Let’s travel to an island with its own wonderful language, personality, authenticity and freshness which is located in the middle of the Caribbean sea. Sounds difficult, doesn’t it? However, if we were to whisper “Cuba” into your ear, you’d probably realise that this incredible Caribbean island fits perfectly with all of the above-mentioned criteria.
Its people are warm, welcoming and have a great zest for life, with one of their most distinct features being their specific way of speaking Spanish, which, colloquially, is referred to as Cuban expressions or Cubanisms. Words, idioms or small phrases of Castilian Spanish that Cubans defend vehemently as part of their particular world view. But before taking a look at their 10 most amusing and peculiar expressions, let’s learn a bit about their rich history and how this has influenced their unique way of using the Cervantine language.
A little bit of history
Having been inhabited by migrant fishermen from Central America and other nomadic communities from the mouth of the Mississippi river for more than ten thousand years, Cuba was then colonized by Spain through the discovery of America (1492), which allowed the Spaniards to forge their own identity alongside the local natives. One thing is for certain: the settlers had not planned to cross the Atlantic Ocean on old wooden galleons with the aim of exchanging ideas and conversing with the locals. The main aims were to impose traditions, expand the empire and plunder resources, with the teaching of the language, culture and traditions in every settlement being a sort of secondary collateral damage, to express it more colloquially. This was how, over centuries, Spanish slowly but surely permeated the culture, becoming an excellent vehicle for the unity of all generations of Creoles, Indians and Mestizos, who lived alongside each other under the same flag of the Spanish empire throughout what is now known as Central America, the Caribbean sea and South America.
In possession of the Spanish Crown for more than 400 years, it was after its independence in 1898 and its subsequent treaty with the United States when Cuba made itself known to the rest of the world. Decades after, following the Cuban revolution, the country became immersed in a turbulent military regime, which spread through the country for years of being influenced by Russian ideology. It could be concluded that the long period of Spanish reign, along with the influence of the United States and the interference of Russia in the last few decades, has given rise to a Spanish language that is brimming with words stemming from a diverse mix of those three languages in particular (though there are also moderate influences of French and even less so of Portuguese) and their respective pronunciations.
Another aspect that contributed to Cuba’s historic development was the massive influx of African slaves. As the native population was almost entirely killed off at the start of the conquest, it was necessary to import cheap labour. Galleons were loaded with slaves whose purpose was to build and put up cities, churches, bridges and strongholds that would protect the colonies from ships and troops from other colonial empires (such as the Dutch or the English). In fact, nowadays, in each and every Cuban town there are still Afro Cuban communities deriving from various African countries.
Cuban education system
Although it’s easy to think of Cuba as an impoverished country, it’s worth noting that it is actually one of the countries with the highest school enrolment rate on the planet. The free and universal nature of its education system (from primary school to university), its dedicated effort to professional training and strong impetus in promoting culture on all governmental levels have been the main causes of the high literacy rate of the population and its excellent general knowledge of culture.
Cuba’s lack of materials and human resources over the last few decades in the economic sphere is, without a doubt, a factor that must be taken into account when studying the way in which its people express themselves in Spanish. In spite of this, there are many intellectuals in the country who are capable of producing sharp, profound and high quality literature.
The most common local expressions used by Cubans when expressing themselves can be identified in the way they conjugate verbs, the gender and number agreement, the famous fillers or reversing complex sentence structures. Another aspect to highlight is that, in many cases, correcting the typographical syntax of official and professional texts (such as, for example, medical or public administration documents) is left exclusively to computer software proofreaders. This means that, as our language is so rich, diverse and full of variants, it is practically impossible to carry out said process using a machine. This makes it essential to use a professional linguist or proofreader for the job.
The negative impact that text messaging services for mobile phones have had throughout the world also plays a big part. The immediacy of replies and the lack of control over the most essential writing conventions when exchanging messages have meant that young people in particular have started to accept serious grammatical errors regarding syntax and spelling as being the norm.
Features of Castilian Spanish in Cuba
As it is largely similar to Spanish spoken in the Antilles and other surrounding countries, its minimal differences are based on certain lexical and phonetic aspects. It’s also worth noting that within the same island there are different cultural expressions depending on the area you’re in, but without reaching the level of being an actual dialect. The main difference is most likely to be between Western areas (with a more modern, dynamic and up-to-date language) and Eastern areas of the island (where a more traditional and conserved Spanish is spoken). As well as the location, other factors such as age and sex also have a strong influence.
Among the most common general features of cubanisms are:
- Pronunciation of the letter “S” as if it were a”J”. An example of this would be the word ‘casco’ [caj-co].
- Assimilation of “R” by the consonant that follows it within the order of that particular word. A prime example of this norm is the word ‘argolla’ [ag-goy-a].
- Substituting the letter “R” with the letter “L”. The word ‘amor’ is one of the most universal examples of this pronunciation [a-mol].
- Use of personal pronouns (yo, tú, él, ella) in any situation or context, possibly due to the influence of English, and the predominance of using the informal pronoun of ‘tú’ as a way of rebelling against the norms, one of the most traditional features of Cuban people.
- Avoiding the use of the second-person plural pronoun (vosotros).
- Vocabulary. Without a doubt, this aspect of the language represents the largest amount of variations. The Cuban lifestyle, their love of pleasure, celebrating, and anything related to the social sphere have given rise to an enormous amount of rich and new cultural expressions over the centuries.
The streets of Havana breathe life
The famous and renowned habanero intellectual Argelio Santiesteban explained several years ago in various press conferences led by European capitals that “Spanish in Cuba forms part of a collective daily effort made by Cubans to find the artist that every human being carries within themselves”. Resourceful, lively and full of the joys of spring, the average Cuban approaches life from a street-life point of view, thriving off contact with their social surroundings. “The metaphor is without a doubt one of our strengths”.
The truth is that the words and phrases used by the average Cuban harbour a huge amount of traditions, humour, myths and profound popular sentiments. It must be emphasised that, if it is true that this is an intrinsic feature of any place on the planet, then Cuba has reached unimaginable heights, and is most likely one of the smartest and most inventive communities in the world in this regard.
For example, people who aren’t very bright are asked “not to throw stones at the Morro” (no tiren piedras al Morro) in reference to the remoteness and height of the construction which is on the other side of Havana Bay, whilst for those who are about to experience a serious disaster, people say “they are at the tip of the canoe” (están en el pico de la piragua). Euphemisms also have a particularly significant influence within Cuban culture. Some examples are the way in which they refer to the flu (‘la cariñosa’, meaning ‘the loving one’) or to death (‘ir a vivir el reparto bocarriba’ meaning literally ‘to go and lie face up in the cemetery’)
Among the most common proverbs are many versions and adaptations of traditional Castilian Spanish sayings. Short and snappy phrases with a double meaning which, for centuries, have preserved the oldest and most rooted popular knowledge.
From the most sophisticated culture to the most basic instincts
Various studies show that, over the last few decades, there has been a gradual progression towards equality in terms of vocabulary and expression between Cuban elites and ordinary folk, an occurrence that has been openly celebrated by the national authorities. The urbanisation and reconstruction of cities, mobility related to work or social purposes experienced by anybody in the country, the standardised education system or the slow but steady process of creating an industrial fabric in the more rural areas, together with other factors such as administrative centralization or the lack of diversity in the media, have all contributed to a generic uniformity that has been passed on to all Cubans. According to Argelio Santiesteban, the aforementioned Cuban linguist: “Despite this standardisation, Cuban jargon has not suffered any losses, as it is spoken everywhere, from palaces to brothels, or down from the seafront to political party meetings.
What is more, Cuba is light, laughter, transparency, the lightness of life, frankness and the sincerity of open hearts. Its people show this through their own version of Spanish. There is no room for sobriety, respect, decorum or airs and graces, as it’s spoken loudly on Cuba’s streets in the most vibrant and spiritual way. Souls seeking connection with other souls, with no time to think about anything other than emotion. Egalitarianism in every sense of the word.
However it is worth noting that there are people who are not in favour of achieving total equality, at least in this cultural aspect. Some respectful forms of address (particularly to elderly people or authorities), using colloquial words in difficult or sensitive situations or the growing tendency among young people to confuse confidence with lack of respect have led to, for the first time in a while, various intellectuals speaking out and asking for more control and measures to be taken.
10 most popular and amusing expressions or cubanisms
Despite having left out hundreds of expressions, here are what we consider to be some of the funniest phrases used in the Cuban lingo today:
- ¿Qué volá? [kay-boh-la]. Expression used to ask about the state of someone or something. The nearest translation equivalent in Castilian Spanish would be “¿Cómo está la cosa por ahí?” (How’s it going?)
- ¿Qué relajo? [kay-rela-ho]. This phrase is very common in the family setting, and could be translated as “What a mess!”
- Yuma [you-mah]. This comes from the influence of the North American film ‘El último tren a Yuma’ which was set in the Wild West. It is used to refer to a person or object of North American origin.
- Compay [kom-pay]. A term that has become known throughout the world due to the great and now deceased musician Compay Segundo (Siboney 1907- La Habana 2003). It is used as a synonym of the word friend, though it is typically used more to refer to older people. Another cubanism with this same meaning is the word ‘ambia’.
- Todo entaya [ toh-doh ent-ayah]. This expression reflects one of the most typical pronunciation problems which is differentiating the “LL” sound and the “Y” sound. The most approximate translation would be “Everything is in order” or “Fits perfectly”.
- ¡Dale! [dah-leh]. Widely used with various different meanings such as “Hurry up!”, “Move!” or “Go!”. It’s one of the most common slang words and its use has now spread throughout the whole of Latin America.
- A la cañona [a-la-can-yoh-na]. This could be translated as “to be obligated to carry out an action by force”.
- Bajichupa [Ba-hi-yu-pa]. Term used to refer to women’s blouses or shirts without straps and/or sleeves.
- Hacer botella [Ha-ser-bo-teh-ya]. Native way of saying “to hitchhike”.
- Camaján/na [Ca-ma-han]. This is a person who is not of Cuban origin but who knows the island just as well as the locals. An expression of Russian origin which is commonly used in the city of Matanzas.
These cubanisms are examples of how an indomitable community of people, used to expressing themselves without fear of being judged, speak the Spanish language and bring it to life. Unique phrases, of which we’ve only shown 10 of the most interesting and amusing, are just a small glimpse into this lively Caribbean community’s way of speaking.