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, 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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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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