Tico Spanish


Because of Costa Rica's early isolation, the country developed some unique linguistic differences from other Spanish-speaking countries. Furthermore, within Costa Rica itself, local accents developed in isolated parts of the country back when communication was extremely difficult. For example: An oxcart journey from San Jose to Limon used to take nearly two weeks.

These accents vary from being so slight that it takes an expert to distinguish them to being all but unintelligible to those not fluent in Spanish. The differences are similar to the way words are pronounced in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the way they're pronounced in Montgomery, Alabama. This is most noticeable in Guanacaste (northwestern Costa Rica). Like English in Montgomery, dropping some consonants and slurring vowels together cause the Guanacaste accent. This lingo is similar to that spoken in Nicaragua (not surprising since Guanacaste originally was part of Nicaragua). Once you get used to this blending of sounds, it becomes clear.
Don't worry too much if you are just learning Spanish. Almost all people can, and will, speak "proper Spanish" when they see that you don't understand. They simply repeat their words with a more careful pronunciation and avoid using local slang just as they learned to do in school.

There is one outstanding difference between Tico Spanish and standard Spanish grammar that could puzzle those who have studied the language in high school or college. Instead of hearing the polite usted and informal tu forms of Spanish that are normally taught in our high schools and universities, Costa Ricans use the archaic Spanish vos instead of tu for the familiar first person singular. Originally, vos was the polite form of Spanish first person singular, and tu was familiar. Then somewhere in the late sixteenth century, the use of vuestra merced (your grace) became the polite form, later shortened to usted. This downgraded the formal pronoun vos from formal to informal use and the pronoun tu was used only when speaking to inferiors or animals. Later, the use of vos was totally dropped and tu once again became standard for informal speech in Spain. However, the first Costa Rican immigrants from Spain came before that switch in grammar occurred and therefore retained the old customs. To make things more confusing, the tu form is sometimes used as a form of intimacy between lovers.

Verbs have a different declension or word ending when using vos. Unfortunately this construction isn't usually taught in U.S. schools, even though several million people in the Western Hemisphere use this mode. (Yes, they teach the vosotros form, but that is plural and is used mostly by Spanish priests when addressing a congregation.) It takes some time to become comfortable with the vos form; in the meantime play it safe by using usted. Look at the chart and note the differences.


Usted form Tu form Vos form

Do you want? Quiere Ud? Quieres tu? Queres vos?

You speak Usted habla Tu hablas Vos hablas

You are Usted es Tu eres Vos sos

The word Tico came about: using a tico at the end of an adjective to express "small" or "tiny" You'll encounter some other interesting differences between Tico expressions and the way they are said in other countries. Some are quite charming. For example: In most Spanish- speaking countries, the term for ?you're welcome,? is por nada, ?it's nothing" or no hay de que, "don't mention it?. Costa Ricans feel those expressions somewhat impolite. To say ?you're welcome? they say con mucho gusto, which translates ?with much pleasure?. (Is that polite or what?) instead of greeting acquaintances with Como esta usted? ("How are you?") they prefer to ask, Como amanecio? (?How did you wake up this morning??).

They also feel that asking for something using the word dar (?to give?) is impolite. Instead of "Dame una coca, por favor" meaning ?Give me a Coca-Cola, please,? they consider it more polite to use the verb regalar (which actually means, ?make me a gift of??). So property it would be ?Regalame una coca, por fa? (note dropping the syllable fa from favor). Of course they're used to hearing gringos use the other expressions, so they won't be surprised when you say "de nada?.

One uniquely Costa Rican term, solidly ingrained into the language, is pura vida. I suppose this would translate as ?it's a great life,? but in effect it means ?okay?, ?cool?, ?all right?, sometimes as an emphatic ?aw-right!? A clerk in a store, instead of asking, "Would you like anything else?? might say, ?Pura vida?? A gas station attendant may ask, ?Is your oil pura vida, or should I check it for you??

A couple of strictly Costa Rican expressions puzzled me until I finally figured them out and could be puzzling to those learning the language. This is a tendency to begin sentences with the words ?vieras que . . .? or simply ?vieras . . .? Literally it means something like ?You see?? or ?You know?. Also used in the same way is ?digamos que? or ?digamos? (?let's say . . .?), but since the sound d is often softened or dropped entirely, it comes out ?digamos?.

You should be careful not to use sayings with obscene implications, and also realize that slang changes over time. About thirty years ago I ran across a series of tapes with Tico slang expressions I bought them and put them away, vowing some day to master Tico slang. Twenty-five years later I actually began to study those tapes. Armed with this knowledge I ventured forth to display my proficiency with slang and was shocked to see smiles and laughter. Then I realized that over the years, this slang had fallen from favor. I was saying things like ?twenty-three skidoo!? or ?groovy!? and ?oh, you kid!?


Writen by John Howels

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