I must first confess that I know almost nothing about linguistics, so to anybody who finds themselves here because of Linguistics in the title, please don’t be misled into thinking that I am attempting any kind of serious theoretical or technical analysis! At university I studied a module in Anthropology and Language, a broad branch of Anthropology that essentially identifies and analyses how language influences social life, but it was far from my favourite course. It did, however, make me aware that observing how language is used can offer handy indicators in helping us to understand culture, and more specifically relations between people. Of course, language is just the tip of the cultural iceberg, but for someone arriving in a country with next to no knowledge of the language who is trying to learn and adjust as quickly as possible, it’s one of the most accessible routes to assimilation. And if you want to get on, you’ve got to go with the grain.
One of the most memorable things a lecturer ever told me about fieldwork was along the lines of “people think one thing, say another, and do a third” (Glenn Bowman, probably some time in 2009). I don’t know why it struck me so much, perhaps because it applies as much to ourselves as to the anthropological ‘Other,’ but when you’re native to a place you’re much more familiar with context and the way communication works. We generally know how and when people are just being polite and when it’s okay to be honest, and more importantly how to use the correct language to do so. Anyway, the motto was at the forefront of my mind as I departed for Mexico, and I soon found it to be entirely accurate. I mean, I’m sure the Mexicans aren’t nearly as baffling amongst themselves, but it seems that I’m always trying to interpret and distinguish between what they think, say, mean, and do.
I learned very quickly that Mexicans have a real aversion to saying “no” or “I don’t know,” or basically anything negative at all. For example, when asking for directions, you could ask a dozen different people and you’d be given a dozen different answers – and not one of them would be “I don’t know”. This actually happened to me in Valle de Bravo, and I know it wasn’t just because they wanted to be nice to a helpless tourist because I was with two Mexicans at the time. It’s all part of the exaggerated politeness that I first mentioned in my early post Participant Observation, and the great emphasis placed on showing good will and helping each other (even if it is, in fact, far less helpful than admitting a lack of knowledge).
People will agree with pretty much anything you say to be polite, and then you find yourself wondering why they aren’t doing what they said they would. And you really ought to reciprocate this behaviour by saying whatever it takes to maintain pleasant and agreeable conversation, even if that means lying quite explicitly and doing the complete opposite as soon as your companion is out of sight or earshot. This is even the case when making informal plans with friends, so it’s helpful to bear in mind that ‘yes’ isn’t actually any assurance of commitment.
Consequently, when you do eventually pluck up the courage to use the ‘n’ word in the ‘yes culture,’ nobody takes you seriously. It’s just not an acceptable or polite thing to say, and people can’t believe or understand why you would refuse their request to dance/eat more/wear a hat/go to an afterparty. Even when you’re in an impersonal situation bordering on harassment, for example being accosted by very persistent vendors on the street, the word “no” is notably absent – it’s the oh-so-polite “gracias” accompanied by a gracious smile. Mexico may be notorious for crime and violence, but as far as I can tell bad attitude and quick temper just don’t list in their flaws. Or perhaps they are rude in the same way that they’re nice: impeccably courteous about it to your face, and proceeding to do the complete opposite when you’re not looking!
Evidence of their famously relaxed attitude is found in a couple of my favourite Mexicanisms that you won’t find in your standard Spanish-English dictionary. Firstly, the word domingueando, that comes from domingo (Sunday) and means enjoying a lazy Sunday. The way it is used it also typical of a very clear difference between people from Mexico City and the dawdlers of other regions: for example, a chilango (person native to the capital) might complain about slow drivers by saying “¿por qué domingueando?” – something like “why dilly dallying?!” For Poblanos (the people of Puebla), on the other hand, lingering and loitering is a treasured pastime. My other favourite is the verb pueblear, which translates roughly as ‘to potter’; to mosey around the streets, popping into shops, chatting and stopping for food. It’s no coincidence that these Mexican specialities refer to the savouring of a slow-paced lifestyle; I’m yet to find any that indicate any sense of immediacy, and really doubt that I will!
The use of diminutives is by no means restricted to Mexican Spanish, but is particularly exaggerated here, to the point where they widely acknowledge that they drive other Spanish speakers mad with it, and on occasion even each other! The diminutive suffixes (adding ita, ito, cita or cito to the end of words) don’t only mean that something is small, but are also used to indicate the speaker’s feelings toward the person or object, making what they are saying less harsh or indicating affection. It is common to change casa into casita, meaning small house, or perro into perrito, to mean puppy or cute dog, but the Mexicans will do it with pretty much anything. It’s even more prevalent because I’m working in a primary school: words aren’t just palabras but palabritas; in the game of hangman it’s not a head, cabeza, but cabezita; and even rubbish becomes cute when you turn it from basura into basurita. It’s a significant indicator of how pleasant people are to one another and how affectionate personal relations are. My host mum Pera is often called ‘Perita,’ and cousin Fernando ‘Fercito’. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the family either: the teacher in my class at school is called Laura, but on the children’s notebooks you’ll find ‘Teacher: Miss Laurita’.
It’s a very, very adorable way of speaking to people, but in England baby talk just isn’t acceptable past the age of 4, when children start school and are encouraged to ‘speak properly’. Unless you’re quite obviously joking and making a mockery of it, it is most likely to be interpreted as insultingly patronising. I just can’t bring myself to do it without feeling like a complete buffoon. Well that’s what I thought, until last night. I arrived home and Pera asked me, “¿vas a comer algo?” – “are you going to eat something?”
“Voy a hacer un huevito,” I replied – “I’ll make an eggy.” And there it was, it just slipped out. There’s no going back now.