This article appeared in the August 2007 edition of eJournal USA.
By Ilan Stavans
The author explains how and why Spanish and English have mixed with each other in the United States to create a hybrid language, increasingly used not only in spoken but also in written form.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
His books include Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (HarperCollins) and Lengua Fresca (Houghton Mifflin).
The growth of the Latino minority in the United States, some 43 million strong according to 2005 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, is at a juncture, forging a unique identity. Spanglish, the mixing of Spanish and English, used indistinctly on the street, in classrooms, among politicians, in the religious pulpit, and, of course, on radio, television, and the Internet, is the most distilled manifestation of that identity.
Historically, the roots of Spanglish date back to the American colonial period, during which Iberian civilization left its imprint in Florida and the Southwest. Up until 1848, when Mexico sold almost two-thirds of its territory (Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah) to its neighbor, Spanish was the tongue of business and education. It interacted with aboriginal languages. With the arrival of Anglos, Spanish and English began a process of hybridization. This process was reinforced at the end of the 19th century with the advent of the Spanish-American War. Americans arrived in the Caribbean Basin, bringing English along with them.
Whereas Spanglish is also heard in various parts of the Hispanic world, from Catalonia in Spain to the Pampas in Argentina, it is in the United States where it thrived. One is likely to hear it in rural areas, but it is in the major urban centers where Hispanics have settled — such as Los Angeles, California; San Antonio and Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida; and New York City — where its strongest influence is felt. However, there isn’t one single Spanglish but different types: Chicano, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, etc. Its usage varies from one place to another and from generation to generation. A recent immigrant from Mexico in nearby El Paso, Texas, for instance, is likely to use certain elements that distinguish her from a second-generation Colombian-American in the northeastern state of New Jersey.
In general, there are three strategies all Spanglish speakers employ at some point: code-switching, whereby the alternating of elements from Spanish and English take place within the same sentence; simultaneous translation; and the coining of new terms that aren’t found in either the Oxford English Dictionary or the Diccionario de la Lengua Española. For instance, “Wáchale!” for “Watch out!” and “rufo” for “roof.”
There’s a myriad of “border” languages around the globe, among them Franglais (French and English), Portuñol (Spanish and Portuguese), and Hibriya (Hebrew and Arabic). The fact that they are all controversial isn’t surprising. Some see them as half-cooked verbal efforts, neither here nor there; others applaud their inventiveness. Spanglish, too, is polemical. It is proof, its critics argue, that Latinos aren’t integrating into American culture the way previous immigrants did. I have a different perspective. Latinos already are the largest minority. Their immigration pattern isn’t identical to that of other groups. For one thing, their place of origin is just next door. Their arrival is continuous, unlike other groups, of whom the majority arrived during a particular period. And a significant portion of the territory that constitutes the United States today used Spanish for centuries.
Plus, one needs to consider the impact of bilingual education, a federally funded program that spread nationwide in the 1980s. Hispanic schoolchildren who have gone through the program have a connection, however tenuous, with both Spanish and English. Cumulatively, these aspects explain why Spanish, unlike other immigrant languages, hasn’t faded away. On the contrary, its presence in the United States is gaining momentum. But it doesn’t exist in a pure, unadulterated state. Instead, it is in constant flux, adapting to new challenges.
I’ve been recording Spanglish terms for a decade — and have fallen in love with the phenomenon. In 2003 I published a lexicon of approximately 6,000 words and translated the first chapter of Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha into Spanglish. I’ve continued translating and have now completed the first half of the novel.
Curiosity about Spanglish is abundant. Is it a dialect? Should it be compared with Creole? What are the similarities with black English? Will it become a full-fledged, self-sufficient language with its recognizable syntax? Linguists seem to have different responses to these questions. Personally, I answer to the latter question with a quote from linguist Max Weinreich, who wrote a multivolume history of Yiddish. Weinreich said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that the language has an army and a navy behind it. I also often call attention to the fact that in the last couple of decades, an effort to write in Spanglish has taken place in numerous circles, which means the form of communication is ceasing to exist at a strictly oral level. There are novels, stories, and poems in it already, as well as movies, songs, and endless Internet sites.
With a smile on his face, a student of mine calls Spanglish “la lengua loca.”
DISTRIBUCIÓN DE LOS HISPANOS EN USA
CONFERENCIA DE ILAN STAVANS SOBRE EL SPANGLISH
Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language