PBS has a program called Do You Speak American? that looks to be a well-informed investigation of issues like dialect and neologisms, with actual linguists aboard. It’s being broadcast at 8 PM tonight here in New York; if you live in the US, check their local schedule page for your local time. The website is well worth investigating for its own sake; here’s a snippet on Chicano English from this section by Carmen Fought (an associate professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, California):
In Los Angeles’ Mexican-American communities, the Spanish spoken is distinct from the Spanish spoken in Mexico. For example, speakers say Te llamo para trás, a literal translation of the English phrase I’ll call you back — a phrase not used by speakers in monolingual Spanish-speaking communities (in Mexico or elsewhere). The English of L.A.’s Mexican-American communities is also different. It includes a variety called Chicano English that reveals just how thoroughly social context can affect language structure. When recent groups of Mexican immigrants arrived in Los Angeles, they learned English as a second language. Most of us know someone who immigrated to this country as an adult and speaks English with a noticeable “foreign accent.” Like other adult second-language learners, the early Mexican immigrants spoke an “accented” variety of English that included phonological and other patterns from their first language, Spanish. The children of these immigrants, however, generally grew up using both Spanish and English. They used the “learner English” of the community as a basis for developing a new, native dialect of English. Of course, the kids didn’t sit down and say to themselves “We need a better dialect of English than our parents have!” So what did happen, exactly? The way that Chicano English developed tells us something about language, cognition and the human brain.
The emergence of Chicano English is similar in some ways to the development of a special set of languages called pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a simplified language that develops when groups of adult speakers without a common language come into prolonged contact. It has no native speakers, but is spoken as a second language, varies a lot from individual to individual, and is more simplified in certain ways than other languages. When children grow up in a community where a pidgin is the predominant language, they quickly —within a generation — make it more elaborate (by putting in more complex grammatical structures), and more stable, with less individual variation. This newer variety eventually becomes a creole, which despite its unusual origins, is linguistically indistinguishable from languages that develop in other settings.
Linguists take great interest in how children elaborate and ‘strengthen’ a pidgin’s language structure in this way. How do children know what to add? How do they agree on the elements of the system? Linguists hope to be able to address these complex questions someday.
The history of Chicano English is similar. The non-native English of the early adult Mexican immigrants provided a basis for their children to develop a more stable and consistent dialect, Chicano English. Now Chicano English has rules of its own that set it apart both from Spanish and other English dialects.
By the way, you can’t tell from hearing a person speak Chicano English whether he or she also speaks Spanish. You may think you are hearing a “Spanish accent” because of the influence of Spanish on the development of Chicano English. But whatever you might think you hear, many people who speak Chicano English are monolingual, especially if they are third generation or later. You can’t tell if they are bilingual just from listening to their English. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.
Thanks to Songdog for the link!
Update. Christ, they’re interviewing that idiot John Simon. Ah well, they only waste a couple of minutes on him…. oh no, there he is again! “A society in which the uneducated lead the educated by the nose is not a good society…. Maybe change is inevitable. Maybe dying from cancer is inevitable…” I guess they could have used a subtler voice for prescriptivism; his blatant snobbery is probably a plus for my side. But it sure grates to listen to him.