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I Say Autobus, You Say Guagua

Submitted by on September 24, 2009 – 8:05 am6 Comments

guagua in Cuba by Granvendaval on Flickr

roxana soto spanglishbaby.comThe following conversation recently took place at our dinner table:

Papá: ¿Lo quieres con aguacate? – wanting to know if Vanessa wanted a tortilla chip with some avocado.

Vanessa: ¿Ah?

Papá, realizing aguacate is not the word Vanessa knows for avocado: ¿Lo quieres con palta?

Vanessa: Papá, ¿qué dijite? – Huh?

Papá: Aguacate.

Vanessa: ¿A-GUA-CA-TE??

Papá: Si.

Vanessa: ¿Qué eso?

Papá: Es lo mismo que palta.

The wheels of my daughter’s brain start turning as she tries to process what just happened. Palta is the same thing as aguacate. Just another name for it.

And then my husband goes on to explain that there is only one country in the world that calls an avocado a palta. It’s not true, but w-h-a-t-e-v-e-r. That one country happens to be Peru, the one I hail from, so that’s all that matters.

All kidding aside, though, this is an actual topic of debate in our house. My husband, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, taught Vanessa to say ‘bobo‘ (binky) and I had to give in because as a baby, that was an easier word for Vane to pick up than ‘chupón‘ – as we say it in Perú.

Unlike English which has variances depending on whether you’re British, North American or Australian; Spanish has as many variances as the countries where it’s spoken. In other words, the word for pig, for example, could be chancho, cerdo or puerco – depending on which country you’re from (Perú, México, Puerto Rico – respectively). Oh, yeah, I forgot marrano.

Here’s a partial list of the Peruvian vsPuerto Rican words in our house:

timón/guia — steering wheel
plátano/guineo (we actually use banana – kind of universal, no?)
poto/nalgas — butt
calata/desnuda — naked
arete/pantalla — earring
foco/bombilla — lightbulb
basurero (tacho)/zafacón — trash can
paraguas/sombrilla — umbrella
naranja/china — orange
autobus/guagua — bus

The list goes on… And I haven’t even included the dozens of words which are completely innocuous for some of us but are vulgarities for others. Such as bicho which means any type of insect for Peruvians and lots of other Latin Americans, but the crude name for male genitals for Boricuas, like my husband. I find it kind of crazy that I can’t tell Vanessa “Cuidado con ese bicho,” if there’s an insect near where she’s playing.

What to do? Apparently, nothing. I can do it, but it doesn’t come naturally. The interesting thing is that now that she’s a bit older and has started to figure a lot of things out, she actually likes to ask: ¿tú cómo lo llamas? – which I find utterly amazing.

Roxana Soto is a journalist, mother of two and co-founder of Spanglishbaby, a website for raising bilingual and bi-cultural children. She is a Peruvian native who lives in Colorado.

This post originally appeared in a different version at SpanglishBaby.

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6 Comments »

  • Melek says:

    Thanks for sharing Roxana!

    I’m sure many can relate to you. This does not happen at our home because my husband is Turkish.

    There’s a wide range of colloquial expressions, idioms, argot and barbarisms in Spanish, which are cleaqrly evident upon verbal interaction in this great cultural and diverse melting pot (USA).

    I’m sure that many of us when speaking Spanish, have encountered people who would hear us say something and either correct us or just say: “Ah!Like you _____ (Cubans, Peruvians, Mexicans, etc.)say” … Sometimes with a mocking tone … my personal rule of thumb when this happens, is to point out that as long as the word is in the dictionary, it’s proper to use it, thus accepting that the difference more likely is due to a simple nuance resulting from regionalisms and culture … e.g. lechon, cerdo, chancho, cochino, puerco, and marrano are all in the dictionary …!

    Vanessa will just grow with a richer vocabulary as a result of this … lucky girl!! :)

    I wish you well :) Melek

    “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” ~ N. Webster

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pio Pio Dot Biz and Liz C.. Liz C. said: rt @spanglishbaby RT @TikiTikiBlog: I Say Autobus, You Say Guagua – http://bit.ly/13ASvF Roxana from @spanglishbaby on Tiki Tiki. [...]

  • Lou says:

    This reminds me of a funny story that happened to a friend of mine. She is Puerto Rican-American, raised in Georgia. The only Spanish she knew was Puerto Rican spanish. When she moved to Miami several years ago (her husband got transferred for work), she went to a Cuban bakery for the first time in her life… and asked for “un bollo de pan.” She said that every single (supposedly Cuban) person in the bakery went dead silent and just stared at her in shock. The lady behind the counter then asked if she meant “una flauta de pan.” My friend asked what the difference was and proceeded to die of embarrassment when the lady explained what “bollo” meant in Cuban. =)

  • Carrie says:

    Lou, that is a great story! I can see the Cuban faces now, all the way from here.

    When Oscar and I came up with naming our adult t-shirt line, Chichi & Flaco, it was based on our nicknames. Little did either of us Cuban-American kids know that chi chis are Spanish slang for boobs.

    Ah, well!

  • Eric says:

    Interesting and so true. Although we have difference ways of saying things, English is more difficult to learn. We have feminine and masculine words, English doesn’t.

  • Avocado is “palta” in Chile too.

    “Guagua” is baby in Chile. “Micro” is bus.

    I worked for a company that did business in Latin America. A product brochure mentioned the “pico.” This brochure was used in Chile, where “pico” is slang for — umm – male parts.

    I asked them if they knew this and they just shrugged and said they couldn’t have a different brochure for every country.

    Yes, I wanted to say, but you could have the translations done here in Miami and not in Iowa because you would have a better shot at not making these kinds of mistakes.

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