Notes on Colombian Spanish

My Spanish was very rusty when I first got to Colombia, and to top it off, there were certain Colombian phrases that just didn’t make sense to me. So here’s a couple examples, that if I’d known, would have saved me a lot of confusion from the get-go.

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Que mas? – This is a common greeting in Colombia, but it literally means “What more?” I picked up on the fact that it was just being used as a greeting pretty quickly, but what took longer was to figure out how to respond. Is it like a What’s up?greeting, where the response would be something like nothing, or is it a How’s it going? greeting, where the response should be something like good? The truth is, I’m still not a 100% sure, but I usually go with the latter.

Que pena! – This was a phrase I already knew, and I knew the translation to be something like “what a shame/pity.” But the way it was being used here just didn’t make sense to me. For example, if someone would bump into you or if they showed up late after you had been waiting on them a long time, they’d say que pena, instead of perdon or lo siento which is how I learned to say sorry in Spanish. To me, saying what a pity after you accidentally spill a drink on someone sounds really passive aggressive, so it struck me as odd and a little rude the first couple times I heard it, until I realized that people are just using it as the equivalent of I’m sorry, instead of saying lo siento.

tinto – Here this means black coffee and not red wine. Both good things, so I can order one in any country, and I’ll be happy with whichever they give me.

Listo. –  This word usually means ready, but in Colombia it’s used all the time. It’s basically like alright, ok, kay, right?, ok?

Me regalas…? – One of my Colombian coworkers explained this one to me. Instead of the literal meaning of Will you give me [as a gift]…? it can be a polite way to ask for something at a restaurant or shop, like Me regalas un tinto, porfavor?

Mono/a – This literally means monkey, but I was told that in Colombia it was used to refer to a blonde person. However, I continued to be confused when I was referred to as mona, because I am not blonde. But I guess it’s all relative. Compared to the mostly black-haired Colombians, my “gringa hair” as my Peruvian host mom used to call it, is blonde, or at least blonder.

The diminutive – This wasn’t necessarily something that confused me, it’s more just a trait of Colombian Spanish that I think is adorable. They often use the diminutive, –ito or –ico, for like, everything. You buy an aguita, or do something despacito. My favorite thing I’ve ever heard in the diminutive, was from an airline worker who had to push through the line of people waiting to board the plane and was saying permisito as he squeezed between the passengers instead of the usual con permiso which means excuse me.

More adorableness – Every morning in Lima, I would walk to the bus stop, and every morning, there would be a few very old, homeless-looking men, who would say things like “hello beautiful” in a very gruff and creepy voice as I walked past. Street harassment was a day-to-day fact in Lima, and I came here expecting to have a similar experience. However, aside from Cartagena, where it happened a lot, I don’t really experience it in Armenia. (Yes, there’s that one dude who I have to walk past every single morning who always says something creepy to me, but he’s pretty much the only one). When I first got here though, there were a couple of instances that made me uncomfortable. For example, I would get in a taxi, and the driver would say Where do you want to go, beautiful? and I just thought eww. What I soon realized was that I had totally misread the situation. In fact, as I’ve said before, people in Colombia are just really nice, and this comes out in the way they use their language. A lot of service providers like store clerks, taxi drivers, etc., use terms like reina, princesa, linda, querida and amorcita when they’re talking to women clients. And this isn’t just men using these terms towards women, it’s other women, too. And, again, I think this is adorable. I mean really, what’s nicer than getting in a cab and having the driver say, “Where are you going, my queen?”

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