Charming Peculiarities of Colombian Spanish

by | Aug 27, 2010 | Travel | 7 comments

Spanish and Portuguese are so close and yet so different that it’s quite trippy to transition between the two, and before I arrived in Colombia I had the sensation of a head popping like a cartoon character when I tried to speak Spanish. Does not compute!

Happily, after a month in Colombia my Spanish is dusted off and working just fine, and is probably stronger now for all the cognates that I know from Portuguese. And I must say that I adored it when Colombians asked me if I was Brazilian because of my accent. (I’ve always felt a desire to be “Brazilian” in some odd way, after getting to know all the lovely people who became my friends there.)

Colombia has its own charms, including many charming everyday expressions, some of which initially befuddled me, and now all of which charm in the extreme. I get the impression that these are Colombianisms, but if any of these expressions are common in other hispanohablante countries, please let me know in the comments.

“A la orden.” When I first arrived in Colombia, bleary-eyed from more than 24 hours of air travel from Rio, I took a walk around the colorful streets of Santa Marta, a Caribbean hub of a town near some of Colombia’s most beautiful beaches in Parque Nacional Tayrona. The streets were bleached with sun and heat and dotted with fresh lemonade stands. And everywhere I walked, people hawking electronics, shoes, hats called out “A la orden.”

Later in Taganga, a little fishing village, every interaction with a street vendor began and ended with “A la orden.” I had no clue what these three words meant. Was I supposed to say “A la orden” in return? None of the gringo tourists knew. I asked a street vendor who sold me an arepa, a Colombian soft grilled pancakey taco (quite delicious), what “a la orden” meant. She told me “OK.” I believed her. Later I learned that was not exactly right.

According to Google Translate, “a la orden” literally means “to order,” but a more accurate translation is “at your service.” It’s been amusing to spend time in a country where people are calling out all the time that they are at your beck and call. The “a la orden” thing seems like a societal tic, like people can’t control themselves from saying it constantly.

Is the service really that great in Colombia? It’s OK. I don’t think it’s quite at American standards. For example, a clerk at a corner store won’t initiate contact here, you have to push a bit to pay. In general, they are not totally attentive in the way that American might expect service to be. But the service is probably better than Brazil’s, and what’s more, it is often delivered “con mucho gusto.”

“Con mucho gusto.” Let’s say that you give me a delicious fruit, say maracuya, or passion fruit. And I thank you, saying “gracias.” Instead of saying “de nada” in response Colombians say “con mucho gusto.” That could be translated in French as “avec plaisir,” or in English as “with pleasure.”

It is a pleasure in itself to have people acknowledge their service or gifts with “con mucho gusto.” It makes you realize how weak “You’re welcome” is as a response to “thank you.” “Con mucho gusto” feels like a real affirmation of life! I loved making this coffee for you, or giving you this dance class. I offer it to you with mucho gusto!

People also say “mucho gusto” when they meet new people. It’s used to indicate, “pleasure to meet you,” the equivalent of the French “enchante” or Portuguese “prazer.”

Listo! One of the most interesting things about absorbing a new everyday language is learning how to say OK, and to replace the natural American-English instinct to say “OK” in agreement. Colombians and Brazilians say “OK” to some extent but it’s not the most natural way of indicating agreement.

Listo is really a fantastic word. Literally it means ready, as in, I am lista to go out to the salsateca tonight in Cali. But it also means “OK.” If we negotiate a price and I agree, I can say “listo!” Used with a question mark at the end it is the all-purpose way to ask if someone understands something, or if there is agreement. “Listo?” “Listo!”

“Listo” reminds me a little bit of “ta” in Portuguese. “Ta” is a shorter version of “esta,” a conjugation of the verb to be. It’s a way to say OK, or yes. If you ask me to stop and wait for you while you take a picture on a hike, I can say “ta!” It’s so staccato and simple and cute–I loved the process of replacing “OK” with “ta!”


  1. Julian

    You have a keen ear to spot all of these particularities. My day to day Spanish is filled with “mucho gusto” and “listo” because of my months spent traveling in Colombia (and learning Spanish there).

  2. Manuel

    Let me share some peculiarities between colombian spanish and portuguese:

    In several parts of Colombia the words buseta is used to call a middle sized bus, in Brazil it´s the dirty word for the female sexual organ, beware of using it out loud there on a bus stop.

    In Medellín the term “de mas” means probably, in Brazil “demais” means quite or so much, in spanish in general the word “mismo” means same, in Brazil “mesmo” also means so much.

    And some particular similarities:

    In Medellín friends are called “parceros”, in Brazil partners or friends are called “parceiros”

    My grandpa uses the word “gallada” to refer to a bunch of people (the word is not so used anymore), in Brazil “galera” is also a bunch of people, gallada and galera textually mean the same, a bunch of roosters

    And in Medellín “hacer una vaca” means the same than in Brazil “fazer uma vaquinha”, which means to collect money among friends.

    • Sasha Cagen

      Thanks Manuel! These are great. I am continually fascinated by the similarities and differences in Portuguese and Spanish.

  3. Sasha Cagen

    Two more peculiarities of Colombian Spanish: the use of the word nino for adults. I consider myself to be fairly obviously an adult and I noticed people calling me nino at times, and then I noticed others using ninos to call attention to other adults. It´s very cute: I guess like calling someone a kid but a little sweeter.

    The use of the word mami for one´s spouse or mate. I thought it was strange at first when I heard a husband of 50 or so call his wife mami, but now I hear it all the time and it seems like a very common term of endearment. In a way I thought that the husband was maternalizing his wife, turning her into some mother figure, as in, was she going to nurse him? Ha. But maybe mami is just honey in Colombian Spanish. Not sure yet!

  4. Manuel

    It is very common for people to use terms like “mami” to refer to someone else, for example between female friends it’s common to refer to the other one as “gorda” (fat), but in that context it’s OK, it is used between close female friends and it’s even considered sweet, but a male cannot call a woman “gorda”, in that scenario it really means calling her fat.

    Another term that was getting very popular in the streets of Medellín was to refer to other person as “mi amor” (my love), the first time I heard it was on a bus when the driver told a passanger “Ya se puede bajar mi amor” (You may now exit the bus my love), but is used in some kind of special context where the person that says “mi amor” really is poking sublty the other one.

    And the Medellín “malandros” (yes, I’ve been reading your blog) are using the term “mañiño”, which is kind of “mi niño”, but if you use it you are considered low class.

  5. Sasha Cagen

    That´s another thing that has interested me: the acceptance of the term ¨gorda¨or ¨gordita¨! I did a quick walk around Pereira one afternoon and saw a plus-size store called ¨gordita¨! In the US plus-size consumers would not want to shop at a store called Fatty! The brand would not emphasize the size of the customers. We prefer euphemisms for sure. Do you think women customers are really okay with a store called Gordita???

    But you are saying that if one female friend calls another gorda. . . what does it mean? Is it like calling a friend ¨sweetie¨or is it harder-edged like ¨bitch¨?

    Yes, I hear ¨mi amor¨ all the time in Colombia. ¨Meu amor¨was very popular in Rio in particular in Brazil, that turning everyone into a lover thing, the touch of carinho.

    That´s ineresting about mañiño . . .I really found the accent in Medellin to be so different than everywhere else in Colombia. It was much more lyrical. I don´t know if the accent was for all of Medellin or just the young fashion student and her friends that I couchsurfed with.

  6. Manuel

    Indeed Sasha, “gorda” is like “sweetie”, but only between female friends, a man cannot call a female “gorda”, but a female can call a man “gordo” and it´s still like “sweetie”.

    The term “gordito” has gained acceptance as a friendly way to refer to an overwheight person, for example there´s a national organization called “Gorditos de corazón” that help overweight persons with their psycological and physical issues.

    And the accent of the young here in Medellín is very particular, and it has gained ground among all the classes, not only among the popular classes, there´s a comedian who has gained a lot of popularity called “Suso el Paspi”, his most particular characteristic is his profound and exaggerated use of the young accent slurs and talking style, in his live presentations the young enjoy it and applaud him a lot, he’s quite a celebrity.


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Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

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