The Gravitas of Spanglish By ilan stavans slang

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The Gravitas of Spanglish


slang, n. The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus Intolerabilis) with an audible memory. --Ambrose Bierce
Once asked by a reporter for his opinion on el espanglés -- one term used to refer to Spanglish south of the border -- the Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz is said to have responded: "Ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable." Indeed, it is commonly assumed that Spanglish is a bastard jargon: part Spanish and part English, with neither gravitas nor a clear identity. It is spoken (or broken) by many of the approximately 35 million people of Hispanic descent in the United States, who, no longer fluent in the language of Cervantes, have not yet mastered that of Shakespeare.
The trouble with this view is that it is frighteningly nearsighted. Only dead languages are static, never changing. After the various forms of Chinese, English is the second most widely spoken language around the world today, with 350 million speakers; Spanish is the third, with 250 million. In the Americas, where English and Spanish cohabit promiscuously, Spanglish spreads effortlessly. "Tiempo is money," intones an advertisement running on a San Antonio radio station. Musicians and literati use Spanglish without apology in songs, novels, poems, and nonfiction -- often merely sprinkling in a few words, but also using a full-blown dialect. Even on the campaign trail, George W. Bush's nephew, George P. Bush, can be heard at political rallies switching between Spanish, English, and, yes, Spanglish.
Not surprisingly, Spanglish has become a hot topic. For some time, I've been working on a lexicon of the language, and this semester I'm offering a course based on my research, "The Sounds of Spanglish." In historical and geographic scope, it is, I believe, the first of its kind and has drawn about 60 students (unusual for a small liberal-arts institution like Amherst College). The buzz the course and the dictionary have created on National Public Radio and in newspapers around the globe has brought home to me just how much interest the subject of Spanglish arouses these days. But it also generates anxiety -- and even xenophobia. In the United States, it announces to some people an overall hispanización of society; abroad, it raises the specter of U.S. cultural imperialism and the creation of a "McLengua."
But a language cannot be legislated. It is the most democratic form of expression of the human spirit. Every attack serves as a stimulus, for nothing is more inviting than that which is forbidden. To seize upon the potential of Spanglish, it is crucial to understand the development of both Spanish and English.
Antonio de Nebrija, the first to compile a Spanish grammar, noted in the 15th century: "Siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio." An imperial tool, indeed, with a clear-cut task: to spread the sphere of influence of the Catholic crown. But, as the ethnolinguist Angel Rosenblatt argued as far back as 1962, Spanish was never simply transplanted; instead, it adapted to the new reality. For more than 500 years, Spanish has twisted and turned in spontaneous fashion, from the Argentine Pampas to the rough roads of Tijuana. Today, it is as elastic and polyphonic as ever. A person in Madrid can communicate with someone in Caracas, but numerous nuances -- from meaning to accent and emphasis -- distinguish the two.
The verbal dimension of the Conquest is, I am convinced, a little-known aspect of the encounter between Europe and the pre-Columbian world that ought to be analyzed in detail. For the Conquest involved not only political, military, and social colonization; it was an act of linguistic subjugation, imposed on millions of Indian peoples who spoke such languages as Mayan, Huichol, and Tarascan in Mexico, and Arucanian, Guaraní, and Quechua in South America. The Spanish language spoken today on the continent that ranges from Ciudad Juárez to Tierra del Fuego is an acquired artifact. Of course, the fact that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Jorge Luis Borges wrote their poems and stories in Cervantes's tongue doesn't mean that they wrote in translation. Their Spanish was as much theirs as it was the property of Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, Miguel de Unamuno, or Federico García Lorca. But their language, as such, arrived in the Americas in far different fashion than Spanish came to the Iberian Peninsula. It is no coincidence that 1492, the annus mirabilis in Iberian history, when Spanish began to be standardized and the Jews were expelled, was also the year that Columbus, and the language of Iberia, sailed the ocean blue.
It is in this period that Spanish became a language of power, a global language with an army, a language through which Catholic Spain concentrated its strength and announced itself as a well-delineated nation to other countries, spreading its world-view in northern Africa, Turkey, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and the Americas. But what was being imposed? The answer might surprise those critics of Spanglish who worry about linguistic impurity.
It was also in 1492 that Nebrija, a respected scholar at the University of Salamanca, published his Gramática la lengua castellana, the first grammar of the Spanish language, and his Diccionario latino-español. Shortly after, around 1495, he came out with the Vocabulario español-latino. The climate was ripe in Spain not only for the consolidation of Castile and Aragon into a single Catholic empire, but also for a unifying tongue that would help centralize political and social power. The so-called Reconquista of Muslim-held territory in Spain, which had started in the 11th century, was finally complete. But to become one, a nation needs a set of symbols, a shared history, a centralized power structure -- and a single, commonly understood language. Castilian Spanish became that language.
By devoting himself to standardizing and cataloging the spelling, syntax, and grammar of Castilian Spanish, Nebrija legitimated a language whose speakers had only recently become self-conscious about its use. Over a period of several centuries, the vulgar Latin spoken in the peripheries of the Roman Empire, which was different from the classical Latin of authors like Ovid and Seneca, had evolved on the Iberian Peninsula into various dialects. Those, in turn, had been gradually absorbed by one, Castilian. The language of the New World was also penetrating Iberian Spanish. For example, the 1492 Diccionario contained the Latin term "barca" for a small rowboat; the 1495 Vocabulario listed the Indian term "canoa," from the Nahuatl, followed by the Latin definition.
The consolidation of Spanish began a period of intense intellectual and artistic fertility. The 150 years that followed Nebrija's work was the so-called Golden Age of Spanish arts and literature, of poets, playwrights, and novelists like Fray Luis de Leon, Santa Teresa de Jesús, Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, Calderón de la Barca, Luis de Góngora, and, especially, Miguel de Cervantes.
The first full-length dictionary of the Spanish language appeared in 1611 (almost exactly in between the release of the two parts of Don Quijote de la Mancha, which appeared in 1605 and 1615). The Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española was put together by a lexicographer of the name Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco. Like Nebrija, Covarrubias was attached to the University of Salamanca, but as a student. Of his academic qualifications, we know only that he was a priest, a clerk, and a religious instructor. The dictionary was his sole work, but it is unclear how he came to produce it.
For years, it was referred to in various sources as Etimologías, because of the emphasis it placed on the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew origins of Spanish words. Covarrubias was also versed, although less competently, in French and Italian; but he knew nothing of Arabic, which had strongly influenced Spanish from the 10th to the 15th centuries. As most intellectual matters were at that time, the dictionary was also prepared under the shadow of the Inquisition, and the title page lists Covarrubias as a "consultor del santo oficio de la inquisición."
Covarrubias argued, in a note following the frontispiece in his book, that he wanted Spain to catch up to the other nations of Europe. By royal decree, Italy and France had previously established official academies for the study of their own languages. (The Accademia della Crusca published its six volumes of a dictionary in 1612; the dictionary of the Académie Française, whose mandate was "to purify" the French tongue, took shape from 1639 to 1694.) But Nebrija's and Covarrubias's dictionaries were printed privately, and they sold poorly.
It wasn't until 1713 that Juan Manuel Fernández Pacheco, Marquis of Villena, founded the Real Academia Española de la Lengua Castellana, which was given official approval by Philip V a year later. From its inception, the academia was intent on both institutionalizing the dialect of Castilian on the peninsula (as its very name makes clear) and safeguarding the purity of the language for posterity. It took 14 years -- from 1726 to 1740 -- to produce the six volumes of the famously disappointing Diccionario de autoridades that were supposed to do that. The work's limitations say much about Spanish character and history -- and the Spanish language.
The original members of the academia were neither lexicographers nor academics. They were devotees. Their motto, much ridiculed in modern days, was established as "Limpia, fija y da esplendor" -- "clean, standardize, and grant splendor." The word "limpia" cannot but invoke the concept of "limpieza de sangre," purity of blood, which the Spanish Inquisition used to distinguish between Old Christians and New Christians. The former made the nation proud; the latter (those Jews who, before and after the official expulsion of Jews from Spain, ostensibly converted to Christianity, but practiced Judaism at home) had to be rooted out. The animosity against Jews, Muslims, and women, as well as the desire not to include rude terms and sexual innuendoes, was represented in the dictionary's pages. Definitions were substantiated with a quota of textual excerpts from established intellectual figures of the Golden Age. Above all, the dictionary strove to be a replica of its French and Italian models.
Only in the past century, however, has Spain begun to reflect on its linguistic heritage -- if only halfheartedly. That is happening at a time when Spain is once again fraught with cultural anxiety. The advent of democracy in 1974, and the economic boom and social stability ushered in by the Socialist regime of Felipe González, have produced an era of fractured identity, as various groups, from Catalunya to the Basque country, promote their ancestral tongues as a ticket of autonomy. Increasingly, Catalan and Galician, which have much in common with Occitan and Portuguese, respectively, are recognized as separate languages in Spain. The fact that Castilian Spanish is still the official language has produced civil and legislative tension.
Yet the soul-searching about the Spanish language has not extended to consideration of its role as an instrument of colonial control. That is because Spain is mired in a symbolic battle with the United States. Still smarting from the 1898 loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to U.S. influence, the Spanish take pride in the fact that their language is now the second-most-important tongue in the land of their former enemy. Noting Spain's importance in the American past, King Juan Carlos proudly announced during the Quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas that "España está al centro del pasado de los Estados Unidos." That same year, Puerto Rico, in a nationwide referendum, established Spanish as the island's official language -- for which Spain awarded the Puerto Rican people the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias prize for extraordinary achievement. And only a few months ago, the prize went to branches of the academia in the Americas, in recognition of their efforts to preserve the language of Nebrija.
Small wonder that, in such an atmosphere, the melding of Spanish with English in Spanglish seems threatening.
Of course, English makes up the other part of Spanglish. The fact that Shakespeare's language has no official body like the Real Academia Española to protect it is reason to rejoice. Dictionaries have been produced by individuals unaffiliated with political causes, like Robert Cawdrey, Noah Webster, and, of course, Samuel Johnson -- the insuperable Dr. Johnson -- who remains a magisterial model.
In many ways, Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, which first appeared in 1755, followed the same pattern as the Spanish dictionary, using quotations from canonical figures to put a word's usage in the proper context. In his introduction, Dr. Johnson noted that language was in constant mutation. Still, he said, his mission was to honor his country so "that we may no longer yield the palm of philology without a contest to the nations of the continent" and to give "longevity to that which its own nature forbids to be immortal."
But Johnson's task was not to promote the world-view of a state or empire. He was the quintessential individual. He argued against establishing an academy of the English language, lest "the spirit of English liberty" be hindered or destroyed. He believed the worst malady to afflict a language was spread by translators too prone to use foreign words, especially French, rather than colloquial alternatives. At the same time, he was open to foreign influences, tracing words to Greek, Roman, and other etymologies, and allowing for neologisms.
Even the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, by far the most reputed lexicon in the English language, epitomizes individualism and openness. It was not an official group, but a university (and within it, Richard Chevenix Trench, then Dean of Westminster), that called in 1857 for a new dictionary to cure "the deficiencies of the language." Work by hundreds of people around the world began in 1878, and the actual publication of "125 constituent fascicules" took place from 1884 to 1928. While the endeavor was dedicated to Queen Victoria, and early copies were presented to King George V and to the president of the United States, it was, by all accounts, a nonofficial effort by Oxford University and the Clarendon Press. And it took as its objective categorizing words from English-language regions far and wide.
The birth of Spanglish per se is not too difficult to place in this history. From 1492 through the mid-19th century, the encounter of the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic cultures produced a bare minimum of verbal miscegenation. The chronicles of conquest and conversion of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, Fathers Eusebio Kino and Junípero Serra, and many others, for example, were primarily targeted at the Iberian Peninsula. They were composed in Castilian Spanish and colored by few regionalisms.
The linguistic picture changed dramatically in the 19th century in the region that is now the Southwestern United States. Between 1803, when Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, and 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed over almost one-third of Mexico's land to the United States, Anglo arrivals created a dialogue between English and Spanish, beginning a tentative merging of the two tongues.
With the 1848 treaty, the Mexican people in the Southwest became, overnight, Americans. Curiously, however, no mention was made anywhere in the document of the inhabitants' madre lengua, although newspaper reports noted that Spanish was to be respected. Soon, however, English became the dominant tongue of business and diplomacy, although usage of Spanish in schools and homes did not altogether vanish. Then, with the Spanish-American War, and U.S. control over formerly Spanish colonies, the United States replaced the Spanish empire as a global power. The Spanish language was out, at least politically; English was in. Again, however, Spanish usage didn't altogether cease; it was kept alive in areas like Miami and New York, which were becoming magnets for immigrants.
Nevertheless, it was clear that the communication code was changing. From 1901 until the end of the millennium, dictionaries of Anglicisms were published with more and more frequency all across the Hispanic world -- a symptom of verbal cross-fertilization. Words like lasso, rodeo, amigo, mañana, and tortilla made it into English; mister and money into Spanish. Added to the mix, numerous Nahuatl words like molcajete (mortar), aguacate (avocado), and huipil (a traditional embroidered dress) are accepted by the Real Academia Española as "Americanismos."
Out of this potpourri comes Spanglish -- a vital social code, whose sheer bravura is revolutionizing both Spanish and, to a lesser extent, English.
There isn't one Spanglish, but many. Issues of nationality, age, and class make a difference. The multiplicity is clear in the United States, where the lingo spoken by Cuban-Americans is different from so-called Dominicanish (Nuyorican) Spanglish. Localisms abound. There are not only geographical differences (Istlos, for instance, is Spanglish for East Los Angeles, Loisiada is New York's Lower East Side), but also ethnic ones (chale is a Chicano expression of disagreement, chompa is Nuyorican for jumper, Y.U.C.A. stands for Young Urban Cuban American in Florida).
"Ganga Spanglish," as I've heard the jargon spoken by urban youngsters, introduces other nuances, incorporating slang from other ethnic groups. Look at a sample of lyrics from the popular group Cypress Hill's album Temple of Boom. Ebonics, Chicano Spanglish, and L.A. Spanglish are intertwined:
Don't turn your back on a vato like me

Cuz I'm one broke [expletive]

In need

Desperate! What's going on in the mente

Taking from the rich not from my gente

Look at that gabacho slipping

Borracho from the cerveza

He's sipping

No me vale, madre

Gabacho pray to your padre

This is for the time you would

Give me the jale.
In Spanglish, numerous terms come from sports: los doubles (tennis), el corner and el ofsait (soccer), el tuchdaun (football), el nokaut (boxing). And then, of course, there's Cyber-Spanglish, the cybernetic code used frequently by Internet users. Terms like chatear (to chat), forwardear (to forward), and el maus (computer mouse) are indispensable north and south of the Rio Grande, as well as in Spain and in the Caribbean.
Here at Amherst, a few students and I did an experiment not long ago: We invited four Spanglish speakers of different backgrounds (Brownsville, Tex., Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami) to meet for the first time; the only guideline was that they should not be formal, but communicate in a comfortable way. The result was astounding: As soon as the participants familiarized themselves with one another, the conversation flowed easily, although the speakers often felt compelled to define some terms; within 15 minutes, a sense of linguistic community was perfectly tangible.
Ebonics, or black English, provides an interesting comparative case study. Expressions like "I own know what dem white folk talkin bout" and "Hey, dog, whass hapnin?" are common among African-American youth, especially in ghettos across the country. This form of communication follows its own grammar and syntax. It is, for the most part, a spoken language nurtured by oral tradition, even though the poets and novelists of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920's and their successors have transcribed it. And there is little doubt that Ebonics is an intraethnic slang used by members of a minority group to establish identity. It dates back to the age of slavery, and, embraced particularly by poor people in urban centers, is marked by class.
Spanglish, too, is often an intraethnic vehicle of communication, used in the United States by Hispanics to establish empathy among themselves. But the differences with Ebonics are sharp. For one thing, Ebonics is not a product of mestizaje, the cross-fertilization of two perfectly discernible codes; Spanglish is. Spanglish is also not defined by class, as people in all social strata, from migrant workers to politicians, academics, and TV anchors regularly use it, both in the United States and south of the Rio Grande.
Of course, the interchange between Ebonics and Spanglish has been strong, especially in rap music, where Latino pop stars often imitate their African-American counterparts. In literary works like Piri Thomas's 1967 memoir of a black Puerto Rican in Spanish Harlem, Down These Mean Streets, the hybrid street register also comes through.
But, in many ways, Yiddish (the word means "Jewish") is closer to Spanglish than Ebonics is. Like Spanglish, Yiddish was never a unified tongue, but a series of regional varieties (Litvak, Galitzianer, and so on). Moreover, while both Yiddish and Spanglish started as intraethnic minority languages, both quickly became transnational verbal codes.
Benjamin Harshav, in The Meaning of Yiddish, has chronicled the odyssey of Yiddish from rejection to full embrace. The dialect was used by East European Jews from the 13th century until the 20th. Its linguistic sources were plentiful: Hebrew, German, Russian, Polish, and other Slavic languages. It was first known as a gibberish for women and children, looked down upon as unworthy of Talmudic dialogue by rabbis and the intelligentsia.
Nevertheless, by the 19th century, a vast majority of poor, uneducated Jews -- male and female alike -- in the so-called Pale of Settlement that included Poland, Lithuania, and Galicia were no longer fluent in Hebrew and spoke only Yiddish. Time had turned Yiddish from a jargon into a dialect and, finally, into a mature language. So, around 1865, Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the grandfather of Yiddish literature, made the decision to write his novels and pedagogical treatises in the language. He was followed, with growing self-confidence, by figures like Sholom Aleichem. Plays, stories, novels, poems, commentary, and translations were produced in Yiddish. In 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a native of Poland and a New Yorker by choice, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his Yiddish works.
Although Yiddish has been eclipsed, its impact is still felt. Today, we are clearly witnessing a revolution in culture when the London Economist captions a fuss over mortgage rates "Home Loan Hooha," or when The Wall Street Journal headlines a feature on student movements "Revolution, Shmevolution."
It seems to me that, although Latino and Latin American intelligentsia look down on Spanglish, attitudes toward that language will change in a similar fashion. The reason is simple: Spanglish won't go away. Instead, as time goes by, it will solidify its status. Indeed, it is already in the process of standardizing its syntax. The question is no longer, What is Spanglish? It is, Where is it going? Will it grow into a full-blown language? Is it likely to become a threat to Spanish, or even to replace it altogether? (English, our lingua franca, is obviously not at stake.) None of that is impossible, although the transformation is likely to take hundreds of years.
We are, clearly, at once witnesses and participants to radical change. Imagine if, by a miracle, Miguel de Cervantes was given a copy of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. How many Americanisms in it might be utterly impenetrable to him? Even if Spanglish never seizes its chances fully, the future of Spanish -- and of English -- will be affected by it.
The day may even come when a masterpiece of Hispanic identity, in order to be fully appreciated by millions of people, not only in the United States, but around the world, shall be composed in the vernacular: Spanglish. Then it will be translated into English for the uninitiated reader.
Ilan Stavans is a professor of Spanish at Amherst College. Routledge just released The Essential Ilan Stavans. Next year, Basic Books will bring out his The Sounds of Spanglish: An Illustrated Lexicon.

Section: The Chronicle Review

Page: B7

Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Homework Questions

  1. Briefly summarize how the use of Spanglish came about/has become popular in the United States.

  1. Do you think that Spanglish is a legitimate form of expression? Why/why not?

  1. In your opinion, are there any "pure" languages? Are there any languages that never change?

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