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.
- Asere ¿Qué volá? [Acere Ke Boola] – How’s it going? How are you doing pal?
- Ando a la my love [Ando a la mailó] – Synonym of ‘to be relaxed’ and ‘to be care-free’. It also means to be naked.
- Coger botella – To hitch a ride.
- Irse pa'l yuma – Literally this is to travel to the United States, but in more recent times it has been used as a synonym of ‘to travel abroad’ to any country. The word ‘yuma’ is also used as an appreciative suffix to refer to people from the United States.
- ¡Sirvió Rodríguez! – This is a witty play-on-words using the Spanish affirmation ‘sirvió’ and the name of the famous Cuban poet Silvio Rodríguez. It is used to show enthusiasm about something that has gone perfectly to plan or an arrangement to meet with friends, and the word ‘sirvió’ can be substituted with the word ‘jugó’.
- Tirar un cabo – This isn’t to throw a lit cigarette butt at somebody, but the opposite; this expression simply means to lend somebody a hand. For example you can ‘tirarle un cabo a tu amigo en la mudanza’ (lend your friend a hand when they’re moving house), or help somebody out in an exam or look after their kids. If you’re in Cuba and you have a flat tyre or your car breaks down, you can say to the first Cuban person who walks past ‘Socio, hazme el favor y tírame un cabo con el carro’ (Excuse me, can you do me a favor and lend me a hand with the car?).
- Eres un punto – A pejorative term used in Cuba to refer to innocent people who are easily ‘fooled’ or ‘swindled’. This can also be used for when somebody is cheated on by their partner or to refer to people who are extremely honest and good-hearted.
- Las tengo a pululu – Commonly used by men to boast about the fact that they’re sleeping with different women.
- Completo Camagüey – This means that something has been finished or has reached its end, for example to refer to finishing a chore or job.
- "...ARRIBA DE LA BOLA!" – To be on the ball and up to date with the latest news or trends. To be the greatest.