What language is spoken in Costa Rica?
The languages of Costa Rica are the set of languages and dialects practiced by the population residing in Costa Rican territory. Of all of them, the most widely used is Spanish in its local variant, which also enjoys official status guaranteed by the Constitution.
But beyond the use of Spanish, the country presents an extraordinarily diverse linguistic panorama, since -despite its small geographic extension, its small population of more than 5 million inhabitants and sharing borders only with Hispanic neighbors- more than 10 languages can be counted that coexist in the nation, without counting hundreds of languages whose use is sporadic, as they are related to foreign communities that have migrated and settled in the territory.
In 2015 Costa Rica is officially recognized as a multiethnic and multicultural republic, extolling the Amerindian, European, African and Asian contribution that makes up the Costa Rican culture and is reflected in the diversity of languages present in the country. In terms of legislation, the greatest progress that has been made in this regard was the reform of Article 76 of its Political Constitution, which currently states that:
Spanish is the official language of the Nation. However, the State shall ensure the maintenance and cultivation of the national indigenous languages.
Five indigenous languages are currently spoken in Costa Rica, all of them belonging to the Chibcha family. These languages are the following:
Malecu: It is also known as Guatuso. It is spoken by about 800 people in the northwestern region of the province of Alajuela. This language, along with Rama belongs to the Vootic group of the Chibcha linguistic family.
Cabécar: It is spoken in the Talamanca mountain range and in the south Pacific region. It belongs, along with Bribri, to the Viceitic subgroup of the Chibcha linguistic family.
Bribri: It is spoken in the south of the Atlantic slope (province of Limón, in the Talamanca mountain range and in the South Pacific region. Together with Cabecar, it forms the Viceíta subgroup.
Guaymí: It is spoken in various indigenous territories located southeast of the province of Puntarenas, bordering Panama. Together with Bocotá, it belongs to the Guaymí subgroup of the Chibcha linguistic family.
Bocotá: It is spoken in the same territories as Guaymí, a language with which it is closely related.
Recently extinct indigenous languages
At the beginning of the 21st century, two indigenous languages became extinct:
Térraba: It was spoken in the Térraba indigenous reserve, southeast of Puntarenas province. It was actually a variety of Téribe, which is still spoken mainly in Panama.
Boruca: It was spoken in the reserves of Boruca and Curré, southeast of the province of Puntarenas.
The indigenous communities of Costa Rica, as mentioned, are usually classified into four subfamilies belonging to three linguistic families. Some of the languages are poorly documented, however, it appears that all documented languages can be classified with reasonable certainty. Where a language is extinct, it is indicated by the sign †. The table indicates the territories where the various languages were spoken, although the languages have now disappeared from many of the departments indicated.
Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the country for socio-historical reasons related to the conquest and power groups. It is present in all cultural, political, academic and economic aspects of the country and is used in every social stratum of the nation.
The form of Spanish used in Costa Rica is very varied, with noticeable phonetic changes in each region of the country. The most recognized variant is the way of speaking in the Central Valley, where the majority of the population lives. This dialect is very different from that of the rest of Central America and shares many similarities with Colombian Bogota Spanish.
There are other variants of Costa Rican Spanish, mainly in the forms of speech of the border areas, in the dialect present in the Province of Guanacaste or in the form of Spanish used in the Province of Limón.
Costa Rican street slang or argot is known as “pachuco”, a regional variation of Castilian Spanish influenced by words and expressions from English, French, the Malespin Code, Limonese Creole, traditional Castilian and other expressions in popular use in Costa Rica.
The Malespín Code was created by Salvadoran General Francisco Malespín during the Central American civil wars of the 19th century. For example: both the word “tuanis” (very well) and the word “brete” (work), both in daily use in Costa Rica, had their origin in this curious Malespín code, which simply consists of substituting a for e, i for o, b for t, f for g, p for m, and vice versa.
In the Caribbean area of the country, Limonese Creole is also spoken, which is a variety of English spoken in the English-speaking Caribbean. Limonese Creole has been popularly referred to as “patois” or mekatelyu. The latter name is a sort of onomatopoeia formed from the pronunciation of the phrase “Meik I tell yu somtin’ (May I tell you something)” in this variant of English.
Although this name is said to be the one given by the Limonenses themselves to their variety of English, it was apparently proposed from linguistic studies in the years. It is assumed that “May I tell you something” is a phrase used to start a gossip story, which implies a negative representation of the Limonense community, to which some sectors of the population of Limón are opposed.