October 15th, 2010

The Confusing Homonym

An interesting homonym puzzle has emerged during the Sleep Inn’s celebration of the revamping of Paseo de los Damas, the street that runs directly behind the hotel. This historic street has been known primarily as Avenida Tercera (Third Avenue), but city planners recently decided to revive its centuries-old name when they widened the street, restored its granite sidewalks and planted more overhanging trees.

The confusion stems from the fact that the word “dama” is a homonym. Spanish speakers are familiar with the noun “dama,” which means “lady.” A “Damas” sign usually hangs outside women’s bathrooms in Costa Rica, and ladies and gentlemen are formally called “damas y caballeros.” This type of “dama” is, of course, feminine, and the noun takes the feminine article “la” (”la dama”).

Many people have assumed that Paseo de los Damas refers to the gentlewomen who once strolled along the historic road. The street name seems to conjure images of parasol-twirling ladies tripping along the shady streets in their finery.

Oddly, though, the street name does not refer to women at all. The word “dama” is masculine, as its preceding article indicates (”el dama”). The dama is a flowering tree found all over Costa Rica, and this tree now lines the famous avenue. The street that many assume to have been named after its elegant female users was actually named in honor of the trees that dip overhead in the breeze.

Although the article before the noun indicates that those ladies are not the ones being remembered along the charming new street, the connotation of those elegant women of long ago is so pleasant that we at the Sleep Inn approve of the homonym confusion and the charming images it creates.

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February 15th, 2010

Paco y Lola

With the February 2010 election of Laura Chinchilla as Costa Rica’s first woman president, Costa Ricans have naturally
begun to consider the changing role of women in Costa Rican politics and in Costa Rican society. Just as women’s roles have changed and expanded all over the world, the role of the Costa Rican woman has shifted with the times. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the well-known primer, Paco y Lola, which almost every Costa Rican child used to learn to read.

Just like Dick and Jane, Paco y Lola, first written and edited in 1958 by Emma Gamboa and Ondina Peraza, focuses on the daily activities of a nuclear family, teaching children how to read the names of objects and activities they might encounter on an ordinary day. Paco y Lola reflects the social attitudes of its time. In one section of the book, the father reads (”Papá lee.”), while the mother toils away in the kitchen, kneading a mound of “masa” to make tortillas (”Mamá amasa la masa.”). Paco and Lola each take part in fairly typical gender-prescribed activities, and the book reflects the typical values–and 1950s furnishings–of the mid-century Costa Rican family and home.

Despite what many have described as sexism–or outright “machismo”–in the first edition of Paco y Lola, the book functions very well as a Spanish reading primer. Its authors have a clear appreciation for the joys of pronunciation and language and a great sense of alliteration and word play. The authors make reading both entertaining and fairly effortless for their young readers.

Spanish vowel pronunciation has less variation than vowel pronunciation in English, and the authors make the most of repetition in teaching readers how to recognize and pronounce vowels. (In “Mamá amasa la masa,” for example, readers get a good sense of the short Spanish “a” and the opportunity to pronounce it in accented and unaccented syllables.) Once young readers have mastered the vowel sounds, they can take on any number of longer and more complex word and sentence constructions. The book rewards the persistent with a great deal of vocabulary and interesting lessons about Costa Rican activities and animals. Paco y Lola also provides painless lessons in the use of the accent mark, or “tilde,” whose rules students will later memorize in school.

Post-1958 editions of Paco y Lola have strived to eliminate the gender inequalities of the first edition, and readers of the newer version can now see a truer reflection of Costa Rica’s increasing gender equality. In either its original or its updated form, however, Paco y Lola is an entertaining and effective Spanish language-learning tool.

Order a copy of Paco y Lola.

Learn more about verbs in Spanish.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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February 15th, 2009

Spanish Lessons: Easy Questions

English speakers who learn Spanish often seem to have trouble with two particular types of questions—1. those that ask for some sort of permission (“Can I park here?”) and 2. those that ask about availability (“Do you serve rice?”) In English, these questions can involve relatively complicated constructions, because each requires conjugating verbs, and the first requires the use of a verb like “can” or “could.” English speakers often tend to assume that the Spanish equivalents of these questions are equally complicated, and they tangle themselves up in needless conjugations. For each of these two types of questions, there are relatively simple Spanish equivalents that use only the infinitive, in one case, and that are easy to apply in most situations.

The first type of question is the kind requesting permission: “Can I order now?”; “Can I see the green one?”; “Can we go there?” Many English speakers translate this type of question literally, beginning with the Spanish equivalent of “Is it possible…?” Thus, they begin, “¿Es posible…?” Although technically correct, this question is not a construction most Costa Ricans use, and it tends to make the speaker sound more like a foreigner than necessary. In addition, a question that begins with “¿Es posible…?” tends to be needlessly wordy and potentially convoluted. Instead, a good alternative is the use of the verb “poder,” which translates as “can” or “to be able to.” The speaker can, thus, begin with “¿Puedo…?” (“Can I…?”); “¿Puede…?” (“Can you…?”); or “¿Podemos…?” (“Can we…?”). Then, the next word is the infinitive of the verb in question: “¿Puedo ordenar…?” (“Can I order…?”); “¿Puedo ver…?” (“Can I see…?”); or “¿Podemos ir…?” (“Can we go…?”). Not only is this construction what a typical Costa Rican would say, but it is also far simpler to use. The speaker need only remember “Puedo,” “Puede” or “Podemos” and then add an infinitive. For fancier constructions, of course, the speaker can add other words to the sentence: “¿Puedo ordenar ahora?” (“Can I order now?”); “¿Puedo ver el verde?” (“Can I see the green one?”); “¿Podemos ir allá?” (“Can we go there?”).

The other type of question—the one about availability—is even easier to ask in Spanish. It involves the use of “Hay,” in which the “h” is silent, and then the noun in question. Thus, a question like “Do you serve rice?” can become “¿Hay arroz?”, which translates literally as, “Is there rice?” This question makes perfect sense when asked in a restaurant setting. It also works in a store, like when a customer is searching for something in particular: “¿Hay pastel?” (“Is there cake?”/ “Do you sell cake?”); “¿Hay otro?” (“Is there another?”/ “Do you have another?”). A question beginning with “Hay” works best in a particular context, where the existence of something is limited to a particular place (in a restaurant, at a store, standing in front of a vendor’s stall), but it is a good alternative to more cumbersome constructions that would involve conjugating verbs (“Do you sell…?”; “Do you serve…?”).

Visitors tend to ask these types of questions regularly, and it is reassuring to know that these questions need not be as complex as they seem at first.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 6th, 2009

A Useful Gesture

For those learning a new language, vocabulary is a constant challenge. Language students often struggle with word lists, memorization and many unfamiliar terms. There is, however, one relatively simple, but undeniably important, part of language-learning—the use of gestures. As many language students know, one gesture can take the place of several words, encapsulating an idea through motion. In Costa Rica, there is one particular gesture—a vague arm wave—that visitors might find particularly useful.

The gesture is very simple—just an extended wave. The person making the gesture moves an arm upward from the side of the body, so that the hand ends up level with the ear on that same side of the body. The fingers point downward until the last part of the gesture, when they move up in a sort of a hand wave. The gesture is fluid and graceful. People usually accompany the gesture with a wailing sort of a “Whoooo” sound.

This gesture is an integral part of Costa Rican conversation, because it serves many important purposes. In general, it indicates a quantity, distance, number or idea so vast and imponderable that it is almost beyond human understanding.

For example, a driver who has become lost on a country road might pull over and ask a passerby, “Is this the road to the Irazú volcano?” In order to indicate how immeasurably far the driver is from her hoped-for destination, the passerby might make the gesture and say, “Whoooo. You’re nowhere near Irazú.” More specific directions might follow, but the passerby has graphically illustrated the extent to which the driver is lost.

Or you might ask someone how long he has held a certain job. In order to indicate the vast expanse of time he has been employed in this particular place, the person might gesture and say, “Whoooo. I’ve been here for years and years.” The gesture indicates that the years are far too numerous to count or even to contemplate.

Costa Ricans use this gesture for other imponderables as well. It would be an appropriate response to a question like, “Does you wife like soup?” In such a case, it would indicate that the wife’s love of soup is so immense as to be beyond the bounds of human understanding. The gesture would also serve to illustrate an event so well-established that it no longer requires consideration. The gesture in response to “Was that building demolished?” would indicate the immutable fact of the demolition. It would also be an appropriate response to “How many dogs does she own?”; “Is the Coca-Cola factory still here?”; “Did the man ever come back to pay his fine?”; or “How long have you known Fernando?”

The gesture has a subtle complexity, in that it simultaneously indicates both certainty and uncertainty. The building has been demolished, the driver definitively lost, the Coca-Cola factory long gone and the wife clearly enamored of soup. However, the extent to which each of these facts can be understood is imponderable in itself—infinite and forever beyond the grasp of human knowing.

The gesture is eloquent and powerful. Visitors to the country might consider adding it to their conversational repertoires.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 17th, 2008

Pura Vida

The expression “pura vida” is a favorite among authors of guide books to Costa Rica. These authors—often newcomers or visitors to Costa Rica—claim that the expression, literally translated as “pure life,” perfectly embodies the Costa Rican love of purity, nature and of life itself. Costa Ricans, these authors argue, have such an ingrained love of life that it trickles down into even their slang expressions. While Costa Ricans really do embrace life joyfully, this guide-book interpretation of “pura vida” is not entirely accurate. Just as widespread American use of the term “cool” does not mean an ingrained love of low temperatures, Costa Rican use of the term “pura vida” does not, in itself, encapsulate the whole Costa Rican philosophy of life.

Despite what the guide books say, “pura vida” is not an expression on the lips of every Costa Rican. Many Americans could go a whole lifetime without uttering expressions like “rock on” or “totally awesome,” and most Costa Ricans do not use “pura vida” as often as the guide books would have us believe. In fact, the term emerged about twenty-five years ago, mostly among young urban males, as part of a whole set of slick expressions they used to describe their activities. Before it was seized upon by the guide books, “pura vida” had as clear a demographic association as terms like “grody to the max” or “radical, dude.” It was a term reserved for only a specific young population.

Even when it first emerged, the expression probably did not indicate a deeply felt philosophical conviction. Its users were no more enamored of the purity of life than are most other twenty-somethings all across the world. Instead, the expression was just a colorful new way to comment positively, as “the bee’s knees” was long ago.

Interestingly, the guide books have probably breathed a life into the expression it never would have had otherwise. Like all slang, the expression probably would have all but disappeared as its users grew and adopted other expressions. Now, however, visitors to Costa Rica often buy “pura vida” merchandise, because the expression seems so life-affirming and positive. Vendors sell hundreds of t-shirts, hats and flags emblazoned with the expression, which now boasts an economically fueled existence. “Pura vida”’s current meaning is one it never had among its original users.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 8th, 2008

Pronouncing “r”s

One of the most difficult consonants for new speakers of Spanish is the letter “r.” Many students of Spanish—especially native English speakers—believe their tongues are too straitlaced for the romantic undulation of the Latin “r.” However, English speakers may actually already have an innate sense of the pronunciation of the Spanish “r.”

As Spanish students know, there are two kinds of “r”s, the double and the single. The double “r,” made famous by a trilling Charo, is actually simpler to pronounce in Costa Rica than it is in some other Spanish-speaking countries. Costa Ricans do not dramatically roll these two “r”s the way some other Latin Americans do when they say words like “carro” or “perro.” Although all Costa Ricans are capable of creating the spectacular “r” roll, most pronounce the double “r” more modestly and conservatively.

An English speaker can approximate this modest Costa Rican double “r” by making a softened “j” sound. Simply pronounce an English “j,” but separate the tip of the tongue from the roof of the mouth to make a near-“z” sound. Then, allow the middle of the tongue to “hollow out” away from the roof of the mouth. The sound is like the whirring some children make when simulating motor or engine noises. Use this sound when saying a double “r.” With a little practice and timing, an English speaker can very closely replicate the Costa Rican double “r.”

The pronunciation of the single “r” sound, found in words like “para” or “flor,” is also within the grasp of an English speaker. To pronounce this single “r,” an English speaker should notice their tongue placement in pronouncing the English “d,” as in the word “bed.” The tip of the tongue firmly hits the roof of the mouth and stays there momentarily. By pronouncing this same “d” more lightly and quickly, and English speaker can very nearly recreate the “r” in Spanish. The sound is not a true “d,” but it begins as a “d” that quickly flicks away. Pronunciation, although slightly more difficult, is still the same in an “r” that precedes or follows another consonant, as in “Pedro” or “tarde.”

Using pronunciation skills they already have, English speakers can pronounce many Spanish words far more accurately and impressively than they might otherwise have believed.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 1st, 2008

Tricky Spanish Verbs

For those just learning to speak Spanish, lessons in verb tenses are some of the most difficult. English speakers are already familiar with the simple present tense, the past tense and the past participle, and these three are used commonly in Costa Rica. However, many new Spanish speakers are surprised by two common Costa Rican verb usages—the near-nonexistence of the future tense and the prevalence of the subjunctive.

Many people take Spanish classes in preparation for their trips to Costa Rica. They have spent months learning how to conjugate the future tense of the most common verbs and come fully equipped to discuss any future activity in Spanish. To their great surprise, Costa Ricans almost never use the future tense. They never say, “Mañana iré” or “Ella podrá.” Instead, they use words that indicate a future time, like “mañana” or “la semana que viene” and add a verb in the infinitive. The English equivalent would be to say, “Tomorrow, I go…” or “Next week, you eat…” The Costa Rican use of the future involves no conjugation at all, and speaking in the future tense in Costa Rica turns out to be far easier than foreign visitors might have imagined.

However, the Costa Rican love for the subjunctive tense seems to make up for the simplicity of the future tense. Spanish speakers use the subjunctive tense far more often than English speakers seem to do. For the most part, English speakers seem to reserve the subjunctive tense for more formal speech: “It is important that I go.” In order that we not fail,” etc. In Costa Rica, people use the subjunctive tense for indirect commands: “Tell him to put it over there;” for making requests: “one that doesn’t have coconut;” or for wishes or hypothetical situations: “I hope it’s sunny tomorrow.”

In the subjunctive case, the verb often follows the word “que.” The conjugated verb is relatively straightforward and just requires some memorization.

Visitors hoping to arrive in Costa Rica with an impressive arsenal of Spanish might do best to brush up on the subjunctive and forget about the future tense.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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