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Popular Language
The people of Cuba, first a Spanish colony and later a neo-colony of the United States, have sought out a variety of ways to manifest their opposition to the powers that oppress them. This has been an influence on how the people on the street are speaking; gradually, the people came to develop an expressive form that was parallel and, on occasion, opposed or confrontational to the language being used by the exploiting classes.

Marginalized groups such as the black slaves, fervently held on to their vocabulary and sounds, and these came to make up part of everyday speech. The indigenous legacy, even though it is not so obvious in other aspects, is quite present in speech and we can argue the fact with numerous terms of that origin which are part of the Cuban norm.

Among the American-Indian and Afro expressions still in use today, we can find words coming to us from aboriginal roots: batey, bibijagua, bijirita, bohío, Cuba, guasasa, guayo, güije, jutía, yagua; and those originating in Africa: ampanga, bemba, babalao, bilongo, cumbancha, ecobio and moropo.

Voices representing popular groups also arrived here from Europe, such as those from Germanic or gypsy sources, together with sounds and signs from other languages such as English, French or Italian. These sources, united to other elements, gradually made up the first vestiges of a popular Cuban language.

As the Cuban writer and journalist Argelio Santiesteban states in his book El habla popular de hoy, una tonga de cubichismos que le oí a mi pueblo (Translator’s note: since the title of this book uses Cubanisms and puns, a loose translation would be: Popular Speech of Today: a Bucket-full of Cubanisms that I Hear on the Street), the first traces of a Cuban way of speaking which bears a defined personality of its own can be found in the “décimas y seguidillas” (popular rhythmic rhymes) entitled “Al sitio y toma” (“In Honour of the Seige and the Occupation”) commemorating the English attack on Havana and the subsequent English conquest of the capital city.

With the triumph of the Revolution in January 1959, characteristics which have continued renewing themselves in the last few decades were drawn up and reinforced to a greater extent.

There are plenty of examples illustrating the “creations” which have nourished the manner of speaking of the Cubans. Among Cubans, the need to see a person “tinta en sangre” (written in blood) does not mean that murderous inclinations are being expressed against that person, rather it emphasizes that you need to contact the person at all cost. “Estar trabajando para el inglés” (To be working for the Englishman) doesn’t mean you have been contracted by someone from the British Isles, but it means you are exerting yourself for some alien benefit. A “flauta” (flute) might not sound any musical note since this term is used many times in reference to a long stick of bread. “Nereida” is not a Muse but an alternate way of saying “no”; “sata” is a flirty female and “ponina” is used to describe passing the hat around, to collect money.

The close geographical proximity of the United States and Cuba’s condition as a U.S. neo-colony during the first part of the twentieth century contributed to the introduction of Anglo-Saxon words and sounds, thus enriching the Cuban vocabulary. The importing of machinery bearing brand names in English also left its mark. An electrical switch for Cubans became known as a “catao” which is “cut out” phonetically transcribed, or “switch”, and a fridge became known as a “frigidaire”.

Among the expressions we have appropriated, there is the super well-known OK converted into “Ocá!” It is also very interesting how the spread of Westerns in the media, where the word Yuma (a town in Arizona) was often to be heard, resulted in the use of the word “Yuma” when referring to the United States, and a “yuma” was the same as saying “an American”.

The Haitian Revolution brought a considerable number of French-speaking colonials to Cuba, especially to the eastern part of the island, and what stayed with them were some Gallicisms that peppered our Spanish: for example “bidel” (bidet) and “creyón” (lipstick, from the French "crayon”).

“Germanías”, which were criminal brotherhoods flourishing in Spain hundreds of years ago, or “caló”, the language spoken by the gypsies, brought many of the words that today are deemed to be a Cuban creation of a very low cultural level. Among these we find “afanar” (to steal), “arañar” (to scrape through), “palmar” (to lose money), “gao” (home), “puro” (father), “jamar” (to eat) and “bisne” (which also reminds us of “business” in English and in “caló” is the infinitive form of “change”.)

All of these elements, together with others of a more generalized nature and accepted by the vast majority, make up a popular glossary of our language, always seasoned with a healthy dose of good humour and mischievous wit.

Argelio Santiesteban assures us that “all the preceding does not undermine the following statement: in Cuba we speak a form of Spanish that is as good as the best, since the above mentioned modifications do not belong just to us, but, together with others, make up a large part of the Spanish-speaking world”.
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