Spanish is, according to the Nicaraguan constitution, the official language of the republic, though indigenous languages are respected and even used officially in certain areas of the Atlantic coast. Ninety-six percent of Nicaraguans speak Spanish as their first language, 3 percent speak indigenous languages (Miskito, Mayangna, and Rama), and 1 percent speak languages of African origin (Criollo and Garífuna).
To hear pure Miskito, travel north from Bluefields or visit Puerto Cabezas or any village along the Río Coco; in some of these villages, Spanish is completely unknown.
Nicaraguan Spanish is probably unlike any Spanish you’ve ever come across. The chameleon-like ability of the Spanish language to adapt to new areas of the world is strong in Nicaragua , where it is spoken rapidly and liquidly, the words flowing smoothly together and eating each other’s tails.
Central Americans enjoy making fun of how their Latin neighbors talk, and the Honduran nickname for Nicaraguans, mucos (bulls whose horns have been chopped off), is a reference to the Nicaraguans’ habit of chopping the “s” off the ends of spoken words. Backcountry campesino Nicaraguan Spanish is inevitably less intelligible to the untrained ear than its urban counterpart, but it is also distinctly more melodic, with a cadence and rhythm distinct to the countryside and celebrated in many of Carlos Mejía Godoy’s songs.
And then, of course, there are the vulgarities. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is no language so filthy as Spanish. There are words for all the vile words in English and there are other words and expressions that are used only in countries where blasphemy keeps pace with the austerity of religion.”
In Nicaragua , even a simple fruit or vegetable name can cause a room to break out in wild laughter if said in the right tone and context (and if accompanied by the appropriate hand gesture).
After you’ve learned a few dirty words, be careful—the degree to which most vulgaridades are considered offensive varies depending on the gender of your company, their age, your relationship with them, and a variety of other factors. Cussing can be a fun, complex, and subtle game if you have the patience to learn—y los huevos....
Limber up your wrist and stretch out those lips. You’ll need ’em both if you want to communicate like a true native. Watch people interact on the buses, in the markets, and on the streets, and see if you can spot any of the following gestures in action—then try some out yourself.
Probably the single most practical gesture is a rapid side to side wagging of the index finger. It means “no,” and increases in strength as you increase the intensity of the wagging and the amount of hand and arm you use in the motion. In some cases, a verbal “no” in the absence of the Finger Wag is disregarded as not serious enough. Use this one liberally with pushy vendors, beggars, and would-be Romeos.
To pull off the Nicaraguan Wrist Snap, simply join the tips of your thumb and middle finger and let your index finger dangle loosely. Then with a series of rapid wrist flicks, repeatedly let your index finger slap against the middle one, exactly as you would do with a round tin of tobacco dip. The resulting snapping noise serves to either emphasize whatever it is you’re saying, refer to how hard you’ve been working, or, when combined with a nod and a smile, infer something like, “Damn, that’s good!”
You can ask, “What?” (or “What do you want?”) with a quick Cheek Scrunch, occasionally performed with a subtle upward chin tilt. Use the Lip Point rather than your finger to indicate something by puckering up as if for a kiss and aiming where you want. Or, if you are listening to a friend’s dumb story, point to the speaker with your lips while looking at everyone else to imply, “This guy’s crazy or drunk.”
The gesture North Americans would normally use to shoo something away—the outstretched, waving, down-turned hand—means just the opposite in Nicaragua, where the Downward Wave (occasionally combined with the whole arm for emphasis) means “Come here.” This one is a favorite with drunks in the park who love to talk at foreigners for as long as they are tolerated.
The North American “come here,” i.e., the upturned and beckoning index finger, is a vulgar, possibly offensive gesture. Speaking of vulgar, a closed fist atop a rigid forearm indicates the male sex organ, and an upturned, slightly cupped hand with the fingertips pressed together into a point is its female counterpart.
Here’s one more for the road: Make a fist, lock your elbow into the side of your body, and move your hand up and down; combined with a dramatic grimace, the Plunger Pump tells the whole world you have diarrhea.