Vosotros - Ustedes

I can speak only about Puerto Rican Spanish, but there are enough differences to keep one busy. Yes, the absence of vosotros ( = you plural familiar) does appears to be serious on the face of it, but no one seems to miss it much. Speakers merely switch gears from familar to polite and use ustedes ( = you plural polite). I have been assured on more than one occasion that usted ( = you polite singular) is used only when addressing the governor or president. Still, the kids I taught used usted with me and I have no political aspirations.

Dropped Letters

The most striking lack is the pronunciation of the letter s, which habit, they tell me, comes from the Canary Islands. In fact, I was told that careful observance of all the s sounds might prompt the comment quiere tirarse un pe'o más alto que su culo ( = he wants to fart higher than his ass hole), which is one colorful way a Puerto Rican can say that the guy is putting on airs. If you listen quite carefully, it seems to me that the letter s isn't dropped, but converted to a glottal stop so that estos ( = Eng. these) becomes e:to: . This peculiarity is very useful to gringos who are never sure whether the familiar or polite form of the verb should be used. The only difference between the polite dónde vive? and the familiar dónde vives? ( = Eng. Where do you live?) is that pesky letter s. If you swallow it, who knows whether you have been unduly familiar or overly polite or a master of Spanish nuance in Puerto Rico.

The letter d also seems to get short shrift in Puerto Rican Spanish. Take the word pe'o ( = Eng. fart), mentioned above. The first time I heard it I ran to my trusty dictionary and couldn't find it, even though my informant assured me it was a real Spanish word. When he gave the meaning, I looked up "fart" and found pedo. Poor d had been dropped, as it is in most past participles. Thus llamado ( = Eng. called) becomes llama'o

An example will demonstrate how a gringo can easily become confused. We were walking through the Botanical Gardens in Río Piedras, when a little girl ran past us, yelling what I thought to be, "Mami, kaka." Now, kakar is kiddy talk for " to defecate." Providing the missing d, I had the past participle kakada which I thought meant that the little girl needed to have her diaper changed. However, we moved a bit further and saw a small waterfall, which in Spanish would be a cascada. I provided the d, but it also needed an s to make perfect sense.

Of course, I've been guilty of going in the other direction. A kind of stew with rice is called asopao. If there were the verb asopar ( = to be soupy) and there isn't, the past participle would be asopado. Naturally I ordered an asopado and received quite a bit of ribbing.


There must be 1,000s of words that have other meanings and significations in Puerto Rico. The first word that comes to mind is chulo, which is most places is a "pimp." On the island a baby can also be chulo, meaning "cute." If the baby is exceptionally chulo the women will exclaim, "ay, que nice." The context in which I first heard m'ijo ( = my son) was a shocker. I overheard a woman use it when speaking with her husband. I honestly thought she was having an incestuous relationship with her son.

As I mentioned elsewhere, the word bicho in the Spanish speaking world means "insect", except in Puerto Rico where it is a rude word for penis. One of the students at the school where I taught brought back from Mexico a can of insect spray which had the word matabicho prominently displayed. To a Mexican the word meant "bug killer," but to a Puerto Rican it read "dick destroyer." By the end of the day all the boys had wet crotches that smelled of insect spray.

In the same vein, but in reverse, we have one innocent word, concha, which means "conch shell". It is the name of a large hotel in the tourist area of San Juan. Often large numbers of Cuban men from Miami have their pictures in front of the sign. Why? The word in Cuban Spanish is considered extremely vulgar and means "vagina." You rarely win in Spanish.

The Puerto Rican loves his language and finds great amusement in playing with it. I've often said to visitors, "scratch a Puerto Rican and you'll find a poet... and a comedian." We had a noted female entertainer with an prominent backside (well, enormous female backsides are very popular). She was selected to advertise a automoble coolant on TV. Why? Because one word for any kind rump is culo and everytime she used the word "coolant" she'd wiggle her ass. It was kind of a double whammy.

The differences between European and Puerto Rican Spanish are considerable and are a source of continual amusement. During the time I lived there, I wondered what mainlanders talked about in the States. The language was one of the gringo's favorite topics of conversation.