Sometimes I use Google Translate to look up Spanish words I don’t know, to double check Spanish I do know, or just to play around. Sometimes I type “Caliche” words into Google Translate to see what it manages to come up with, if anything at all.
“Caliche” (ka-lee-chay), is the type of Spanish spoken in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. They have a lot of unique words and phrases, many of which come from Nahuatl, (the language of the indigenous peoples in the region before the arrival of the Spaniards.)
Being married to a Salvadoran, and immersed in the Caliche of my suegra, has really influenced my Spanish, sometimes more than I realize. Last year we were riding the Metro in D.C. and a woman, who turned out to be Peruvian, was holding a baby. She seemed friendly enough, and the baby was too cute, so I couldn’t resist asking to hold her – there was only one problem. The Peruvian woman didn’t understand my Spanish! At first I thought maybe I just wasn’t speaking clearly, that my accent was too gringa – so I repeated myself carefully.
“Podría chinear tu bebé?”
She still didn’t understand me. Why is that? Because I had mistakenly used a Caliche word. “Chinear” in El Salvador means “to hold in the arms.” (By the way, Suegra jumped in and repeated my request, making a rocking movement with her arms and the woman allowed me to hold the baby.)
A lot of the words I’ve learned over the years, I just file away as “new vocabulary,” not knowing whether they are Spanish or Caliche. This doesn’t become a problem until I speak to those from outside Central America.
The newest word to give me trouble is “cipote.” I use “cipote,” (see-po-tay) quite often. My kids respond to it just as they would their legal names. This word simply means “little boy/kid/niño.” (A girl could be called a “cipota,” (see-po-tah). But what happens when I ask Google Translate what it means?
I was really shocked that Google Translate could be so way off – but after a search around the internet, I found out that “cipote” in some other countries really does have a vulgar meaning.
Now I am imaging all the times I called out to my kids in public, “Cipote! Vengasé ya!” – and I’m wondering how many non-Caliche Spanish speakers misunderstood me.