Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

The Starbucks Dialect: Tall is now ‘Alto’

If language is the subject, then it would be a disgrace to not have a post about Starbucks, for they have essentially created their own dialect!

  • “Can I have a grande up-side-down caramel macchiato? asked one customer in a south Jersey Starbucks.
  • “Una Skinny Vainilla Latte Alto” asked one customer at a Buenos Aires Starbucks.

So what the hell is ‘skinny’ and what about ‘up-side-down?”  Skinny is a little easier to guess (low-fat), however, up-side-down was unclear to me until I read this article.  It means they put the shots in first instead of last, I guess.  I’m afraid I can’t share what difference this makes (as I’m a pretty basic Starbucks customer), but those who choose to add this word to their “Starbucks speech” certainly can.

Starbucks made coffee cool for young people in the United States if you ask me, and I see the trend here in Buenos Aires as well.  Two years ago, you knew where the Starbucks were in BA as there were few, but now they are popping up all over the place.  The differences from US locations: the tall is not ‘chico’ (small in Spanish) but is called ‘alto’ (which is tall in Spanish, for those who don’t know.)  Other differences are few honestly.  The furniture and ambience is comparable; the food is the same but translated to Spanish in some cases on the menu; there is a ‘dulce de leche’ latte and muffin that are both wonderful; the bagels are abnormally large; they don’t have the gift cards that are common in the US, and the prices are nearly the same, despite economic differences… but the stores are equally as full.

Today after talking to a few students (in Argentina), they agreed that Starbucks is a trend, but they wonder if it will last.  One cultural difference they noted was that Argentines are used to going to a restaurant and spending a long time talking, for many hours at a time.  It’s less of a ‘tipping culture’ so people are accustomed to parking at restaurants.  Starbucks is no different.  Although locations are equally as full in the US and many people stay for hours at a time, in general, it’s a come-and-go type place.  Students today mentioned that Starbucks isn’t appealing to many Argentines because of the long lines, the less than efficient service at times and the fact that there just aren’t any seats!  The business model appears to be the same, but it’s a different culture.  So… not everything will work the same, right?!  You’d think so.

Although some of the Starbucks dialect is naturally not used (and is equally difficult to understand for English speakers), the fact that Starbucks has a dialect of its own remains to be true in a Spanish-speaking country.  Grande is still Grande and Venti is still Venti, but Tall is now ‘Alto.’

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2 thoughts on “The Starbucks Dialect: Tall is now ‘Alto’

  1. Andres on said:

    Coincidentally, tall is “alto” in both Spanish and Italian, while “grande” means big in both Italian and Spanish as well. Interestingly enough, “venti” (which means twenty in Italian) is “veinte” in Spanish and “trenta” (which means thirty in Italian) is “treinta” in Spanish.

  2. Thanks Andres – that is interesting! I didn’t realize but Starbucks incorporated Italian coffee culture a lot!

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