May 27th, 2011

A “Little” Country

Visitors to Costa Rica often wonder why the Costa Ricans are called “Ticos.” The name “Tico” comes from a charming peculiarity of Costa Rican speech–the frequent use of the diminutive. “Tico” is a word ending that suggests “littleness.”

Several suffixes indicate smallness when attached to the end of a Spanish word. These suffixes include “-ita,” “-ito.” For example, a dog (”perro”) that it small might be called a “perrito.” Or a girl (”niña) who is small might be called a “niñita.”

But Costa Ricans often take this notion of smallness one step further, doubling the suffix. When this doubling happens, a “t” often appears before the final suffix, rendering it “-tico,” the famous nickname for a Costa Rican. Interestingly, this phenomenon happens with the word “chico,” one of whose meanings is “small.” In the diminutive, the word is “chiquito.” To indicate something really small, someone might use the word “chiquitico,” with the “-tico” suffix.

“Poco” is the word for “a bit,” so “a little bit of water” would be “un poco de agua.” A Costa Rican would typically use “poco” in a diminutive form–”poquito”–”a little bit.” But most Costa Ricans would further miniaturize the concept to “poquitito” or “poquitico.” Thus, a Costa Rican who wants a drink would commonly ask for “un poquitico de agua,” using the “-tico” ending.

Costa Ricans all generally have very cheerful dispositions, and their use of the diminutive illustrates this national tendency to be cheerful and pleasant. Something small is generally considered something inoffensive or even attractive, and the smaller the better.

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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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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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