From Alabama to Colombia: Cunning Linguist

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Mark it down.

Today I gave directions. In Spanish.

It’s a start.

For weeks now, I’ve walked through Bogota feeling deaf. Oh, I hear just fine. I just don’t understand the babble around me. I lip-read mouths and tongues, doing my best to decipher the strange noises. Some of it sounds suspiciously like words I know in English.

Carro? I know that word! (At least I think I do.) Is it car? It is?

Papa? Yes! That means … your dad! (Well … no, fool. It means potato.)

Imagine my simple excitement, then, when a stranger approached late in the afternoon along the sidewalk of my little calle. He asked me, in so many Spanish words, if I knew the way to the MetroLinea bus station.

I actually understood him. Well, I understood his question, I mean.

He physically looked like a person difficult to understand. I think it was the little silver wedge of beard and the gold glasses he wore, like a professor. Yes, he looked like a philosophy professor … carrying a cabbage. He carried a cabbage so big it took both hands.

Anyhow, mark it down. For the very first time since moving to Bogota in late January, I understood a question in Spanish asked by a stranger. It delighted me. Calloo! Callay, o frabjous day!, to quote that foreign language Lewis Carroll invented in “Jabberwocky.”

So I answered the professor’s question. And this is what I said, only in Spanish:

Yes, the bus station is near. Go down this street to the end. Turn left. From there, it’s a two-month walk. More or less.

The professor stared at me strangely. His cabbage was stoic.

I tried to fix my mistake. It’s about a two-block walk, I said. More or less.

Then I took off running.

To learn

a language means to learn humility.

Any language learner in a new country will walk around for a long time as a sort of village idiot. People will look at their shoes and be very quiet after you say some things. You will blink and look poleaxed when someone speaks to you.

The gaffe with Professor Cabbage ranks alongside one I made a few years back on vacation in Costa Rica.

I walked past five burly day laborers in a ditch. They suspiciously put down their shovels and eyed the vacationing gringo with the hangover. I cheerfully greeted them: Buenos dias, amigas!

I realized, too late, what I’d said: Good morning, girlfriends!

The men in the ditch looked at their ditch-mates with new interest: Is he talking to you, Alejandro? He sure as heck ain’t talking to me …

I vamoosed long before they could fling dirt at me with their shovels.

Among the most critical lessons blunt-trauma-ed into me as I learn Spanish: This language requires great care with pronunciation, especially the endings of words. Why?

The Spanish divide the world into male things and female things.

Most nouns that end in the letter o will be male things: Piromano (pyromaniac). Orgasmo (if you don’t know this one, you need more than a translator).

Most nouns that end in the letter a will be female things: Fiesta (party). Pelusa (fuzz).

Es diferente, si? In Alabama, where I learned our curious Southern version of English, things are just … things. We don’t have male or female words for stuff. Things can be male or female by gender, but dust is not male and a beach is not female.

In the South, we have lots of I-don’t-care syllables at the ends of words. Nobody says, “I’m fixing to go see those 12 wrestlers in a barbed-wire death-match at the National Guard armory.” We say, “I’m fixin’ to go …”

Yes, we drop the -gs at the ends of words. We also say tomater and potater some places. A winder is a thing you open, a piller the thing you sleep on. We swaller when we drink. (Don’t get snobby and look down your nose at the way we talk either. Scholars say the English of the South most closely matches Elizabethan English, the language Shakespeare wrote and spoke.)

The point? The Southern dialect ends a lot of words lazily. If you do that here in Latin America, you’re asking for trouble.

Photo: Flickr/WordShore

Like this mistake: One morning here in the apartment in Santa Barbara Occidental, the stove blazed merrily and the little family sat around the table. Adela, my fiancée, asked what I’d like for breakfast.

Huevas, I said, looking around hungrily.

Huevas. You know, testicles. Hairy man balls.

I should have asked for huevos. Eggs.

Correctly pronouncing that little ending here—-os—makes a big hairy difference.

I made a similar mistake attempting to order chicken.

The first two words anyone should learn in Spanish are pollo (chicken) and agua (water). Learn those, and you probably won’t starve to death or perish of thirst.

But what happens if you lurch suddenly into Deep South-speak and let a last syllable get lazy? What if you order not fried pollo … but fried polla?

You get fried penis. If it’s on the menu.

One more cautionary tale.

In Spanish, there’s this little tadpole of an accent mark that goes over the letter n. This mark, the virgulilla, changes the letter n into another entirely separate letter: ñ (pronounced en-ya, like the Irish chanteuse).

Why does this matter? My writer friend Chris Hunt explained this tactfully to me in an email. He pointed out with genuine kindness that I had neglected the accent mark over my letter n in a greeting I put a recent Paste column: Feliz Ano Nuevo!

Of course, I meant to say … Happy New Year! But the word “Año” must have the accent mark, if you mean for it to mean year.

What, instead, did I wish several million potential Paste readers?

Happy New Anus!

I do wish this, absolutely, for any Paste reader who needs a new anus. Otherwise, I hope this new year is a good ‘un.

It takes a thick skin to get through such humbling … make that humiliating … lingual experiences.

My skin gets thicker by the day. I feel a little like Moby Dick, in fact, showing scores of rusted harpoons bristling from my back each time I surface to try out my newest Spanish phrases.

The learning experience goes both ways.

Adela’s aunt visited Orlando years ago. She spoke only a little English.

This tía stood in front of a Coca-Cola machine and dropped in a few coins, the U.S. money as strange and confusing as the language.

This Coke machine had a little screen that instructed in digital letters how much money to deposit to get a refreshing beverage. Adela’s aunt put in some coins, but she somehow lacked 10 cents—a dime. So the Coke machine display flashed to life: Dime please.

In Spanish, the word dime (pronounced dee-may) means tell me or say.

So Adela’s aunt did as the screen commanded. She said please.

Dime please, the machine continued to read.

Please, she said again.

Please. Please. Please. Please. Please.

The Coke machine never replied. Not a word. And no refreshing beverage ever popped out, despite her politeness.

She eventually gave up and, still thirsty, returned to her room.

It’s a funny story. But what this aunt said seems the right place to start with a new language.


Those of you who must suffer as we learn new words and expressions … please be patient.

Please understand that it’s not easy to be a simpleton, a fool. Please understand that we learn best by being brave enough to make mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. A lot.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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