Living on the Hyphen.

Sarah Menkedick has a nice piece on Spanglish in the Oxford American; an excerpt:

The term “Espanglish” was first coined in 1948 by a grumpy Puerto Rican humorist named Salvador Tió in a newspaper column entitled “Teoría del Espanglish,” or “Theory of Spanglish.” Tió lamented the encroachment of English into Puerto Rican Spanish, to the degradation of his native tongue. […]

Though Tió was right in identifying Spanglish as an emerging hybrid language, he was wrong about its aesthetic, epistemological, and political implications. Like the stiff-collared linguists at the Real Academia Española who would later echo his sentiments of a deformed and bastardized dialect, he failed to grasp that Spanglish is as much a manifestation of multicultural identity as a mash-up of languages; that its seemingly mangled grammar follows a logic both interior, intuitive, and morphological, mappable; that it allows its speakers to belong to multiple worlds, cultures, identities, and languages at once, while forming a third sense of belonging. Spanglish is not one language seeping into and diluting another. It is not the product of a straightforward hierarchy, an oppressive and simplifying domination. Spanglish is more complex, the result of a speaker’s mutable identity—Spanish sometimes trumping English, English sometimes supplanting Spanish, depending on the speaker’s interior map of cultural associations. Rather than colorful peons unknowingly co-opted by imperialism, Spanglish speakers are cunning and empowered linguistic craftsmen.

But this is not what a certain well-born, well-bred, highly educated class of Spanish and Latin American academic would like one to think. There is a barbarians-at-the-gates feel to critiques of Spanglish, which tend almost invariably to come from severe-looking men posing before bookshelves and stately desks. In their critiques, one can feel a grave, gravelly respect for the language of Cervantes, for the language of all the august men of letters with their admiration for the bound rules of high culture. Here is Roberto González Echevarría, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature, in the New York Times in 1997: “Spanglish treats Spanish as if the language of Cervantes, Lorca, García Márquez, Borges and Paz does not have an essence and dignity of its own.” Octavio Paz himself put it more succinctly in 1985: “No es ni bueno ni malo, sino abominable.” It’s neither good nor bad, but abominable. Here again Spanglish appears as a mongrel, corrupting an essential purity—an indictment that ignores the fact that Latin America is a landscape of hybrid identities, cultures, and tongues shaped by the brutal centuries-long domination of the Spanish empire. There are ironic imperialist and racist overtones in these arguments, with Spanish as the language of “dignity” contrasted with the implied savagery of Spanglish; we could be in Mexico in 1600, when the Spaniards referred to themselves in colonial documents as “men of reason” contrasted with the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Perhaps, since Spanish succeeded in thoroughly crushing so many indigenous languages, its “essence” must now be preserved from a potential resurgence of indigenous expression. […]

What Echevarría misses is that most Spanglish speakers are neither poor nor illiterate but rather aspiring middle-class and second-generation Latinos; artists, scholars, and writers; educated Mexican-American immigrants; Mexican immigrants who’ve returned to Mexico from the U.S.; and gringos who’ve somehow wound up straddling the border. They are expert jugglers of contrasting cultures and identities, code-switchers extraordinaire, fluently bilingual and bicultural. They have not been robbed of an essential static identity but rather gained new layers of ipseity, albeit layers often fraught with moral and personal conflicts: where and to whom do I belong, when, how, and why? They—and my husband and I count ourselves among this group—use their fluid understanding of diverse languages and cultures to craft creative new responses to “the changing culture that surrounds them.”

Needless to say, I like her take on it. There’s lots more good stuff there, for instance on code-switching (“Linguist Richard Skiba breaks down the average usage of Spanglish into percentages: 84 percent of the time, Spanglish speakers employ single word switches; 10 percent of the time, phrase switches; and 6 percent of the time, clause switches”); check it out. And if somebody sent me the link, let me know so I can thank you; sometimes a tab will sit there so long I forget where it came from.


  1. I expect that many of those single-word switches are in fact borrowings, ad hoc or otherwise, though not always: trendy for example does not become trendys when modifying a plural noun, showing that it is a switch, as Spanish does not have indeclinable adjectives in attributive position.

  2. I guess I have some mixed feelings about the article.I’ve grown up with Spanglish and I can code-switch with the best of them but in a way some of the Spanglish skeptics have a point.People use Spanglish to fill a need and sometimes the English/Spanglish word is more useful, available, understandable, or just snappier than the Spanish one but when we choose the English or Spanglish version there is a kind of scraping away at our Spanish and I do think people have a right to be sad about that. If we can be dismayed at the loss of Ayapaneco among its speakers or the loss of Nahuatl among my family why can’t we feel a twinge of regret when someone says ,takeando instead of tomando?

  3. No, that’s a good point. Of course there’s a tension between celebrating linguistic creativity and wanting to hold on to the beautiful, expressive language inherited from the past, and how a speaker responds to that tension will depend on all sorts of things; it’s probably different for the same speaker at different times. It also makes a difference whether the base language is widely spoken and secure, like English and Spanish, or struggling merely to survive, like so many indigenous languages; I wouldn’t be nearly so chipper about celebrating the wanton mingling of tongues in the latter case. Thanks for a thought-provoking comment!

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