The evolution of Colombian Spanish:  A Colombian linguist tells it like it is

By Arjun Harindranath January 22, 2018

Given the varieties of Spanish that are spoken in Colombia, the Bogotá Post enlisted the help of forensic linguist Rafael Orozco about assimilation, how words enter into a vocabulary and why Spanish in Bogotá is so neutral sounding.

For those who have traveled through Latin America, the varieties of Spanish one encounters may be overwhelming enough to make you reconsider learning Spanish in the first place. Even within Colombia there are a diverse number of accents and ways of speaking that vary from region to region. For example, within Bogotá it’s more common to use the polite form ‘usted’ for ‘you’, whereas the population along the Caribbean coast use the more down-to-earth ‘tu’. Things get even weirder in Medellin where they have a tripartite system for ‘you’ where they interchange between ‘usted’, ‘tu’ and the uniquely Antioquian ‘vos’.

And while Spanish has undergone its own changes within Colombia, it has also transformed on foreign shores. Professor Rafael Orozco’s life’s work has been dedicated to the subject of Spanish within Colombian communities outside of Colombia – particularly within the cultural melting pot that is New York City.

To this day Orozco, who is a native of Barranquilla and works at LSU, is mistaken for a Puerto Rican or someone from the Dominican Republic for the way he speaks. This is down to the linguistic phenomenon of assimilation that occurs in every corner of the globe where languages converge. At the beginning, Orozco’s suspicion was that the phenomenon was occurring because of its contact with English. It was only later that he found that the difference is not due to English but, in fact, its exposure to Puerto Rican Spanish and accents that arrived from the Dominican Republic.

Puerto Ricans comprise a third of all Spanish speakers in NYC. As the population of Barranquilla (1.2 million) is dwarfed by the number of Spanish speakers in New York (2.3 million as of 2010), the Colombians who came from this area would quickly assimilate to the more dominant way of speaking.

As a fascinating twist, there’s also a gender disparity that comes with the phenomenon. In Colombia–specifically in Barranquilla–women display conservative linguistic behaviour but when they migrate to a city like New York, they then become the innovators and are more susceptible to new ways of speaking.

‘An analogy of this would be like someone who lives in Barranquilla that moves to Medellin (or Bogota)—they are going to assimilate. They need to function in a socio-linguistic environment that’s different from the one they left.’ Orozco told us.

Spanish in Barranquilla is a variety of Caribbean Spanish (called costeño) which displays the linguistic phenomenon of elision. In other words, instead of saying ‘dos casas’, Barranqueros will say ‘dos casa’. They preserve the first ‘s’ but may drop subsequent ones – so ‘seis pesos’ becomes ‘sei peso’. This was a pattern adopted from Andalucia, including the cities of Seville, Granada and Valencia, where they say ‘gracia’ instead of ‘gracias’. It happens with other consonants like ‘l’ and ‘d’, as well as in endings of verb infinitives. For example, ‘Voy a cantar’ and ‘Voy a salir’ become ‘Voy a canta’ and ‘Voy a sali’ respectively.

In his research, Orozco became personally invested in the theme of migratory languages as his ‘baby brother’ and mother moved from Barranquilla to Medellin nearly 7 years ago. His brother doesn’t sound like a guy from Baranquilla anymore because he has assimilated to his new socio-linguistic environment. ‘Then, I did the same thing when I went to New York.’ Orozco said.

But despite the dominant influence of Puerto Rican Spanish, this doesn’t mean that English doesn’t have an influence on the Hispanic communities of New York. On the contrary, many English words have seeped into the Latino community as they standardise certain words and offer a common denominator that can be understood by members of different Spanish-speaking cultures. Orozco said, by way of example ‘that if you go around the Spanish-speaking world there are going to be around 10 different words for ‘cake’. In New York City they rely on the English word ‘cake’’. Which is why you’ll find ‘voy a comprar un cake’ is a common expression in the metropolis.

Other sources for new words in Colombian Spanish included those that came about from the intermingling with the local indigenous population. For example, chicha comes from the Chipcha language and stands for the fermented drink of corn, grains or fruit. Similarly, changua, a broth made from meat, is also an indigenous word, as too is mote (food made from a starchy vegetable like cassava) and guarapo (drink made from sugarcane).

Sometimes, words themselves aren’t invented but new meanings for them are. This is true in the curious case of the word marica which translates to ‘gay’, ‘homo’ or, in some instances, the more repulsive expression ‘faggot’. In Colombia, these offensive meanings are preserved when referring to homosexuals but it can also be used, sometimes liberally, to denote an exclamation or act as a discourse marker.

In a study entitled The M Word: Face and Politeness in Colombian Spanish, Dr Catalina Méndez of Princeton University lists these different uses in everyday speech, particularly by students in Colombia. Examples Méndez listed include the use of the word as a term of endearment or camaraderie, like:

Venga marica, lo invito una cerveza. (Come on bud, I’ll buy you a beer.)

or as an exclamatory phrase, like:

¡Ay marica! ¡La embarré! (Oh crap, I screwed up!)

or simply as a discourse marker that helps segment conversations in a more meaningful way to express a certain attitude when speaking. Méndez found this type of use to be most common among the students she surveyed:

Marica, en serio? ¡no! (Like, for real? No way!)

Swear words aside, we wanted to know what it was about Colombian Spanish as spoken in Bogotá that makes it so neutral-sounding? Orozco explains that it was mostly to do with the social structure of the city. ‘Bogota, having language variety that was conservative and being a capital, made it less likely to change from the Spanish in Madrid. Phonologically, the sounds of the language were preserved by Bogotános.’ Orozco said. In addition to this, the Academia Colombiana de la Lengua, established in 1871, became the first Spanish language institution to be founded outside of Spain. The academy allowed many Colombian writers in the 19th Century to gain prestige internationally, which in turn standardised the form of the language as it was spoken in the capital.

So given that linguistic transformation and assimilation occurs to all natural languages, what further changes can we expect to Colombian Spanish from hereon in?

Marica, who knows?

Rafael Orozco’s new book Spanish in Colombia and New York City: Language contact meets dialectal convergence, is out this February by John Benjamins Publishing Company.