How Spanglish Works

The Developement of 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.