The Cuban Language

Cuba, like all countries, is influenced by it’s past. The way they communicate can attest to that. Their three official languages are Spanish, Creole, and English—all of whom once inhabited Cuba. In the late 15th century, Spain discovered Cuba and colonized it. It was used as a prime port to repair Spanish boats on their way to the New World. When the Spanish came, they brought their language with them. Even today, on paper, Cubans use the traditional Castilian Spanish. Unlike Spaniards though, Cubans don’t produce the “th” sound in place of ‘s’ or ‘c’ when followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. They do however follow the Spanish tradition in shortening or “eating their words.” In other words, they don’t pronounce many syllables at the end of their words. Plural words oft

Cubans and non-Cubans connecting through language. havanajournal.com

Cubans and non-Cubans connecting through language. havanajournal.com

entimes will seem singular because the ‘s’ at the end has been dropped, in typical Spanish fashion.

Where did the Creole come from then? This also stems from Cuba’s colonial past; this time though, it’s from the Haitians. Before the 1800s, Cuba’s main product was tobacco and in the mid to late 1700s changed to sugar. Producing sugar was a dangerous and intense process. Cuba used slaves to harvest this time sensitive product. By 1763, Cuba was still only the second largest sugar producer—Haiti, though a much smaller country, was making around 60,000 more tons of sugar. Haiti also used an immense slave labor force to work on sugar plantations. The slaves so outnumbered the plantation owners and were treated so badly that in 1791 they revolted. It can be argued that this decade long uprising was one of, if not the most, gruesome, bloody and violent revolt in history. During this time, about 30,000 French colonists fled from Haiti to, you guessed it, Cuba. With them, they brought the knowhow and slaves to contribute to Cuba’s sugar production. With Haiti out of the way, Cuba became the biggest exporter of sugar. They also brought over something even sweeter than sugar—their language. The Haitians, who were colonized by the French, brought over Creole, which became Cuba’s second most spoken language.

And then there’s English. For a long time, the United States saw Cuba as naturally theirs due to its close proximity. They offered to buy Cuba from Spain multiple times in the 1840s and 1850s—offering up to $130 million. For the time being, the US had to settle for the idea of “no transfer.” Essentially, the US were allowing Spain to own Cuba but “called dibbs” on Cuba were Spain be no longer able to own it. The US would no support Spain “transferring” ownership to anyone else besides the US. Soon the US civil war took place, forcing the US to focus within its boarders rather than countries outside of it. This close relationship, as well as half to Cuban trade was with the US, influenced the Cubans, who integrated English into their language. There are many cognates, or similar words shared between Cuban Spanish and English. For example the word baseball is Spanish is béisbol, and is pronounced nearly identically.

Cuban Spanish is said to be one of the hardest Spanish dialects to understand. Between dropping of syllables at the ends of their words and the rapid fire speed at which they speak, I’ll have a hard time to say the least. I want to learn everything about how Cubans communicate though. I’m more than up for the challenge. I went to Spain, and was confronted with similar difficulties. They too drop or “eat” syllables, especially at the end of their words. I learned to recognize “mercao” as “mercado”, the Spanish equivalent of market. In Cuba, I hope to learn the ins and outs of their shortened words as well. I am very aware that I won’t be able to hear every single word nor understand all the words that I can make out—and that’s okay to me. Really, what I want to do above all else is improve and connect with the Cubans.

Like in most countries, just making the effort to speak the local language is often enough to find a way into their hearts. I know that I will make mistakes and probably have to ask them repeatedly to slow down, but hopefully they won’t mind. Cubans are known to be wonderfully friendly people, and would probably welcome me with open arms no matter what language I chose to speak. There’s something about that special connection that can be made only through speaking someone’s native language. It’s almost like learning the secret password into their culture. Language, especially in Cuba, is often tied to their culture, their history, their people—all of which makes them who they are. The Spanish colonization of their country brought the Spanish language to them. The Haitians who fled to Cuba brought their slaves, as well as the Creole language. Close proximity, and what was once a close relationship, to the US introduced English to Cubans. This is part of their history and speaking Spanish is, in essence, speaking to their past. It brings people that much closer to them. That’s my goal—to be accepted as one of their own.

I don’t want to be seen as a mere tourist. I want to blend in with the Cubans. I want to be a part of the typical loud and animated greetings. I want to drop the ends of my words. I want to speak from my throat. I want to be accepted. I know realistically, this transformation won’t happen in a matter of eight days, but I’m going to try anyway. I know I will never actually be Cuban, but not being an outsider is close enough.

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