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Spain: Language & Helpful Phrases that aren't in Your Guidebook

Your Guide: M.S.G. Quixo
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If you speak Spanish or already have a phrase book you may not be prepared for communicating in Spain. First off, don't call it Spanish. Castellano or Castilian is the language spoken throughout Spain and Latin America. There are other Spanish languages like Galician, Catalan and Basque and people in those regions can get pretty cranky if you call Castilian ‘Spanish’ as if it is the only Spanish language.

Here are a few phrases that are common in Spain:

Vale (pronounced BAH-leh.) It means OK. People understand “OK” too.

Hasta Luego (properly pronounced AH-stah  loo-EH-go, but usually pronounced by Spaniards stlehgo). If you try to pronounce it a mashed together like you hear it everywhere, they won't understand you. It means “See ya later.” If you say “hasta luego” a normal reply would be “adios,” not because Spaniards don’t want to see you later, it just seems habit to mix things up a little bit.

¿Tienes Fuego? – Do you have fire? I include this not because you will be asking a lot of people for a light, but because people will be asking you. Like hasta luego this tends to come out as one syllable so it can be confusing when someone, often a little drunk, comes up and says something like “tnsfugo.” You'll know because there will be an unlit cigarette hanging out of their mouth.

Vosotros – In Spain vosotros is a verb tense that is not used much in Latin America. It is the plural of you. While in Latin America we just use ustedes, in Spain ustedes is “you sirs” (formal) and vosotros is “y’all” (informal). I won’t get into it too much here – check a grammar book. I just wanted to warn you.

Tú and Usted – Spain does not use usted as much as most other Spanish speaking countries. I’ve heard that it has its roots in a certain socialist / populist attempt at equality. And at different times usted has come back into fashion. Additionally it can even cause minor offense, making someone feel like they are old, like calling a young woman Ma’am. You can use it just to be safe and as a foreigner you will be forgiven any misteps. But generally people use usted in business to be very polite and with much older people.

Tío/tía – I think this has spread to other Spanish speaking countries, but tío is “dude” or “man” in Spain and “tía” is the female equivalent. Yea, normally it means uncle or aunt. Colega is also hip, or used to be back when I was hip.

Diga – means tell me. Use it to answer a phone and a waiter may use it to ask your order.

¿Cómo? – means how, but it is used the way we use “What?”

Pluma and carro – In Spain, unlike Latin America, pluma is a big feathery quill pen and a carro is a cart. Use bolígrafo for pen and coche for car. Also you manejar un carro in Mexico. But you conducir un coche in Spain. In Spain, if you do manage to get a pluma, you will look very elegant and you can bring it with you to Mexico to ride around in your horse drawn coche.

The So-Called Spanish Lisp: In Spain C's and Z's are pronounced "TH." S's are not. So don't lisp everything. If you learn the lisp you will sound really cool when you get home and people may even forgive the other many mistakes you make when you speak Spanish.

Filthy words – Contrary to popular belief, Spanish in Spain is not a super refined superior version of the language. I'm sure there are people in Spain who speak it quite beautifully. But honestly, I find Spanish spoken in Spain to be pretty filthy, not that there's anything wrong with that. And as spoken casually it is filled with so many nasty figures of speech that anyone serious about learning Spanish in Spain may want to consult a dictionary like McGraw-Hill Diccionario del Argot or Diccionario de Jergas de Habla Hispana. I’ll leave it to someone else to tell you all the really naughty words… But I just can’t help pointing out that coño is used all the time. It doesn’t really have an English equivalent. It refers to female genitalia, but appears to be about as harsh as using the word hell or heck. I wouldn’t suggest you use it, but you’ll hear everyone saying it. And I just have to mention that me cago en… means “I defecate in…” and can be directed at anything from the most sacred, including God, to the mother’s milk that you were raised on.  And finally I just love hearing little girls say “jolín mama,” a cute euphemism for joder, the f-word, which also abbreviates nicely to jo. Ok, I’ll stop now, you can discover more yourself.

One last bit of advice: Try not to be shy about speaking and making mistakes! The only way to learn is to practice and people will appreciate the effort.

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