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.


  1. I wonder about that Spanish transcription: Te llamo para trás. Perhaps it should be Te llamo pa’ atras.

  2. (With appropriate accents, of course.)

  3. So this is a population who speaks neither standard American English nor standard Mexican Spanish. !Que barbaridad!

  4. I’m watching it now: I guess it’s better than it could have been, and it has its moments, but overall I’m disappointed–if for no other reason than we’ve seen about an hour about the South and Texas after finishing with Maine and Boston in about thirty seconds!

  5. I just watched it. Hear, hear, Danny!
    And I was perplexed by the discussion on the Midlands dialect, on the train moving into Ohio from the East Coast. Why did they skirt around naming Illinois when they named Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Lower Michigan, and Ohio? The color coded map included all but the section of Illinois including Chicago and the Lakes area south of Wisconsin. Understood. But they didn’t name my home state. And I think the wooded part of Southern Illinois should not have been coded as part of the Midlands dialect area. There is to my ears more Southern English than Midlands.
    Has anyone done studies of English spoken on various Native American or First Peoples’ reservations and communities?

  6. Richard Hershberger says

    I’ve never seen John Simon on television, but if his TV demeanor is like his written demeanor, I am all in favor of them using him as a token prescriptivist: better someone obviously looney and unpleasant than someone who could put a good face on the enterprise.

  7. The website is much better than the broadcast in my opinion, in terms of it’s presentation of the complexity of these issues. I only watched the first two hours, because I was so frustrated by the terrible way in which they handled the “English only” debates by showing the Texas border patrol apprehending some illegal immigrants (with helicopters and uniformed officers as though it was a borderlands version of Cops)!?!
    I also had a lot of problems with the way they presented the development of Black/African American English: from English slave traders on the Ivory Coast (using stock footage from the 1970s?) to the Gullah Islands, to the underground hip hop clubs of Detroit? And although they talk about it some on the website, there was virtually no mention of the similarities between southern white and black ways of speaking. Instead, they seemed to be interested in presenting black and white dialects as completely different and subject to separate development (totally favoring the Creolization theory, which I think explains only part of the development of Black English).

  8. vitpil: My reaction was very similar.

  9. The segment I found most intriguing was, in part three, when the schoolchildren were being taught explicitly how and when to code-switch. I gather, from reading, that this approach has been tried for a few years now, but I didn’t notice any mention in the show on how successful this approach was at instilling longer-term skills.

  10. You probably have blogged about it in the past, but that external link, on the PBS page, to segmented documentaries about Lumbee was quite instructive for me. However, I’d like to know how readers who have studied the dialect and the people who speak it evaluate that presentation.
    For the record, the blogger Mac Diva (who also posts as “J.” on her other excellent blog Silver Rights) is a Lumbee who grew up in North Carolina. I remember her commenting on the language some four years ago on a specific thread at Alas, a Blog, where you probably participated, too.

  11. I saw the show too, and mostly agree with the others here.
    It is possible to hear Te llamo para atrás, but it generally becomes Te llamo p’atrás.
    Also, this “Chicano English” is the stereotypical accent/dialect used by Hispanics in American movies.
    By the way, Part III of the series was broadcast yesterday here in California, and unfortunately, I missed it. Hopefully I’ll catch it next time.

  12. I’ve heard from both American Spanish teachers and South American guest workers that Mexicans speak poor Spanish. Recently, even a Guatemalan lady told me that her Spanish was “más educado” (better educated) than what the Mexicans spoke.
    While these statements are somewhat exaggerated I know where these people are coming from. I still remember some Chicano construction workers in L.A. being interviewed on Univision a few years ago by a young female Cuban-American reporter. One of the construction workers used the word “trendente” for ‘trendy’ and the reporter (reporterette?) promptly correced him and said “De la moda”. Some linguists claim that the Spanish vernaculars of the Canary Islands and Mexico are the most divergent and that’s probably true (although this is getting into a different topic!).

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