31 Oct, 2014 @ 09:00
2 mins read

The purgatory of language limbo

WE’VE all been there … at the meat counter, ordering ‘breasts of penis’.

The ‘pechugas de poya’ (sic) joke is so old, even Spanish butchers don’t laugh anymore; nor sales assistants in soft furnishing departments when we get our ‘cojines’ (cushions) confused with our ‘cojones’ and ask for a set of matching testicle covers.

That’s kindergarten stuff. The trouble begins at the next level up, when expat friends complement your fluency but Spanish pals respond sympathetically to your laboured efforts with: “It’s OK, I speak English.”

Welcome to the purgatory of ‘language limbo’, when a little knowledge of Spanish can be a dangerous thing. Suddenly it seems easier to cross the road – even if it’s the N340 in rush-hour – than bump into your Spanish neighbours because in a nano-second, ‘safe topics’ like the weather can veer off into President Rajoy’s foreign policy.

It’s the stage when you blithely answer the phone with ‘digame’ (which for years I thought was ‘dig me,’ some form of hip Spanish greeting) and are cool when someone calls you ‘coño’ (in friendship) but can’t quite bring yourself to use it back.

You have the vocab polished but not it’s sexual orientation – any language where the male organ (poya) is feminine and the female (coño) is masculine is bound to lead to gender confusion. And your grammar’s so irregular you’re conversationally constipated (although if you say that in Spanish you’ll get away with it, as they’ll just think you’re under the weather (constipada means to have a cold).

The dining table is a daunting arena, as the Spanish talk faster than they drive. It’s not even safe to nod and smile in case the spotlight turns on you, as it did during a particularly posh function when my host sprung the question: “So what’s your view of Angela Merkel?” “Esta buena” I parried proudly, at which the whole table stopped talking. What I meant was that she was ‘a good person’ (es buena). What I’d actually said was: “She’s hot!”

And beware of alcohol. Booze may give you more rabbit than Sainsbury’s but don’t get carried away, like I did at another dinner party (maybe this is why I’m invited to so many), telling everyone I was ‘tan excitada’ to be conversing in ‘real Spanish’, unaware it meant ‘sexually turned-on’.

It’s best to avoid all Spanish words that sound English – known as cognates or ‘friendly words’ – because they often turn out to be false friends. Wrong usage could give the impression that you’re up the duff rather than embarrassed (embarazada = pregnant), demanding a commitment instead of a compromise (compromiso = an obligation) and serious, not just pretending (pretender = to intend).

This twilight world of semi-comprehension is far worse than not speaking Spanish at all. Was that crucial business appointment at las dos or las doce? Did they mean manana tomorrow or manana this morning? Could the man sitting next to you on the bus really have bludgeoned his wife to death with a leg of serrano ham or was he just speaking figuratively?

In the twilight zone of language limbo you may never know!

Next week: The Slanguage Barrier

Belinda Beckett (Columnist)

Belinda Beckett is a qualified journalist and freelance writer based in the Campo de Gibraltar, specialising in travel & lifestyle features and humour columns.

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