Cuban Spanish: All About Cuba’s Unique Language Variety
If you want to learn how to speak Spanish like a Cuban, you’ve come to the right place!
Cuba is a true fusion of African and European influences, making it a wonderful challenge for the more advanced Spanish learner to master.
This dialect is a great introduction to the diversity of the Spanish language for anyone who’s traveling to Cuba or who has Cuban friends.
Let’s get started with these tips and tricks for your Cuban adventure!
- Cuban Spanish 101
- 21 Key Cuban Slang Words
- 1. Absorbente
- 2. Aguajirado
- 3. ¡Alabao!
- 4. Ambia
- 5. Bachata
- 6. Baracutey
- 7. Baro
- 8. Burumba
- 9. De caché
- 10. Darle candela al jarro
- 11. Chola
- 12. Coger un aire
- 13. Punzada del guajiro
- 14. Darse un tanganazo
- 15. Drinqui
- 16. Echar un tacón
- 17. Emperifollado
- 18. Fachao
- 19. Jugar a los bomberos
- 20. Vacilón
- 21. Zurdo
Cuban Spanish 101
Spanish came to Cuba via immigrants from the Canary Islands in the 19th century, replacing the indigenous languages. Over time, Cuban Spanish became as unique as the island it’s spoken on. It features a distinct nasal accent and a rhythmic poetic intonation that’s almost song-like. It also contains a lot of slang—both from Spanish-based creole and from its communist history.
Pronunciation and Speech
Much of Cuban speech can be seen as informal, a feature of most Caribbean Spanish varieties. Here are some of the relaxed pronunciations you might come across:
- If a syllable ends in r or l, the sound becomes the same as the first sound of the next syllable. This might sound confusing, but it’s a really easy one in practice. For example, Carlitos becomes Cal-li-tos.
- If d is at the beginning of a syllable within a word, it might not be said at all, e.g. dedo (finger) is pronounced dé-o.
- S at the end of a syllable is often aspirated, and occasionally it’s omitted altogether.
- Occasionally, r becomes l at the end of a syllable or end of a word.
- Consonants at the beginnings of syllables are often spoken more softly than usual Spanish pronunciation dictates.
One of the main differences you’ll find between Cuban Spanish and general Latin American Spanish is the nasal accent and rhythmic intonation. This is the influence of African settlers on the language and makes it sound very different from most other Spanish varieties.
Watch this video to hear a little more about the accent of Cuban Spanish:
Provinces and Language Differences
Cuba has sixteen provinces in modern day. Linguistically speaking, it’s less complicated to consider the historical six provinces of Cuba. These are:
- Pinar del Río — Here you’re most likely to hear r become l at the end of a word or syllable, and occasionally the other way around. This can be hard to understand, so you might have to train your ear to it.
- La Habana — Occasionally, speakers may be heard to speak as in Pinar del Río. The rest of the island outside of Havana is also referred to as campa in Havana.
- Camagüey — This place has some of the different vocabulary of the Oriente province but mostly follows the language of the rest of the island. They use balance instead of sillón for “rocking chair” and pluma or llave instead of faucet, which is used on the rest of the island for a tap.
- Oriente — The language here is far more similar to Dominican Republic Spanish than the rest of the island. They also have a set of vocabulary words that’s different from the rest of the Cuban island. For example, balde instead of cubo for bucket and guineo instead of plátano for banana/plantain. Here the s sound is also most likely to go unaspirated. The unusual intonation of this province may also be the last remnants of the indigenous language.
Cuban Spanish Grammar
There are some elements of Cuban Spanish grammar that are different to European and Latin American Spanish. These are some features you might want to be aware of:
- Tú comes before the verb, not after it, in a question.
Example: ¿Qué tú haces aquí?
What are you doing here?
- Le and les become la and las when after se in a sentence.
Example: A Juana se la ve en la tienda todos los días.
Juana is seen in the store every day.
- Decir a is used to show the start of an action.
Example: Si el niño dice a crecer, tendremos que comprarle ropa nueva.
If the boy starts to grow, we’ll have to buy him new clothes.
- Para instead of en for saying that someone is somewhere.
Example: Carmen está para la Habana.
Carmen is in Havana.
- The phrase ¡Cómo no! (Of course) is ¡Cómo que no! in Cuban Spanish.
- Uno (one, number or pronoun) is used instead of the indefinite article una.
Example: Está uno cansada de tanto hablar.
Is one tired of talking.
- -ico and -ica are used at the end of words instead of -ito and -ita to indicate a smaller or lesser version. This only applies to words ending in to/ta.
Example: Plato (plate) becomes platico (saucer.)
Cuban Slang Overview
Cuban slang, much like slang in many other languages, is a vibrant mix of constantly changing words and meanings.
Cuban slang derives some of its influences from African languages and also features quite a lot of anglicisms.
What we’ll give you has a splash of everything, and they’re all slang words that you might find useful in a Cuban club.
Basic Spanish Knowledge
Of course, you can’t just rely on slang terms and grammar to get you by in a conversation. In order to use these terms and phrases effectively, you’ll have to know basic Spanish grammar.
How do you learn it? It depends on your learning style.
If your non-partying alter ego is willing to sit down with a textbook, then you should make one your new best friend.
If you’re too busy to sit down at all (probably dancing instead, I bet!), try a vocab/grammar driller like Duolingo, with its “throw it at you until you get it” approach.
You can also enjoy native music and entertainment while learning Spanish with a virtual immersion program like FluentU. This option lets you learn with engaging short videos like music videos, movie trailers, commercials and other native Spanish media.
Videos come with interactive dual-language subtitles that you can click on for any word’s contextual definition without needing to leave the video player. Keep the party going with multimedia flashcards, post-video quizzes, personalized flashcard exercise sets, downloadable transcripts and even speaking questions on the iOS and Android app versions.
Whatever you do, stick with it, because these slang words are waiting for you to be ready to use them!
21 Key Cuban Slang Words
This is something you might ask for in your mojito. Yep, it’s a drinking straw! Pretty easy one to remember—just imagine yourself absorbing your drink through a straw.
Maybe feeling a little aguajirado (timid) is keeping you off the dance floor? Well, stop being shy and get out there! In typical Cuban style, the j is likely to be pronounced more softly than you’d expect.
Couple of chicos (friendly term for peers) rocking the dance floor? Show your admiration by shouting ¡Alabao!
Always a good idea to take your ambia (friend) along to a club, for safety as well as fun. Unlike amigo/amiga, ambia stays the same regardless of your friend’s gender!
The bachata (party) is where it’s at! This word can also be used for noise in a more derogatory way, so watch out for that.
If you identify yourself as a baracutey (a person who lives alone) you might not want the party to end if you’re going home alone. The r here might become an l in pronunciation.
Make sure you take plenty of baro (money) with you for drinks.
Another word for party, burumba can also mean to have fun. If last night was a burumba, it was a very good night. The r in this can also be pronounced as an l.
9. De caché
If you’re looking totally de caché (stylish/elegant) then you’ve done a good job. It may sound a bit old-fashioned to younger people, though.
If your dancing isn’t quite what you’d like it to be, your ambia might cheer you up by saying, ¡Dale candela al jarro! (persevere until you reach your goal!).
Music hurting your chola (head)? Time to get a breath of fresh air!
12. Coger un aire
If you’re wearing a little dress or a light shirt without a jacket in a windy night, prepare to coger un aire (get a spasm)!
Drink your frozen daiquiri too fast and you’ll definitely get la punzada del guajiro (get a brain freeze). Don’t fret, just put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and it will go away.
Be careful on the dance floor. You could trip and darte un tanganazo (bump yourself)!
An obvious anglicism, drinqui (alcoholic drink) has quite a fun and unusual spelling.
16. Echar un tacón
If someone asks, you might like to echar un tacón (to dance).
If you’re ready to go out dancing and you’re wearing your best clothes, you might say that you’re emperifollado (polished up).
If all that dancing has made you fachao (hungry), it’s time to try some Cuban cuisine.
After dancing all night and starting to ache, you might like to jugar a los bomberos (to take a bath.) This one is very fun to say. Don’t forget the Cuban pronunciation of l for the letter r, and be sure to leave out the s in bomberos.
If you find that a Cuban party is a vacilón (something you enjoy a lot), then you’ll love the rest of Cuban life.
Who cares if you’re a zurdo (bad dancer)? Get out there and have fun!
For even an even more extensive list of Cuban slang words and phrases, check out this post:
Now that you have a vocabulary full of dancing slang and an introduction to general Cuban Spanish, it’s time to get practicing!
Get out there, dance, enjoy.
And soak up every bit of Cuban language, culture and party life that you possibly can!