Somebody asked me the other day how to say “lunch” in Spanish. Someone shouted “lonche” and someone else shouted “almuerzo.” They looked at me, and I said, “la comida.” Immediately one of the shouters snapped at me, “why do you always tell us different words?!” It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation.
My best answer; my only answer: “I’m not from here.”
Spanish in California is different from what I’m used to. To my ear it sounds like northern Mexico, plus a distinct /b/ vs. /v/ distinction that just doesn’t exist in other varieties of Spanish, apart from maybe some Gloria Estefan songs.
And of course, my Spanish is different from theirs, and I know I sound weird to them. I’m keeping a list of words that have stumped my Spanish speaking friends, colleagues, and students. Some of the words are fancy and academic-sounding, like el simulacro and la tertulia. Some are words that I know to be common in Mexico, like piropo, nefasto, but when I say them here, people blink at me. In a conversation with my new colleagues I tried to refer to an all-boys school as todos varones, a term I learned from a colleague in 1998, and now I’m starting to think it was never the right term in the first place. What do I know?
It’s not a nice feeling to use these words and have local people blink and squint at me. I’m trying to get them to like me, and here I am with these strange words they never heard of, I feel like a jerk. Luckily my new friends are quickly getting used to me; instead of awkward vocabulary moments, they’re starting to just chuckle at me and ask me to explain my crazy word. This must be what it feels like for a speaker of Australian English to be harassed by… me. By the way, if there is a contest for the nerdiest, most dorky way to explain the word tertulia, I won it this afternoon.
On the other hand, it’s a delight for me to learn local words. The other day my friend used the word nortearse (which is definitely more charming when pronounced “nortiarse”). I understood what it meant immediately (to get disoriented, discombobulated) but it was just a surprise to hear it, because it sounds like the root word is “norte,” which cracked me up because it sounds like a comment on what happens when you go north… to the US.
My friend also took it upon herself to teach me the word chivearse, which, again, is more charming when pronounced “chiviarse” (to get embarrassed and go coy, to get flustered by a compliment). The root word is “chivo,” a kid goat; which is adorable.
So my friend says she’s going to teach me the phrase “qué bolado” tomorrow. I looked it up but I can’t wait to hear how she explains it. I told her I would take notes. She promised to teach me all of her slang, if I would teach her proper Spanish.
I’m told her I’m happy to teach her everything I know. You know, I’m thankful that I can speak Spanish and that people perceive it to be “proper.” I, personally, don’t hear my own Spanish as proper; I hear a bunch of pronunciation and grammar mistakes, fumbling for words, and awkward expressions. I think I’d much rather have native-speaker intuition and be able to tell a joke, to write a poem, to talk on the phone without anxiety, to choose concise words and make powerful and moving statements, to understand stand-up comedy, or those adivinanzas, like this one:
Agua pasa por mi casa;
cate de mi corazón,
el que no me lo adivine
será un burro cabezón.
I understand all the words, but I don’t understand why those words are together, and I don’t get why when my coworker heard this one, she was delighted and said “that was a good one.” The answer, by the way, is “aguacate…” high fives all around.
I would take slangy, colorful native-speaker intuition over “proper Spanish” any day of the week. Besides, “proper Spanish” is just my day job; I want to leave it behind after the five o’clock whistle.