How to Sound Like a Panamanian
Since the world can’t stop gushing about those “Panama Papers” these days, I thought let’s ride the wave and learn something about the country while we’re at it. I mean how often does this country make international news anyway? Now that Panama is finally enjoying some spotlight, it makes sense to learn a bit about its language; because the huge financial boo-boo notwithstanding, Panama is still a place every bit worth a trip! This post is all about the flavor of Spanish spoken in this tiny country and an attempt to help you make yours sound a tad like theirs.
The Andalusian Effect
Andalusia is a region in southern Spain. Once the stronghold of the Moors, this region has a Spanish of its own. And the Spanish spoken here seems to have impacted those spoken elsewhere like no man’s business. It would be safe to assume that the Spanish of the Caribbean is nothing but a heavily evolved version of the Spanish spoken in Andalusia. Andalusian Spanish has also had a profound impact on the language of Panama. The reason behind this connection is the way migrations happened back in the day. You see, some of the earliest European settlers in the region came from Andalusia and small-pox and Christianity weren’t the only things they brought with them. Let’s see the most significant remnants of Andalusian Spanish in the Spanish of Panama as spoken today.
Softening of “ch”
This is a very common sound in Spanish. Take words like muchacha and chamba – It’s hard to go ten minutes in Spanish without having to utter this sound. It’s also hard to imagine why anyone would ever make a mistake pronouncing this as anything but /ch/. Leave it to the Andalusians to mispronounce something this straightforward and easy to pronounce. When they say muchacha, you’ll hear /mu-shah-shah/ and not /mu-chah-chah/. This is also a common feature of Panamanian Spanish.
While it’s common to hear /sh/ instead of /ch/ in Panama, do keep in mind that the practice is generally considered uneducated and rare among the elite. Also, the practice is more common in the cities than in the countryside. So depending on the situation, you’d be better off exercising caution trying this one out.
This is one of the very defining features of the Spanish spoken all over coastal South America and the Caribbean. People in these regions almost always turn their sound their syllable-final “-s” and /h/ instead of /s/. This means, for example, dos ratos (two rats) would sound like /doh rrah-toh/ instead of the more standard /dohs rrah-tohs/.
Like I said, this phenomena is common throughout the Caribbean and along the South American coastline. This means, you’ll hear this aspiration not only in Panama but also in coastal Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Ecuador. Across the Pond the phenomena can also be noticed in the Canary Islands and Andalusia.
Jardín and Others
The letter “j” is most often pronounced as a guttural sound not different from how the Scots do their “-ch” in, say, loch. Let’s call it the /x/ sound for easy reference. Now the Panamanians seem to further simplify the sound and do an /h/ (as in “house”) instead.
This practice is, of course, not limited to Panama and can be noted in most parts of the Caribbean and coastal South America. Back in Europe, the Canaries and Andalusia still follow this practice.
Other Pronunciation Quirks
These are not as significant or defining as the three discussed above but depending on where you find yourself in Panama, are quite distinguishing nonetheless.
The first one I can think of is the way they pronounce their syllable-final “-d”. While the rest of the Spanish-speaking world does just fine with /d/, urban Panamanians go /t/. What this means is that a word like verdad, when rendered by a native Panamanian, would sound like /vayr-daht/ instead of /vayr-dahd/. To untrained ears, this phenomena might be too subtle to notice but it does exist.
Another quirk involves that letter “f”. Everywhere, Spanish-speakers render their “f” as /f/, just as we English-speakers do. The cities of Panama follow the same practice. However, rural Panamanians seem to pronounce this letter with a little bilabial explosion. Don’t worry, all this means is that their “f” sounds more like /ph/ than /f/. But like I said, you can disregard this one if you’re sticking to the cities.
Rural Panamanians are also known to abridge their syllable-final “-ado” pronunciation. While most Spanish speakers say it as it is, folks from small towns and villages of Panama swallow the /d/ and render the syllable as /ao/ instead of /ado/. To many of you this might sound a tad lazy but this is one of the most easily identifiable features of the Spanish spoken in the countryside. Oh and this particular feature is not unique to Panama; I have heard some Mexicans do this as well!
Many Panamanians, in villages and in the cities alike, are also known to nasalize their syllable-final “-n”. Thus, consejo (advice) might sometimes sound like /kong-say-hoe/ instead of /kon-say-hoe/. Again, this change is too subtle for untrained ears to notice at first but once you hear it, you’ll hear it all the time.
Yes, Panama has it’s own take on the (in)famous Cockney accent of London! Alright, the two are not exactly the same but to many including me, are equally ridiculous. Among the youth of Panama, especially in the cities, it’s common to swap the syllables of a word and I don’t know why. For example, if you hear /roh-ka/ they’re talking about a carro (car). See how stupid it sounds? I hear this is a common feature in some other parts of Latin America as well, good Lord!
Like I said above, this annoying practice can be heard mostly in the cities and among the youth. That being said, I strongly urge you to avoid doing this yourself because, as one would expect, the idea of swapping syllables like this is not considered sign of a very educated speaker.
Vos Instead of Tú
Linguists call this the voseo debate – a debate over which pronoun to use for the singular second person in familiar settings. While most of the Spanish-speaking world prefers to keep things simple and stick to tú, some choose to go with vos. Voseo is a very big topic and books have been written discussing it at length. However, all you need to know for now is that it is the practice of using vos instead of tú.
Generally, you’ll do just fine with tú but if you’re visiting the Southern Cone, vos is going to be indispensable. Most of Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, and even parts of Central America prefer vos over tú. So far as Panama goes, well, tú works for the most part except in the southern Azuero peninsula.
The verb used with vos in this region, however, doesn’t follow the typical conjugation expected of a vos verb. Instead, it follows the pattern of vosotros from Spain! Thus, while it’s tú hablas in most non-voseo regions (such as Mexico) and vos hablás in most voseo regions (such as Argentina), it becomes vos habláis in Panama. This peculiarity (of using vos along with the vosotros conjugation) is also shared by Venezuelan Maracucho and Chilean Spanish as well.
Other than the phonological and grammatical idiosyncrasies described above, Panamanian Spanish also includes a rich lexicon of slang and colloquialism unique to Panama. Just like any other variant of Spanish, Panamanian Spanish also boasts of regional word as well as standard words used in non-standard ways unique to Panama. A discussion of all such words warrants more than a mere blog post but watch out, I will soon be writing about some of the most fun ones.
As always, I would love to hear from you if there’s anything you can add to this discussion. Got a friend in Panama? Ever been there? What did you notice about the way they speak that could be added to this post? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below and remember, Panama has a lot more to offer than the stupid “Panama Papers.”