Monday, January 14, 2013

¿Qué es esa vaina?

My first introduction to Dominican slang was, well, a greeting – “¿Qué lo que?” This translates roughly to “what that which?” – in other words, it makes no sense whatsoever. It is, in fact, an example of word-cutting, in which either parts of words or entire, lesser, words are omitted from a phrase because they are deemed useless. In this example, the entire “phrase” would be “¿Qué es lo que hay?” (“what is it?” – literally, “what is that which is?”) or “¿Qué es lo que pasa?” (“what is happening?” – literally, “what is that which is happening?”) Evidently, it was decided that these phrases had to be cut down to size, and where better to start than those useless verbs.

There were also some awkward moments early on. Once, I was heartily confused by people asking me "¿Porqué estás tan guapo?" Now, while I do like taking care of myself, I was naturally somewhat confused as to why people were asking me why I was so attractive -- and in a fairly accusatory tone, too. I quickly learned that "guapo" here means "angry", rather than "sexy", as it does in Mexico. Apparently I had been looking a little moody and not greeting people as enthusiastically as I should have. Another odd one was that people continually talked about coger-ing things. They coger buses, taxis, or things off of shelves. This was strange to me, because in the Spanish I had learned, coger was something of a rude word, similar in meaning and cuss level to our F-word. Certainly, no one was fucking a bus here (as far as I could tell). Rather, coger in Dominican Spanish means to catch or retrieve. 

Another popular favourite is the “vaina”. A vaina is the shell of any sort of legume, the kind of thing that you discard to get to the goodness within. It makes sense, then, that in the common parlance a “vaina” is something useless or burdensome. When giving workshops or presentations, I usually track my success or lack thereof by how often the subject matter is referred to as a vaina – which is usually.

¡Que vaina!

Knowing is important in the Dominican Republic. Well, knowing is pretty important anywhere, but whether you are “one who knows” around here determines your place in the social order. “Él que sabe” or “Ella que sabe” (he/she who knows) is the one who gives the orders. Knowing is what separates the movers and shakers from the vaina. “Tú no sabes” is usually used to bar someone from an activity which they are obviously incapable of, such as riding a motorcycle, making a table, or hammering a nail. Any interaction is a transfer of knowledge, and this is codified by the traditional closure of a conversation – “ya tu sabes” (now you know). This is important; because unless you have become “él que sabe”, you’ll never get to do anything fun.

We have, until this point, limited our discussion to the verbal. This leaves out by far the best part of the language, the written word. You see, Spanish as a language has a number of minimal pairs – letters that have interchangeable sounds, essentially. It is minimal pairs that cause confusion in Indian languages between v and w, or in some Asian languages between r and l.

In Spanish, b and v generally have the same sound, although there are some conventions as to when one is used as opposed to the other. The same goes for y, i, and the double-l. In Cibaeño, the dialect that is spoken throughout the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic, r and l are often given the same sound – not only that, but the sound they are given is neither r nor l – but rather y. This also only happens when the r or l falls at the end of a syllable. Finally, the letter s is usually not pronounced when it falls at the end of a word.

Now, this wouldn’t be so confusing usually, since Spanish usually has strict rules on spelling – however, the written word in the Cibao region goes by the rule that if you can use them interchangeably in the spoken word, you should be able to use them interchangeably when writing, too. Let’s see some examples:

Bienvenidos – welcome – can be spelled any of the following ways: Vienvenidos, Bienbenidos, or Vienbenidos (the hotel next to our apartment also has, inexplicably, ‘Biembenidos’)

Bachillerato – high school – could also be spelled vachillerato or bachiyerato

The phrase “se alquila” (for rent) has been spelled in almost every variant imaginable: “se arquila”, “c alquila” “se alkila” and so forth.

"Proibido bajar la silla a la arena"

For a non-native speaker coming to Cibao, the language can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride. The first reaction is usually despair, since whatever language skills you may have possessed before arriving will be of limited use in understanding what people are saying. Next, upon understanding the way Cibaeño is spoken, some newcomers get a little cocky. They realize that their Spanish, refined in university classes and summers abroad in Barcelona, is far more 'advanced' than the common person’s, what with their correct usage of the subjunctive and conditional moods and pronunciation of each and every letter in the correctly-spelled word. These hoity-toity airs, however, are quickly blown away by the blank stares that meet any phrase such as “pudiera darme una cerveza” (would you be able to give me a beer), when the persona was clearly expecting either “dame una” (give me one [beer]) or, better yet, the gesture that indicates a large bottle of Presidente. Finally, one begins to fit in, noticing the s’s slowly dropping away from their words, “¿cómo estás?” gradually becoming “¿cómo e’tá’?” and forgetting that there ever was any difference between an r and an l. 


  1. Very fascinating, Adam. I knew some of these trends from my Spanish-speaking students. It's wonderful that you are able to write so well about the technicalities of the language. On the whole, it appears that you are adapting well.


  2. Ein Frisches! notice how the adjective suddenly becomes the noun and is now spelled with a capital F.....
    now you can give me the translation of that and you know that Cibaeno and German are not that much apart.....

    1. Ein frisches Bier, natürlich! Das heisst deutsche Effizienz, damit man sein Frisches schneller bekommt.

  3. Aquí me pegó un poco el acento charapa (selvático). Hablo cantado. Mis amigos de la costa se ríen cuando lo escuchen. En comparación con el castellano Cibaeño, creo que está más fácil aquí, pero se usa mucha jerga quechua que cuesta aprender.

  4. I noticed some of those spelling variants in Panama too! Cool beans.

    Also "biembenidos" isn't inexplicable -- pretty much every language has nasal place assimilation. So the bilabial /b/ makes the preceding nasal bilabial as well :) This happens a lot in English too... orthographically you see it in "inadequate" vs. "impossible".

  5. Sweet! Well written Adam! I was interested the whole time. I found the part on the power of knowledge especially fasinating. Keep up the good work!