Freelance Spain

That curious mixture of English and Spanish is here to stay. By Alex Johnson

The proud ambition of the Real Academia Española, established in 1713, was to "fijar las voces y vocablos de la lengua castellana en su mayor propiedad, elegancia y pureza". Like its French counterpart, the Academia language police still attempts to repel boarders, in particular any English ones. But while the spread of Franglais is still limité and Denglish (a mixture of German and English) is still in its infancy, Spanglish is going from fuerza to fuerza.

Current Spanglish defies any tight definition. There’s simple "code switching", moving from one language to another (You’ve got a nasty mancha on your camiseta); adaption of an English word into a Spanish form (Quiero parquear el coche); translation of an English expression into Spanish using English syntax ("Te llamo para atrás" for "I’ll call you back"); and straight phonetic translation (children’s cold remedy Vick’s VaporRub becomes "bibaporú"). Some Spanglish words even have a completely separate meaning in Spanish (Voy a vacumear la carpeta).

On top of this are problems of regionality: Puerto Rican Spanglish is different from Nueva York Spanglish while different barrios within a city often use different dialect words.

One man trying to make sense of all this confusion is Ilan Stavans, professor of Spanish and creative writing at Amherst College, who has devoted the past years to compiling the world’s first Spanglish-English dictionary. A prolific commentator on Hispanic lifestyles and the editor of Hopscotch magazine, which concentrates on the relationships between Hispanic and other Western cultures, Ilan is a Mexican Jew whose first language was Yiddish followed by Spanish and then English.

"We’re at a point in history where we have not yet come to see Spanglish as a solid, fully-recognisable language," he says. "It’s still evolving and it’s a rapid transition but I’d define it now as a proper dialect that results from the clash of Spanish and English in a variety of possibilities. Words and verbal codes are being reinvented and reorganised to add up to something new. Many people in the US would still not even accept Spanglish as a description and prefer to call it something like Mexican-American."

He accepts that the increasing use of Spanglish raises cultural questions as well as linguistic ones. Spanglish, runs one argument, increases marginalization: it poses a danger to Hispanics because Spanglish is an invasion of Spanish by English and it’s the language of barely literate poor Hispanics who lack enough education to adapt to the changing culture around them. Why not simply learn each (or either) language properly? Why disregard the rich linguistic heritage of Cervantes?

"I'd describe it more as cultural irrigation than cultural imperialism. The US is a laboratory of languages which are fertilizing themselves," says Ilan, who admits he speaks Spanglish with his children. He also points out that both Borges and Julio Cortazar were blamed for "polluting" the language.

"Language has its own ways and Spanglish is a movement which is happening and happening globally. It's too free to be pinned down and it's impossible to legislate its usage.

"We're at the early stage of the formation of a new language, not unlike the emergence of Yiddish. Masterpieces have been written in Yiddish but, like Spanglish, the intellectuals were initially hostile."

Spanglish also serves a practical use. Bill Teck, editor of the rather lighthearted The Official Spanglish Dictionary: Un User’s Guía To More Than 300 Words That Aren’t Exactly Español or Inglés, says: "Sometimes there just isn’t a word in English that really captures what we’re trying to convey. In our attempt to melt both languages and capture the vibe of one culture in the tongue of another, Spanglish emerges."

Why are we seeing the growth of the new language now? "It's partly the globalization of culture - Mexicans will ask for a Kleenex rather than a pañuelo - and partly the boom in the Hispanic population in the US," says Ilan, "although it could cross over into Europe in a century or two."

It probably also marks an increasing level of comfort in proclaiming ethnicity over the urge to blend quietly into American society. José is now the most popular name for baby boys in California and Texas and a recent study of Texas graveyards emphasized the long tradition of this strong pride in the mother tongue, revealing that a mixture of Spanish and English on gravestones has persisted for generations while the native languages of other immigrants' burial memorials have quickly been abandoned.

Nor is new technology any respecter of linguistic purity. Cyberspanglish is just as pervasive as its more terrestrial relative. You turn on your computer (butear) to explore (surfear) the Web. Made a mistake? You'll want to deletear not borrar it. Want to move a file? You'll have to dragear it across rather than arrastrar it. 

"I don't know if Spanglish will eventually become a new language but Spanish is certainly not going to be the same," claims Ilan. "Will Spanish become Spanglish? Technology is certainly accelerating the trend. Perhaps only one in 20 of my e-mails in Spanish comes with any accents.

"We simply can't afford to look at this as a temporary verbal handicap which will go away. English is pre-eminent, the lingua franca of our times just as Latin once was, so people will continue using it. In fact I find it interesting that some people feel so threatened by Spanglish. But I think it will certainly affect Spanish in Spain, not least because most Spanish speakers don’t live there and the way everything is becoming more globalised, Spain simply can't avoid it."

More than 6,000 languages are spoken around the world. Sadly, half of these are expected to disappear before the end of next century but on the plus side, it looks like we should also be one up.

Alex Johnson ([email protected])  is the features editor of The Broadsheet, Spain's monthly magazine in English.

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