Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language

Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language

by Ilan Stavans

In exploring the formation of Spanglish, award-winning essayist Ilan Stavans reflects on, and also codifies, the most transforming linguistic phenomena in America in the last one hundred years -- one that may predict our future as a nation and that of our entire hemisphere.
No tool is more useful in understanding the changes in culture than language. In today


In exploring the formation of Spanglish, award-winning essayist Ilan Stavans reflects on, and also codifies, the most transforming linguistic phenomena in America in the last one hundred years -- one that may predict our future as a nation and that of our entire hemisphere.
No tool is more useful in understanding the changes in culture than language. In today's America, communication is built around inclusion and efficiency, and this is no more apparent than in the blending of the two most spoken languages in the United States: English and Spanish.
Spanish, the nation's unofficial second language, is immediately obvious and audible on airwaves and media screens, streets and classrooms, from one coast to the other. But el español has not spread on this side of the Atlantic in its unadulterated Iberian form. Instead it is metastasizing into something altogether new: an astonishingly creative code of communication known as Spanglish, which in large part is the result of sweeping demographic changes, globalization, and the newly emergent "Latin Fever" that is sweeping the country. It is used predominantly by people of Hispanic descent but is also embraced by others in the United States, the Americas as a whole, and even Spain.
Naturally controversial, Spanglish outrages English-language-only proponents, who seek to ban all languages other than English north of the Rio Grande. Equal in their outrage are Spanish-language purists and the supporters of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in Madrid, as they deem Spanglish a cancer to their precious and centuries-old tongue. With elegance and erudition, Ilan Stavans reflects on the verbal rift that has given birth to Spanglish. He fascinatingly shows the historical tensions between the British and Spanish Empires, and how in 1588, with the sinking of the grand Spanish Armada, the rivalry between the two empires was solidified, and to this day, the differences in religion and culture continue their fight linguistically.
He ponders major historical events, such as the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty of 1848 and the Spanish-American War fifty years later, as agents of radical linguistic change, although, as he rightly states, it is in the second half of the twentieth century that Spanglish sped into our daily reality.
Stavans also points out the similarities and differences Spanglish has with Yiddish, so thoroughly blending into the American vocabulary, and the much-debated Ebonics, which made headlines in the early 1990s as a uniquely African American blend of proper English and urban slang. Ultimately, Stavans deftly proves that the manner in which a language stays alive is through mutation and that its survival doesn't depend on academies but on the average person's need for expression. This explains why it is increasingly used not only in kitchens and school but in music, TV, film, and literature, all expressions of the American collective soul.
Coupled with Stavans's insights is a substantial lexicon that shows the breadth and ingenuity of this growing vocabulary -- at times, semantically obvious, then also surprisingly inventive. An ingenious translation into Spanglish of the first chapter of Don Quixote de La Mancha comes as a bonus. The added impact proves that Spanglish is more than a language -- it is the perfect metaphor for an America that is a hybrid, a sum of parts.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Stavans (Latin American culture, Amherst Coll.), the author of many well-respected books of fiction, translation, cartoons, anthologies, literary editions, and criticism, has spent a decade studying the verbal encounters between the Anglo and Hispanic cultures. In this provocative work, he establishes the variety, vitality, and complexity of the resulting language-Spanglish. In an introductory essay, he describes the sources and uses of the language, its social and economic consequences, and the controversies surrounding it. The bulk of the book is taken up with the first serious lexicon of this new language. It is the result of years of fieldwork and library research (only terms that have been documented or tape-recorded from three sources are included). The lexicon contains over 2000 entries, each of which includes pronunciation, alternative spellings, part of speech, language of origin, and, in some cases, the national group or state where the term began. In a few cases, the date of first appearance is also given. Rounding out the volume is the author's Spanglish translation of the first chapter of Don Quixote. This intriguing first real attempt to describe Spanglish will be a useful purchase for academic and large public libraries.-Paul D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

The Making of a New American Language


La jerga loca

¿Cómo empezó everything? How did I stumble upon it? Walking the streets of El Barrio in New York City, at least initially. Wandering around, as the Mexican expression puts it, con la oreja al vuelo, with ears wide open. Later on, of course, my appreciation for Spanglish evolved dramatically as I raveled around los Unaited Esteits. Bu at the beginning was New York. It always is, isn't it?

I had arrived in Manhattan in the mid-eighties. My first one-room apartment, which I shared with three roommates, was on Broadway and 122nd Street. The area was bustling with color: immigrants from the Americas, especially from he Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia, intermingling with students from Columbia University, Barnard and Teacher's College, and with future ministers and rabbis from Union Theological Seminary and The Jewish Theological Seminary. The ethnic juxtaposition was exhilarating indeed. But sight wasn't everything. Sound was equally important. Color and noise went together, as I quickly learned.

I was enthralled by the clashing voices I encountered on a regular walk in the Upper West Side: English, Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew ... Those voices often changed as one oscillated to different areas of he city: Arabic, French, Polish, Russian, Swahili and scores of other tongues were added to the mix. What kind of symphony was I immersed in? Was his he sound of the entire universe or only of my neighborhood?

There was a newspaper stand on he corner of 110th and Broadway, next to a bagel bakery and a Korean grocery store. I regularly made my shopping in those blocks, so I regularly stopped to browse. Newspapers and magazines in English predominated in it, and Chinese and Israeli periodicals were also for sale. But the owner displayed he Spanish-language items with emphasis: El Diario/La Prensa, Noticias del Mundo, Diario de las Américas, Cosmopolitan, Imagen ... As a Mexican native, I often bough one of them in the morning, "just to keep up with what's up," as I would tell my friends. But to keep up with these publications was also to invite your tongue for a bumpy ride. The grammar and syntax used in them was never fully "normal," e.g., it replicated, often unconsciously, English-language patterns. I was obvious that its authors and editors were americanos with a loose connection to la lengua de Borges. "Están contaminaos ...," a teacher of mine in he Department of Spanish at Columbia would tell me. "Pobrecitos ... They've lost all sense of verbal propriety."

Or had they?

My favorite section to read in El Diario/La Prensa, already then the fastest-growing daily in New York, where I eventually was hired to be a columnist, was the hilarious classified section. "Conviértase en inversor del Citibank," claimed an ad. Another one would state: "Para casos de divorcio y child support, llame a su advocate personal al (888)745-1515." And:"¡¡¡Alerta!!!Carpinteros y window professionals. Deben tener 10 años de experiencia y raer tools." Or, "Estación de TV local está buscando un editor de líneal crea ivo. Debe tener conocimiento del 'Grass Valley Group VPE Series 151'. En The Bronx. Venga en persona:(718)601-0962." One morning I came across one that announced pompously: "Hoy más que nunca, tiempo is money." And I stumbled upon another that read: "Apartments are selling like pan caliente and apartments de verdad."

Today I use the term hilarious in a reverent fashion. Over the years my admiration for Spanglish has grown exponentially, even though I'm perfectly conscious of its social and economic consequences. Only 14 percent of Latino students in the country graduate from college. The majority complain that the cultural obstacles along the way are innumerable: the closely knit family dynamic, the need to help support their family, the refusal to move out from home in order to go to school ... And language, naturally: for many of them proficiency in the English language is too high a barrier to overcome. English is the door to the American Dream. Not until one masters el inglés are he fruits of that dream attainable.

Spanglish is often described as the trap, la rampa Hispanics fall into on he road to assimilation -- el obstâculo en el camino. Alas, the growing lower class uses it, thus procrastinating the possibility of un futuro mejor, a better future. Still, I've learned to admire Spanglish over time. Yes, it is the tongue of the uneducated. Yes, it's a hodgepodge ... But its creativity astonished me. In many ways, I see in it the beauties and achievements of jazz, a musical style that sprung up among African-Americans as a result of improvisation and lack of education. Eventually, though, it became a major force in America, a state of mind breaching out of the ghetto into he middle class and beyond. Will Spanglish follow a similar route?

Back then, as my early immigrant days unfolded, it was easier to denigrate it. Asked by a reporter in 1985 for his opinion on el espanglés, one of the other ways used to refer to he linguistic juxtaposition of south and north -- some other categories are casteyanqui, inglañol, argo sajón, español bastardo, papiamento gringo, and caló pachuco -- Octavio Paz, the Mexican author of The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is said to have responded with a paradox: "ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable" -- it is neither good nor bad but abominable. This wasn't an exceptional view: Paz was one of scores of intellectuals with a distaste for the bastard jargon, which, in his eyes, didn't have gravitas. Una lengua bastarda: illegitimate, even wrongful ...

The Making of a New American Language
. Copyright © by Ilan Stavans. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College–40th Anniversary Professor at Amherst College.

Ilán Stavans nació en México, en 1961. Cursó estudios de posgrado en la Universidad de Columbia, y ahora tiene la cátedra Lewis-Sebring de cultura latina y latinoamericana en Amherst College.

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