).

Tenemos que lidiar con tanto problema (We have put up with so many problems).

I have tried and failed miserably to find a rule for this. The best I can say is that sometimes it sounds all right and sometimes it doesn’t. Don’t worry about it. It is always correct, if not colloquial, to go ahead and use the plural in these cases.

Past or Present?

Think for a moment about this. Is “almost” a past or present concept? Since an action that almost happens really hasn’t happened, it is essentially a nonexistent condition. For us English speakers, it’s present if the nonexistence of the condition is still ongoing, as in “I almost believe you.” It’s past if the nonexistent condition no longer applies, as in “I almost fell.” This seems logical to us, but for a Spanish speaker, “casi” (almost) is by and large a present nonexistent condition:

Casi me caigo (I almost fell).

Casi te creo (I almost believe you).

Not to get too metaphysical about it, but, really, who’s to say just where a nonexistent condition belongs in time?

Acabar de” is a similar case. It means “to have just”; that is, it is an entire verb in Spanish. In English, in contrast, we use the adverb “just” combined with the indicated verb in English – a verb that by definition is always conjugated in the past: “Ramón just left.”

Spanish, however, considers “having just” as an ongoing state of being in and of itself, and it is therefore almost always in the present tense: “Ramón acaba de salir.

There is only one exception. When acabar de is used in the past (always in the imperfect tense), it expresses an action in the past before another action in the past, as in “Llegué a las 2 y supe que Ramón acababa de salir” (“I arrived at 2 and found out Ramón had just left”).

Which reminds me: It’s time for me to leave as well, but look for some other articles with bits and pieces about Spanish in Costa Rica.

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