I’ve been in Colombia since Thursday night, and I’ll be here for three weeks y pico. Back in my old stomping grounds, I’m very happy to reconnect with friends and families that mean so much to me. It’s incredible to think that I moved here three years ago. I was only here for two years, but I made many meaningful friendships and a few that were a bit more. Qué rico. Among other things that I’m here to pursue, I’m also running around with a large net in my hand, a cazapalabras par excellence, re-remembering long-forgotten words that had slipped through the cracks of my memory and learning new ones that I somehow missed before. Words flutter around my mind constantly, and this time I’m determined to do a better job at enticing them to stay.
Life is uncertain; I am especially so. I don’t like being pressed. Perhaps it’s this way; perhaps it’s the other. One thing is possible; another could be as well. It all depends. You have to choose your commitments carefully. You have to choose your words judiciously. Spanish seems to understand this, offering us a bounty of ways to express possibility and ambiguity. How do you say “maybe” in Spanish? Take your pick from the following, each of which will help you tell it slant. Commentary to follow.
De pronto por ese medio puedo conseguir trabajo, de pronto no.
Maybe I can get a job that way, maybe not.
“. . . tal vez todo el humo que anda buscando casa
venga a matar aún mi corazón perdido.”
Maybe the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart. (Pablo Neruda)
Avísame porque quizá yo pueda hacerlo el sábado.
Let me know because maybe I can do it on Saturday.
Quizás la encontró muy tonta y se molestó conmigo.
Maybe she found it to be silly and got upset with me.
*A lo mejor
A lo mejor nos dan los cheques el lunes.
Maybe they’ll give us our checks on Monday.
¿Se van a casar pronto? Podría ser.
Are they going to get married soon? Maybe.
Puede que la niña tenga sueño, puede que no. Toca preguntarle.
Maybe she’s tired, maybe not. You’ll have to ask her.
Those are all the ones I feel comfortable using. I know that in Argentina they say capaz que a great deal, but I’m not totally sure how to wield that phrase. When I was there, I also noticed that they said de repente for “maybe.” How interesting! Here in Colombia, de pronto is inescapable and omnipresent. I sometimes feel it’s all I hear . . . de pronto, de pronto, de pronto. Definitely a must know if you’re going to visit Colombia. Per my experience, de pronto is by far the most common way to say “maybe” in Colombia. And, as far as I know, it’s quite Colombian. Maybe it would be understood in some other parts, but I don’t think any other region uses it like they do here. The DRAE has de pronto as a Colombianism, in any case. You’ll also occasionally see it written as depronto. In my mind, that’s just all kinds of wrong, but who am I to correct native speakers? I am not comfortable being a pedant in any language.
As I’m sure you well know, de pronto and de repente both spend most of their life meaning “suddenly.” How intriguing, then, that Colombia and Argentina respectively have thrust upon them the burden of meaning “maybe” as well. (Actually, according to sources I’ve read, de repente can be used this way in some other countries as well–the DRAE says Uruguay and Venezuela.) It makes you think that Argentina is the antipodes of Colombia, that if you were to dig a hole through the crust of Colombia to the other side of the world, linguistically speaking you’d come out of your tunnel and find yourself in the land of mate-sippers. Perhaps–the jury’s still out on that one.
Now that I’m back in the US, I feel that I hear a lo mejor almost to the exclusion of the other phrases. Call me lazy for not looking into it too deeply, but I assume that it must be the main standby for “maybe” in Mexico and Central America, the areas where most of my Hispanic neighbors hail from.
I think that de pronto is almost always followed by the indicative; I’ve found there to be more wiggle room with the others. (Well, podría ser que and puede que have to be followed by the subjunctive.) Best I can tell, you’ll almost never go wrong with the indicative; the subjunctive lends extra emphasis on the fact that you don’t know, that the matter at hand is up in the air. As always, you know that my best advice is to listen closely to native speakers and follow suit. They’ll rarely lead you astray, and if they do lead you down some strange rabbithole, make sure you come back and give me a full report of what you found there.
What about you? How do you usually say “maybe” in Spanish? Can you think of any ways to express it that I forgot? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? What are the most typical ways of saying “maybe” in your country?