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How Spanglish Works

Several books discuss the origins and development of Spanglish. Some include Spanglish lexicons.
Several books discuss the origins and development of Spanglish. Some include Spanglish lexicons.
Images courtesy Amazon

When I was in middle school, two friends and I studied French while most of our classmates studied Spanish. During our other classes, the three of us sometimes passed notes in French. Speaking and writing in French set us apart from our peers -- it defined our group and made us unique.

Since we were beginning students, we didn't always know which words to use to express ourselves. So, we didn't write entirely in French. We substituted English words for French words we didn't know, and we invented words that we thought could convey our meaning. Sometimes, we wrote sentences that started in French but ended in English, or vice versa.

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We didn't take our note passing too seriously, but this type of wordplay -- which linguists call code switching or code mixing -- is a common part of learning a new language. In the United States, where more than 17 million people speak Spanish at home, such linguistic mixing has taken on a life of its own. A hybrid of English and Spanish known as Spanglish can be heard in many predominantly Hispanic areas as well as on TV and in movies.

To learn more about where Spanglish came from and how it works, we interviewed Dr. Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College. Stavans has taught college courses on Spanglish and has written a book detailing its origins, its use and some of its vocabulary. He has also translated the first part of the Spanish classic "Don Quixote de la Mancha" into Spanglish.

At its most basic, Spanglish is a hodgepodge of English and Spanish words and phrases, a middle ground between the two languages. It often uses mistranslated or adapted English words, which English speakers can sometimes figure out easily. For example, if you are fluent in English and someone called you a nerdio, it probably wouldn't take you long to figure out that he was calling you a nerd. You might also guess that la laptopa is a laptop and emailiar is a verb meaning "to e-mail." Other Spanglish terms aren't quite as transparent, but most make some sort of bridge between Spanish and English.

"I think it is very arbitrary," explains Stavans. "Many verbs from the English are Hispanicized with endings...some nouns are kind of twisted around. There is a logic to it, but it's not a simple logic. It's a logic that depends on the background of the speakers."

Whether these hybrid words appear in a framework of an English or Spanish sentence structure depends largely on location. "Somebody in the U.S.-Mexican border on the Mexican side is likely to use far more Spanish and less English," says Stavans:

So the syntactical structure of the sentence will be Spanish-based, and some words will come from English. If you are far away from those very fertile Spanglish regions, say in Montana...the syntactical base will be English, and some of the words will come from the Spanish. One rule of thumb holds true regardless of region -- usually, Spanglish omits the inverted exclamation points and question marks used in Spanish.

Spanglish vocabulary can also vary from region to region and community to community:

After years...of thinking and studying and discussing Spanglish, I have come to the conclusion that there is no one Spanglish, but a variety of Spanglishes that are alive and well in this country and that are defined by geographical location and country of origin. The Spanglish spoken by Mexican Americans in, say, L.A. is different form the Spanglish spoken by Cuban Americans in Miami or the Spanglish spoken by Puerto Ricans in New York. Each of these Spanglishes has its own patterns, its own idiosyncrasies.

They also have their own names, such as Cubonics for the Spanglish spoken by Cuban Americans or Nuyorican for the Spanglish spoken by Puerto Ricans living in New York.

In addition, "The Mexican American community doesn't speak one type of Spanglish. People in San Antonio or in Houston, or Mexicans in New York or Chicago will use different patterns, depending on the contact they have with...the other minorities and the larger mainstream society," Stavans says. The different styles of Spanglish can also vary in different age groups, with younger speakers using different terms than older speakers.

In spite of its prevalence in many Hispanic communities, Spanglish isn't really a language or a dialect. Some people think of it as simply slang. Some linguists refer to it as a pidgin -- a language with a simplified grammar and syntax that people without a common language can use. Many pidgins start out as lingua francas, or trade languages that speakers of different languages use to communicate with one another. Spanglish also has some of the earmarks of an internal tongue, a language or dialect that an ethnic group uses to differentiate itself from other groups. At the same time, it may function as one step in the process of learning English.

Spanglish isn't the first hybrid to have gained this kind of prevalence or to have become part of a community identity. We'll look at how it compares to a similar hybrid language -- Yiddish -- in the next section.

Dr. Illan Stavans
Dr. Illan Stavans
Image by Sam Masinter / used courtesy Dr. Ilan Stavans

A good way to understand how Spanglish evolved and continues to grow is to look at a similar linguistic hybrid -- Yiddish. Yiddish uses Hebrew characters and its own grammatical structure, but much of its vocabulary has German roots. It got its start in the 13th century as a German dialect spoken mostly by Jews. Other languages, like Hebrew and Slavic languages, have influenced it over hundreds of years. Yiddish has also influenced English. The words kvetch, nosh, mishmash, spiel and chutzpah all come from Yiddish, although some have different spellings or connotations.

Like Spanglish, Yiddish started as a dialect spoken by people who had migrated away from their homes. It became a written language in the 16th century. By the middle of the 20th century and the Holocaust, it had become a full language with its own works of literature. In 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer even won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing in Yiddish [Source: NobelPrize.org].

Yiddish also developed several regional dialects, much the way the styles of Spanglish vary from region to region. "Yiddish itself is a hybrid language, a minority language, an ethnic language spoken by Eastern European Jews," says Stavans:

But Yiddish was never a unified, monolithic way of communication. There was a Yiddish spoken by Polish Jews, and within Poland, different types of accents, different types of cadences…in the Ukraine another type of Yiddish. [Another type] is the Yiddish that immigrants ended up using when arriving to the new world. When those immigrants came to the United States at the end of the 19th century, and up until just the beginning of the second World War...whatever kind of Yiddish they were using got mixed with English, and there was something that emerged that I've called Yinglish, that is a mixing of Yiddish and English, that is very similar to Spanglish, or could be very similar to Franglais, the mixing of French and English, or the mixing of Portuguese and English, whatever language immigrants use when they come to this country. I would say that Yiddish, because of its behavior, its patterns, it allows us to see and understand a lot of how hybrid languages end up shaping up.

In addition to their similarities, Spanglish and Yiddish have several differences. Spanglish is newer than Yiddish, and is still predominately a spoken form of slang rather than a written language. "It's not quite what the Jews were doing with Yiddish in the early half of the 20th century, obviously, because by then Yiddish was a fully developed literary language, and we are just a bit on the outskirts of that process," says Stavans:

There are novels being published in Spanglish, collections of poems, plays in Spanglish today, operas, but we're kind of at the beginning of that process. And that is an interesting and crucial moment, because I think what we're witnessing is a transition between…a predominantly oral language or form of communication, because when I say "language" people say, "But it's not fully formed." And my whole point here is that it's not fully formed but it's in the process of formation…. By moving from the oral to the written, we are inevitably having to come up with a grammar and a syntax and ways of spelling, that is a lexicon and so on. And then who knows what's going to happen in the future, maybe in 200, 300 years it will have become by then a…full-fledged language with its own academy and with a masterpiece written in it that will have to be translated into other languages…. Or maybe it will not stand the test of time. It's hard to say, but what's clear is that today it's quite a force, not only in American society but in the whole hemisphere.

Although Spanglish has not become a fully developed written language, it does appear on television and in print media. In the United States, two 24-hour television networks, Univision and Telemundo, broadcast Spanish-language programs, some of which incorporate Spanglish. Numerous radio stations, magazines and newspapers also provide information and programming in Spanish. All of these sources have the potential to incorporate both Spanish and Spanglish. "I think all that put together makes Spanglish and Spanish in the United States a much more enduring -- and for some a threatening -- verbal presence that can be very politically charged," says Stavans.

Political and social controversy surrounding Spanglish comes from both the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities. "In the Spanish-language community, Spanglish is perceived as a lower-class manifestation, a sign of a lack of culture, a lack of refinement, and so on," explains Stavans. "The upper class Latino population that is fully bilingual or speaks only English thinks that if you are using Spanglish, your thoughts are convoluted in that you come from the margins of society or the lower class." This is another similarity with Yiddish, which was once viewed as a language for women and children.

English-speaking communities, on the other hand, often view Spanglish as either a positive or a negative part of Hispanic culture. "The Anglo community sees this in a number of ways, depending on the perspective of the individual," says Stavans. "Politically, some people might see it as a legitimate, authentic way of ethnic communication, but others...on the political right see this as a sign that Latinos are not assimilating, are not becoming full-fledged members of American society and following the path of previous immigrant groups."

This controversy hasn't kept Spanglish from spreading. "Because of what's happening of late, that is that the media is using a lot of Spanglish, there are movies in Spanglish all the time nowadays, some Hollywood blockbusters that include a sentence here and there, or independent films or even some Hollywood movies that are including topics about it, on Spanglish, that are much more forceful and present," says Stavans. He continues:

There's a lot of Spanglish on Comedy Central, there's a lot of Spanglish on the Cartoon Network and on WB for the little kids, and in Latin music, of course, is probably the main instruments of the dissemination of Spanglish, most groups today switch back and forth in the same song, from Spanish to English and then coin new terms. And then the Internet, too, there is something called Cyber-Spanglish that is the language of technology and the Internet that is really used all the time. So I would say that is a slang, but it is very active and very prolific and very fertile in a number of different ways.

Because of its prevalence, Spanglish may be the next major influence on the English and Spanish languages. We'll look at how other languages have influenced them over the last several centuries in the next section.

Spanglish has a surprisingly long history. Stavans explains, "I would say that Spanglish isn't only a way of communication, although that is what people think of when they hear the world…it could be described as either the marriage or the divorce between two languages -- Spanish and English -- that have been with each other and at each other for over 150 years, if not more."

This 150-year figure may surprise people who think of Spanglish and immigration from Spanish-speaking countries into the United States as recent phenomena. But Spanglish has roots in the 1800s. Stavans explains:

In the middle of the 19th century, when the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, that is in 1848, a generous portion of the Mexican territory at that point was sold to the United States, and obviously with all the people that lived there. And those individuals, in what is today Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, found themselves using Spanish at home but being forced to use English for business transactions and for legal issues, and in the public domain. So that is one major moment when these two languages started to come together and started to kind of struggle to see which one was the most powerful, eventually resulting, that tension, in a kind of a co-existence.

Other major encounters between English speakers and Spanish speakers have influenced Spanglish as well. "[There was] the Spanish-American war at the end of the 19th century, when Spain left the Caribbean and the Americans came into Cuba and Puerto Rico," says Stavans. "And Puerto Rico today is probably the cradle, together with the U.S.-Mexico border, the cradle of Spanglish, where this hybrid form of communication is used most often by most people. And then of course throughout the 20th century as American culture moved south…the connection between Spanish and English was once again reinforced." Spanglish may even have roots as early as the 17th and 18th centuries, when British travelers visited Spain.

Spanglish is not the first language hybrid to appear in the United States, but it has taken hold in a way that other similar ways of speaking have not. Stavans explains, "In many ways, one has to keep in mind that Spanglish is not unique, that every immigrant group that comes to a new culture or a new linguistic environment has to face the task of retaining, if that group is willing to, its connection with the immigrant tongue, but at the same time embrace the welcoming tongue, or the tongue of the new environment, and the tension between the two often results in all sorts of complications."

One hybrid that has appeared in the United States was a mix of Norwegian, and Danish, Finnish and English, called Finglish, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, says Stavans, "There was also something called Polinglish or Punglish, there's Chinglish, that is, every single group has, even for a very brief and disorganized moment, has produced a kind of hybrid, in-between language."

The in-between language created from English and Spanish has persisted and spread for a number of reasons. One reason, Stavans says, is geographic:

Whereas other groups, say the group from Finland, came into this country from many, many miles away in crossing a huge ocean, and they came in small numbers, for economic reasons. With Latinos, many of us are very close to the place once called home…Miami is only 90 miles away from Cuba. A flight from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico is $75 on a good day, and if you live in Brownsville or in San Antonio and want to go to Mexico, that is the country of your past, it sometimes takes only 10 minutes or even less, depending on where you are.

In addition, immigration from Spanish-speaking countries has been ongoing and has involved large numbers of people. According to Stavans, "For a person from Finland, Finglish eventually disappeared because people simply stopped using it. No new immigrants were arriving and there were not enough speakers. With Latinos there is always a new group coming in that reminds us that Spanish is alive and kind of freshens the community's verbal skills."

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Click the red dots to learn about the major milestones in the development of the English language. Click the arrow to see the rest of the timeline.

So geography, economy and the English and Spanish languages have had an enormous effect on Spanglish. But Spanglish also has the potential to affect Spanish and English, both of which have gone through numerous changes over hundreds of years. Spanish and English now sound very different from each other, but both are Indo-European languages. Along with many other European and southern Asian languages, they all grew from the same now-extinct language.

Today, English and Spanish are part of two different language families. English is a Germanic language that grew from languages spoken by Germanic tribes. Spanish is a Romance language, meaning that it grew from Latin. Both languages have had a number of influences during their histories as people who spoke them came into contact with other languages and cultures. The animations above and below will give you an overview of how other languages have affected Spanish and English.

This content is not compatible on this device.

Click the red dots to learn about the major milestones in the development of the Spanish language. Click the arrow to see the rest of the timeline.

Spanglish has grown from Spanish and English, and it may affect both languages dramatically in the future. However, Stavans describes Spanglish more than just a meeting of two languages. "More than anything else, it is proof that a new civilization is emerging before our eyes. A civilization that is part Hispanic, part Anglo, and in those two categories, it includes all sorts of other roots, to Africa, and to England, to parts of Europe, to the far East, and I think that what we are witnessing with Spanglish is the way people communicate verbally and otherwise, as they try to put together or negotiate the tension between these two cultures or these two ways of being, being a Hispanic or a Latino and an Anglo. And the result is a hybrid middle ground that is really the Spanglish way of being."

You can learn more about Spanglish, Spanish, English and related topics by checking out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Goldstein, Tara. "One Speaker, Two Languages: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching." Canadian Modern Language Review. June 1999. http://www.utpjournals.com/product/cmlr/554/One3.html
  • Cruz, Bill et al. "The Official Spanglish Dictionary." Fireside. 1998.
  • Interview with Dr. Ilan Stavans, conducted October 23, 2006.
  • Kemmer, S. "Chronology of Events in the History of English." http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/chron.html
  • Library of Congress. "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo." November 22, 2005. http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/ghtreaty/
  • McWhorter, John. "What is Pigdin? What is Creole?" Educational CyberPlayground. http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Linguistics/explainpidgin.html
  • Merriam-Webster. "What Are the Origins of the English Language?" http://www.m-w.com/help/faq/history.htm
  • Paternostro, Silvana. "Conversation: The Meaning of Spanglish." Newsweek. 9/19/2003. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3069153/
  • Shyovitz, David. "The History and Development of Yiddish." Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/yiddish.html
  • "Spanglish, a New American Language." Morning Edition. November 23, 2003. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1438900
  • "Spanish Language: General Overview." http://www.orbilat.com/Languages/Spanish/Spanish.html
  • Stavans, Ilan. "Latin Lingo." The Boston Globe. September 14, 2003. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2003/09/14/latin_lingo/
  • Stavans, Ilan. "Spanglish: the Making of a New American Language." HarperCollins. 2003.
  • Stavans, Ilan. "The Gravitas of Spanglish." The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 13, 2003. http://chronicle.com/free/v47/i07/07b00701.htm
  • Suarez, Ray. "Spanglish." Online NewsHour. October 23, 2003. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/spanglish/book/
  • Trusted Translations. "Castilian Spanish and the History of the Spanish Language." http://www.trustedtranslations.com/castilian_spanish.asp
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000." Issued October 2003.
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "The Hispanic Population." Census 2000 Brief.
  • Yiddish Words Found in English. http://www.bergen.org/AAST/projects/Yiddish/English/comwor.html

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