Words are the building blocks of the complex construction of human language. You probably know that when learning a new language (rather than acquiring it naturally as an infant), we tend to use translation as a tool to help us memorize new words. It’s a natural response and an essential tool to help learners progress. But what about words that have no straightforward translation from Spanish to English? That might present a problem for Spanish language learners.
One common reaction is to dismiss these unique Spanish words as impossible to master. But that means missing important nuances of the language. Consider how interesting these words are! The reason it’s difficult to offer a simple, direct translation is often that it describes a cultural aspect of the countries Spanish is commonly spoken.
Taking into account that Spanish is the official language in 20 Latin American countries, it might come as no surprise that the list below with words that don’t have a direct translation from Spanish into English is far from complete – it would take a book to contain them all! But, you have to start somewhere and these words and expressions we’ve selected are certainly a step in the right direction. Here are 10 words in Spanish that don’t exist in English.
Así que.. ¡empecemos!
Nomás (pronounced: noh-MAHS)
- We’ll start with one of the most “Latin American” Spanish words that exists: nomás. This filler word is hard to translate because its meaning changes depending on which words it’s used with, and even depending on the country you’re in.
- South of Colombia it’s usually used at the end of the sentence to indicate something like “no more than that” or “right there”: Déjalo allí nomás. (Leave it just over there.) / Voy a bajar aquí nomás. (I’m going to get off just here.)
- In Mexico, however, it’s used more like just/only or as soon as, and often at the start of the sentence: Nomás estoy mirando. (I’m only looking.)
Yapa/Ipegüe (pronounced: YA-pah / eeh-pe-WE)
- Two different words for the same concept that doesn’t quite exist in English: a little free top-up of some street food you’ve just bought. It’s a clear reflection of the prevalence of street food, and how business is always flexible in Latin America. Yapa is used mostly in Andean countries, whereas ipegüe is the Nicaraguan equivalent.
- ¡Qué rico está el jugo de naranja! ¿Viene con yapa/ipegüe? (This orange juice is so tasty! Does it come with a top-up?)
Friolento/a (pronounced: free-oh-LEN-toh/tah)
- This adjective is used to describe someone that feels cold easily, we definitely need a word for this in English! (Fun fact: since a lot of regions in Latin America are warm, a lot of people are friolento because they haven’t had to deal with northern hemisphere levels of cold weather.)
- Préstame tu abrigo, ¡sabes que soy muy friolenta! (Lend me your coat, you know I get cold really easily!)
Ya (pronounced: yah)
- Wait, doesn’t ya just mean already and ya no not anymore? If only it were that simple. In Peru, especially, ya has about ten different meanings, depending on the context and intonation. It can mean: yes, okay, ready/done, whatever, go on, I see, stop, no way and come on. You can see this warrants an entire blog post of its own, but here are a few examples for now.
- ¿Ya? ¡Estoy esperando! (Are you done? I’m waiting!)
- A: Logré terminar el maratón sin tomar ni una gota de agua… B: Yaaaa.. ¡No te creo para nada! (A: I managed to finish the marathon without drinking a drop of water.. B: No way….! I don’t believe you for a second!)
Mamitis/hijitis (pronounced: mah-MEE-tees / ee-HEE-tees)
- Mamitis kind of means “the medical condition of being a mama’s boy” (or “mama’s girl”, but in reality, as most Latin countries are still struggling with old-fashioned chauvinist notions, it tends to be boys and grown men that suffer from this). Hijitis, on the other hand, would be what the mother (or sometimes father) is suffering from, endlessly fussing over her son or daughter and not letting them grow up.
- Mario sufre de mamitis: tiene 30 años y su mamá todavía le limpia el cuarto. (Mario is such a mama’s boy: he’s 30 years old and his mom still cleans his room.)
Pués (pronounced: poowes)
- Pués is an interjection that is used quite differently in Latin America than in Spain, where it can basically be translated to well (also used as an interjection). In Latin America, however, especially in the Andean countries, it is usually added to the end of sentences to add emphasis or emotion to the statement. When it’s used in combination with ya, ya pués, it can mean okay, sure, or imploring a “come on then”. Colloquially, this is also often shortened to yape.
- A: Vamos al concierto esta noche, ¡pués! B: Ya pues, ¡vamos! (A: Let’s go to the concert tonight, then! B: Okay then, let’s go!)
Casero/a (pronounced: cah-SE-roh/rah)
- Let’s get this straight, we’re talking about casero as a noun, not as the adjective that just means homemade. You soon learn this word when you set foot in any fresh produce in the Andean countries, even though it confusingly refers to both the regular buyer and stallholder, depending on who’s speaking. So if you’re the person buying, your casero stallholder is the one you always buy from (or maybe you just want to call them casero anyway, even if it’s your first time at that particular market..). Likewise, the stallholder will call you casero/a if you buy from them regularly.
- (Buyer speaking) Buenos días casero, ¿tienes buenos choclos hoy? / (Stallholder replying) ¡Caserita! ¡Claro que sí! 2 por un solcito nomás. (Good morning, casero, do you have decent corn today? / Caserita! Of course! 2 for just one sol.)
Risueño/a (pronounced: ree-SWEY-nyoh/nyah)
- This adjective could be translated as “smiley” to describe a person, but that translation doesn’t really cover it. It’s derived from the noun risa (smile), but means more than just a person that smiles a lot, it really indicates that the person is generally cheerful.
- Me cae bien Talía, es super risueña. (I like Talía a lot, she’s so smiley/cheerful.)
Pasear (pronounced: pah-sey-AHR)
- This catch-all verb is famously hard to translate, because it means different things depending on the context. It could be to go for a little walk, to go for a ride if a vehicle is involved, or even to go and visit the local tourist attractions. You’ll also hear ir de paseo o dar un paseo to describe a journey that’s a bit longer.
- A: Y Brianna, ¿qué hiciste en tu cita anoche? B: No mucho, paseamos por la plaza y después tomamos unas cervezas. (A: And Brianna, what did you do on your date last night? B: Not much, we just strolled around the square and then had a few beers.)
Naguará (pronounced: nah-wah-RAH)
- The filler word is so typical of the western part of Venezuela that its inhabitants are known as “guaros” because they use it hundreds of times a day! It emphasizes what’s being said, basically adding drama and emotion to it. Example: Quiero cantar pero, naguará, no se me escucha bien. (I want to sing but, naguará, I don’t sound good.)
Learning these quintessential Latin American Spanish phrases will have brought you a few steps closer to understanding some of the language and cultural aspects of this complex, compelling continent. To learn more of these types of words, make sure to turn on the subtitles when watching Latin American films and TV series, and you’ll be sure to pick up many more that we haven’t listed here.
¡Nos vemos caseritos!