The politics behind language

Every Spanish-speaking country has its own linguistic idiosyncrasies, its own words that have filtered in from indigenous cultures, shared history and a dozen other small things that seem insignificant. As I’ve been learning Ecuador’s own particular breed of Spanish and re-learning vocabulary I’d forgotten, I’ve realized how much culture and politics shape language.

My first week working on the farm at Hacienda Ilitio, I was talking to Marcelo, the dad of the family that lives and works on the farm. I was trying to figure out the word for farmer, so I asked him what the word was for someone who works on a farm. He said it was trabajador (worker). I said no, specific for someone who works on a farm. He said empleado (employee). I tried again, and he said there weren’t any other words. There’s definitely a Spanish word for farmer. Several, in fact. But I realized that his answer was reflective of the history of agriculture in many Latin American countries, including Ecuador. Ecuadorian farm society has historically consisted of large landowners who control enormous plantations and have workers working under them. The American concept of a small-scale, self-sufficient, back-to-the-land sort of farmer doesn’t really exist here. “Farmers” in Ecuador are either giant, rich landowners (the bosses) or poor laborers who don’t own the land they cultivate.

Similarly, Ecuadorians don’t say <i<¿que? (what?) when asking someone to repeat something. Instead, they say ¿Mande?”, which is the third person command form of the verb mandar, to demand. I talked to Sebastian, the owner of Hacienda Ilitio, about this, and he said it goes back to the same agricultural system. Workers on giant plantations would say ¿Mande?” to their bosses when they didn’t hear them because it basically means, What did you want me to do? </i>

This week, I did a short (three day) homestay in Plaza Gutierrez, a tiny town in the middle of Intag, which is a cloud forest region to the north of Quito. I was explaining to my host mom that back in the States, I’m a cashier in a grocery store. I asked her what the word for someone who worker in a grocery store was, and she suggested vendedor (seller, with a connotation of someone having a degree of autonomy) or another word I don’t remember, which meant someone who owns/runs a small store. Again, there is a Spanish word for cashier that’s distinct from the ones she suggested. But in her mind, someone who sold food at a supermercado was one of those things. People who sell stuff in stores are sellers or store owners. They’re not cogs in a corporate wheel whose main job is to do math for the store and make sure things ring up properly.

Ecuadorian Spanish is also laced with words from Kichwa, the main indigenous language spoken by people here. Which means it’s very likely that I’ll travel to another country later and forget that saying “¡Ah chay chay!” to mean “it’s cold” wouldn’t be understood by anyone in another Spanish-speaking country. It’s a little frustrating knowing that you have to re-learn Spanish a bit every time you cross a border. But it’s also so cool to notice how much seemingly little things can shape a language.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s