Language Attitude in Colombian Spanish: Cachacos vs. Costeños

Marisol Garrido
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1. Introduction and sociolinguistic background
Studies on Colombian Spanish have shown that the country displays a wide variety of regional dialects. Flórez (1964, 73) proposes a regional subdivision of seven dialectal zones based on phonetic features and lexical variation. Lipski (1994, 209) groups the regions in four super-zones according to the main phonological characteristics: Central highlands, Caribbean coast, Pacific coast, and Amazonian region. The linguistic differences and cultural idiosyncrasies of each region have contributed to establish regional identities, which are recognized by the speakers and commonly reinforced through the mass media.

One of the contrasts that is usually stereotyped and acknowledged by all Colombians is the distinction between ‘cachacos’ and ‘costeños’, terms used to refer to residents of the interior highlands and the coastal region respectively. The ‘cachacos’ or residents from Bogotá and some other highland regions are usually described as very formal and aristocratic people, while the ‘costeños’ are verbally outgoing, superstitious, “dancers, adventurers, people full of gaiety” (Ruch 2003).

In terms of linguistic differences, the residents of Bogotá are considered to speak a ‘purer variety of Spanish’, as opposed to coastal speakers. Lipski (2004, 207) points out that Spanish from Bogotá provides the prestige model to which other regions aspire:

In Colombia the sociolinguistic prestige of the capital dialect is immense, and although coastal residents are rarely able to effect even a distant approximation to the speech of Bogotá, this mode of speaking is constantly held up as the goal of all educated Colombians.

The high esteem of the speech of Bogotá is due, according to Lipski (2004, 207), “to the correspondence between phonetic patterns and orthography”. On the contrary, some of the distinctive features of coastal speech are lenition processes, such as aspiration or loss of final /s/, and elision of intervocalic /d/. Escamilla Morales (1993, 50) summarizes some opinions, about coastal speech, which reflect the attitude of some Colombians towards this variety:

los costeños maltratan y deforman el idioma porque se comen las eses, mochan las palabras, hablan golpiao y muy rápido; además, gesticulan demasiado, usan expresiones muy vulgares y tutean hasta a tu Eminencia el Cardenal Primado de Colombia

The well established linguistic contrast between ‘cachacos’ and ‘costeños’ can not be attributed exclusively to the operation of internal linguistic factors; the particular features characterizing each region are instantiated in each community as a result of socio-cultural acting factors such as economy, social class, politics, ethnicity, region and gender.

Although extensive descriptive work on the linguistic features characterizing each regional dialect has been done in the past (Cuervo 1885, Flores 1964, Montes Giraldo 1982, Lipski 1994), the influence of operating non-linguistic (social) factors has not been widely discussed. The concern of this paper is to find out what are the attitudes of speakers from the two regions discussed above (coastal vs. highland) towards different varieties of Colombian Spanish, and towards their own variety. Results are discussed in the light of the socio-historical development of the country.
2. Methodology
Given the acknowledged division that separates the coastal residents from the interior highlands, and the accepted high reputation of the capital speech, an attitude study was designed with the aim of eliciting evaluative data on speakers’ perceptions towards different varieties of Colombian Spanish.

The instrument applied was a closed-ended questionnaire, which included two types of questions. The first part consisted of six questions designed to measure the speakers’ attitude towards other dialects. A list of eight different dialects was provided and participants were asked to assign a value to each region on a five-point scale, with a ranking of 1 being the most favorable and 5 the least. The second part of the questionnaire, adapted from Alvarez and Medina (1999), was based on reactions towards different statements, for which participants were asked to express their agreement or disagreement.

A total of 24 questionnaires were collected including participants from both regions (12 from the capital, Bogotá, and 12 from the coastal region). The respondents included 8 women and 16 men, aged between 15 and 35 years. All participants were college students or people who had already obtained a university degree.

Regional dialects were chosen according to Flórez (1964) seven-zone distribution. However, different from Flórez, who considers the Pacific and Atlantic coast as one single region, this study presents the two regions as two separated dialectal zones. Distinction between the two groups of coastal speakers is relevant for this study for the following reason: Even though the two regions are ethnically related and share the general trait of consonant lenition, the Pacific coast has been more marginalized than the Atlantic coast, and in some communities dialectal extinction have been attested in favor of the normative variety (Caicedo 1993, 20). On the contrary, Caribbean speakers claim to be proud of their Spanish, in spite of the criticism they receive from other regions of Colombia.
3. Results and discussion

Regional varieties were evaluated considering the following aspects: standard variety, prestige, correctness, intelligibility, variety representing values and traditions, pleasantness (aesthetics), friendliness, and economic gain. These attitudinal evaluations may be grouped in two dimensions: status and solidarity (Alfaraz 2000, 5).

The ‘status’ dimension represents the way speakers perceive other varieties, and their own, in terms of correctness and prestige (Alfaraz 2000, 8). According to the survey’s results, the residents of Bogotá consider their own regional variety as prestigious, and tend to give a lower status to the coastal variety. When participants from Bogotá were asked to assign a value to the different dialects of Colombia, based on the low or high prestige, the varieties from both the Pacific and Atlantic region were among the highest negative scores, outscored only by the Cauca/ Nariño region. Figure 1 contrasts results for the evaluation of ‘regional prestige’ (the lower the score, the more positive value).

Figure 1.1
Figure 1.2
Figure 1. “Regional prestige” evaluation

Responses from Caribbean speakers (See the Atlantic coast bar) reveal preference for their own dialect, showing regional loyalty, however, they also recognize the variety of the capital as a prestigious one, and place it in the second place after their own variety. In general, results showed that the two regions differ in the way they value their own variety in terms of prestige; speakers from Bogotá gave to their own variety a more positive value than the coastal speakers.

Another aspect included in the ‘status’ dimension is the recognition of the standard variety. The reaction to the statement: “the standard Spanish of Colombia is spoken in Bogotá” differs in the two regions. 67% of participants from Bogotá manifested agreement, while only 25% of the coastal respondents agreed (See Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Responses to the statement:
“The standard Spanish of Colombia is spoken in Bogotá”

Other results showing a sharp contrast on the perceptions of coastal and highland residents are the ones concerning the concept of ‘best language’. While 58.3% of respondents from Bogotá agreed with the statement “the best Spanish of Colombia is spoken in Bogotá”, 75% of the coastal participants expressed disagreement (41,7% totally disagreed, and 33.3% disagreed, see more results in Table 1, Appendix 1).

A final contrast related to the ‘status’ dimension is the concept of ‘careful/ careless speech’. 50% of respondents from Bogotá agreed with the statement “coastal people tend to be careless in the way they speak Spanish”. On the contrary 50% of respondents from the Caribbean Coast expressed disagreement, and 41.6% showed neither agreement nor disagreement (See results in Table 1, Appendix 1).

An important methodological aspect to notice is that the reactions of coastal speakers were different when they were asked overt questions about their region, than when their language attitude was elicited through covert situations. Their answers were more categorical when they encountered explicit statements against their region or in favor of Bogotá, however when their attitude was elicited through covert or indirect questions, they did not express an absolute preference for their variety. A clear example is found in the responses to the following situation: “We need to dub a movie from English to Spanish, from which region of Colombia do you think those doing the dubbing should be?” (see Figure 3). The most positive value was assigned to Bogotá, and the coastal variety came only in second place.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Question 3 (The lowest score corresponds to the most positive value)

The second attitudinal dimension considered in this study is the ‘solidarity’ dimension, which is evaluated by considering the pleasantness and friendliness towards a particular variety. Bezooijen (2000) analyzes why people consider pleasant or unpleasant certain varieties of languages and considers two hypotheses. The first one is the ‘sound driven hypothesis’ which claims that “aesthetic judgments can be traced back to segmental or prosodic properties of the languages (p.13)”, and the second one is the ‘norm driven hypothesis’, which states that the idea of pleasant or unpleasant is imposed by the education, mass media and other institutions, leading people to think that the standard variety sounds nice or is more romantic (p.20).

Results showed that speakers from Bogotá considered their Spanish more pleasant than other varieties and assigned a negative value to the coastal speech. The question to evaluate aesthetic attitudes was the following: “One person is needed to read several love poems in a recital. From what region of Colombia would you choose that person? The coastal speakers gave a positive value to their region but also marked Bogotá and the coffee region with positive scores (See results in Table 2, Appendix 2). These results in favor of the variety that is considered the standard in Colombia confirm Bezooijen’s hypothesis, which contends that the concept of pleasant or unpleasant is socially imposed.

The other aspect considered within the solidarity dimension is ‘friendliness’. According to Alvarez and Medina (1999), non-prestigious speech can be related to human qualities such as sympathy and affection. Results from this study tend to confirm this idea. Responses showed that the speakers from Bogotá evaluated coastal people as ‘the friendliest’. This item is the only one in which the ‘Bogotanos’ assigned a high positive score to coastal residents and a negative value for themselves. Coastal speakers also considered themselves the friendliest people among all the regions. (See results contrasting the two regions in Table 3, Appendix 2).

Results from the language attitude questionnaire confirm the high prestige of the capital speech, as opposed to the coastal variety. The dominance of the former is not a new conception for the Spanish speakers around the world, since different manuals of Spanish dialectology refer to the Spanish of Bogotá as “the purest Spanish of Latin America”, or “among the most prestigious of America”. Some relevant questions to discuss are how did the Spanish of Bogotá become a prestigious variety and why is the coastal speech considered ordinary or vulgar? Or who established that the speech of Bogotá should be considered the standard variety? A socio-historical review is necessary to understand the current regional attitudes.

The colonization process by Spain brought to America social changes at all level. The introduction of African slaves was one of the historical facts that contributed to the establishment of a new social order. Spaniards created a hierarchical system in which they were at the top and slaves and Indians were at the bottom. The Colombian Caribbean became with the time an important port of entry for hundreds of slaves. The slaves trade, the constant pirate attacks, and illegal commerce created a complex social situation from which the flourishing government wanted to stay away. In 1718 the Nueva Granada (old name of the country) became a ‘virreinato’, bringing important consequences for the development of the capital. A university and new cultural and religious centers were established in Bogotá, attracting teachers and clergy from Spain. This situated favored linguistic contact between the speech of Bogotá and Castille and at the same time caused separation from the coastal speech.

The historical facts of the XIX century contributed to promote the prestige of the Spanish spoken in the capital, as opposed to the coastal mixed variety, spoken by traders, and highly influenced by the southern dialects from Spain. Governing a fractioned country, in which political disagreements had become the daily bread, the ‘costeño’ politician Rafael Nuñez promoted the “national interest at the cost of regional cleavages (Posada-Carbó 1996, 253) ”. In 1886, under the presidency of Nuñez, but the rhetoric of Miguel Antonio Caro (a grammarian and politician), a new constitution was conceived for the country. The new document intended to unify the nation under two elements shared by all Colombians: “religion and language”.

Von der Walde (1998) points out that during the following decades the country was governed by grammarians, who were the ones in possession of the ‘ knowledge’ and wisdom necessary to give a proper administration to the country. Through correct and proper language use, the grammarians were trying to govern an illiterate country. In this way, the language became an excluding element, instead of a unifying factor. Idiomatic correction became a social norm and having the Catholic Church as powerful ally, because of its strong influence on the education system, the grammarians built the ‘ciudad letrada’. The same year that the new constitution was signed up, the first volumes of the Diccionario de Construcción y Régimen de la Lengua Castellana, written by Rufino José Cuervo, were published (von der Walde, 1998).

The historical facts described before find a correspondence within the social framework presented by Pierre Bordieu (1991), which discusses how the unification of the linguistic market has some effects of domination that are exerted through specific institutions. In the case of the institutionalization of the variety spoken for certain elite group of the society of Bogotá, the government and the church were the main institutions through which the imposition was instantiated. The ‘prestige’ or reputation that still enjoys the speech of Bogotá is a reminiscence of the grammarians’ regime, which have been perpetuated thorough a powerful institution such as the education system. Talking about education, Bordieu states that “the education system possesses the delegated authority necessary to engage in a universal process of durable inculcation in matters of language” (p.62).

In the ‘ideal speakers’ country pictured by the grammarians, two main groups were established: those who knew how to use the language and those who did not know. This relegating politic isolated everything that sounded different or immoral. In this way, a regional variety like the coastal speech, which was linguistically distant from the capital norm, was qualified as “linguistic capital of the vulgo”. The coastal people were referred to “with the pejorative corroncho –the cradle of laziness, corruption, nepotism, machismo, excessive drinking and irresponsibility; meanwhile, Bogotá considered itself the South America’s Athens, the birthplace of culture and elegance, a London of the Andes (Gamboa 2001).

As a result of the social and linguistic segregation, the Caribbean residents acquired a greater sense of regionalism. According to Posada-Carbó (1996) the “costeño regionalism was often the expression of regional weakness; it was used as an efficient tool to gain access to national resources (p.256)”. As it was discussed before, the ‘costeños’ today are ready to defend their identity, although they recognize the prestige and power of the capital variety. They manifest to be proud of their way of speaking and “censure those costeños that pretend to be cachacos (Escamilla-Morales 1993, 50)”. One of the main contributors to the recognition of the Caribbean coast is the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. Originary from a small town on the Caribbean region, the well-known novelist took the cultural values and idiosyncrasies of coastal speech and made them universal.
4. Conclusion

Results presented and discussed in this paper confirm the social and linguistic factors described in different dialectological studies about Colombian Spanish. The high prestige of the capital variety contrasts with the stigmatization of some of the regions, such as the Pacific and Atlantic coastal areas. However, different from dialectal descriptions, which attribute the high prestige of Bogotá Spanish to their pronunciation, this paper contends that the case of linguistic prestige or stigmatization of Colombian varieties is mostly enhanced by the institutions. Historical facts show that the church and a group grammarians belonging to the elite society of Bogotá, managed to impose an exclusivist system in the name of the country’s unification, which gave preference to a more Castilian-like speech style.

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Appendix Table 1



Table 2: Pleasantness

Appendix Table 1

Table 3: Friendliness

Appendix Table 1

*The lowest score correspond to the most positive value


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