Yarimar Bonilla, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College and a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, has an opinion piece in the NY Times (archived) that expresses indignation — fully justified, in my opinion — about the recent Grammys broadcast:

The Puerto Rican reggaetonero Bad Bunny kicked off the Grammys earlier this month with a rich cultural performance that included a masterful blend of plena, reggaeton and Dominican merengue. As traditional dancers and the cabezudos of the Agua, Sol y Sereno collective, who wore papier-mâché heads that paid homage to Puerto Rican legends like Tego Calderón and Julia de Burgos, twirled around him, he sang in Spanish about how everyone wants to be Latino but they lack sazón, the distinct cultural flavor and connection to the past that defines our communities.

Apparently, along with sazón, the Grammys also needed closed captions.

Many Grammys viewers were puzzled when the captions during his performance read “[SPEAKING NON-ENGLISH; SINGING IN NON-ENGLISH].” He is, after all, known for proudly singing and speaking in Spanish. CBS later clarified that it’s standard practice for live closed captioning to use these phrases as a catchall for non-English languages for live performances. […]

Bad Bunny has been Spotify’s most streamed artist for three years in a row. He was the first artist to reach the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart singing solely in Spanish, the first Spanish-language act to win MTV’s artist of the year and the first Latino urban artist to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. His “Un Verano Sin Ti,” or “A Summer Without You,” is the first Spanish-language album to be nominated for the Grammys’ top prize, album of the year. […]

When Puerto Rico became a possession in 1899, the United States changed its name to Porto Rico and imposed English schooling (the name was changed back to Puerto Rico in 1931). My 95-year-old grandma still remembers when an American teacher named Mr. Sullivan arrived at her school in Lares. He taught her a few English songs. But in the end he learned more Spanish than she did English.

Given this context, Benito’s refusal to speak a language other than his own is a highly political move. Not only does he unabashedly and unapologetically speak in Spanish, but he does so in that ever-maligned Caribbean Spanish, full of so many skipped consonants, Spanglish, neologisms and argot that it borders on Creole. A far cry from the Spanish of Spain’s Royal Academy, or even from the standardized Spanish of Telemundo. […]

Puerto Ricans (and Benito himself) have much more to worry about than the captions at the Grammys. But we can still revel in small victories. I’ve already ordered my [Speaking Non-English] T-shirt, and I plan to wear it proudly.

I’m sure CBS can do better, and I hope it figures things out before the next such broadcast. Thanks, Eric!


  1. Non-English y demás pendejadas

    o bien

    No digas boludeces. Hable Non-English.

  2. David Marjanović says

    The thing about standard practices is they all make it standard practice to switch one’s brain off…

  3. поют не по-нашему

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    The plausibility of this particular objection is driven by the facts that: (a) Spanish is at present by a considerable margin the most commonly-spoken non-English language in the U.S.;* and (b) Spanish is widely known to be the L1 of the particular performer who was on stage at the time. But suppose the performer had been one of those wacky Balkan literati mentioned from time to time at the Hattery who were fluent in six or eight languages? Even if the captioning process has live human beings rather than buggy speech-to-text automatic-conversion software involved in real time (which I would not necessarily assume), how would they know whether the performer has busted out into Bulgarian versus Albanian versus perhaps Ladino? (It could be quite a faux pas to mislabel Ladino as Spanish …)

    *What percentage of Americans who don’t know Spanish can in fact reliably identify that Spanish rather than some similar-sounding but distinct tongue is the foreign language they are hearing at a given moment could be quite another question, of course … I can probably distinguish Spanish from Portuguese on a better-than-pure-chance basis if it’s a question of overhearing a conversation or tv broadcast (especially in a context where my mind is primed for both to be potential options), but I suspect that if I was listening to someone singing, some of the “tells” that distinguish the two in my mind might be harder to detect.

  5. Well, especially if Benito decides to sing in “Caribbean Spanish, […] Spanglish, […] and […] Creole”.

    I remember in one of Dave Barry books he writes that the first rule of New York taxi is “driver speaks no English”.

  6. @cuchuflete

    i want that t-shirt!

    and its counterparts in other non-englishes, too!

    זאָג מיר נישט קײן חזירײַ – רעד נישט־ענגליש

  7. @JWB:

    if you’ve booked a performer for your massively expensive advertising event, the absolute least you can do is find a competent interpreter for whatever languages they perform in. no matter whether they’re singing in one of the world’s most widely spoken lects or in a macaronic combination of ubykh, miꞌkmawiꞌsimk, and githabul.

    interpretation isn’t the esoteric mystery you seem to think it is – your objection is just a description of the work of any minimally-competent interpreter.

    but for performers with fixed texts – like almost anyone appearing on a mixed bill with rigid timeslots, at any scale of event from a stage in the corner of a bar to a televised multi-million-dollar spectacular – you don’t even need that minimally-competent interpreter, because you can (and invariably will) prepare the caption text ahead of time (or, more often, have the performer prepare it – all the producers do is copy/paste into the captioning software). i’ve run supertitles for productions using five languages, of which i knew two. it’s the simplest job i’ve ever had.

    if you’re not gonna do that, you shouldn’t book the performer.

    (also, dave barry’s showing his ass there. nyc cabbies speak the best englishes around! my last driver’s was gorgeously flavored with spanish and what i think was probably quechua, and i’m (just barely) old enough to remember some similarly infused with gaeilge.)

  8. “and its counterparts ”

    This reminds me the story of учи албанский! (which I don’t really like).

    When livejournal was a popular (among English speakers) platform, a certain girl found that some blogs there are not in English. She wrote a surprised post (and I understand her well: I too was surprised when I found that VK is well known among North Africans. And that was after I noticed that Saudi prostitutes use it). Russians organised a flash mob: they were writing comments in dozens languages, and after the post accumulated 10k comments, the blog crashed.

    Since then “learn Albanian!” became a meme. Meanwhile there are so many Russians on LJ that it has become a Russian platform since then.

  9. The system CBS was using is not a translation system. It’s closed-captioning for non-hearing English speakers/readers. If a hearing English-speaker wouldn’t understand what’s being said, the non-hearing viewer is advised that “here’s something you don’t need to understand.”

    For example, a background song in a bar, in a drama about Americans in Mexico. If the song were translated the captions would provide a lot of irrelevant information while distracting from the dialogue of the main characters, which needs to be foregrounded for comprehension. Or perhaps the protagonist overhears a conversation in Spanish that s/he doesn’t understand and therefore is left clueless about an important fact which, if revealed to the viewer, via translation, would ruin the suspense. To assure the non-hearing viewer, who sees people with their mouths moving, that nothing is wrong, the caption says “speaking non-English,” “singing non-English.” It’s like coming across a page in a document that reads, [This page intentionally left blank.}

    The problem is that for a different sort of broadcast like the Grammys, the system needs to be modified. And presumably it will be.

  10. It just occurred to me that Spotify (and lots of other streaming media sites) use a rather peculiar metric for measuring things like “most streamed”—number, rather than time. I can see that the bookkeeping is obviously easier for the former than the latter, but it seems peculiar now that this has been accepted, seemingly without any comment, for many years now.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    @rozele, that makes sense if you assume the producers of the event are economically or emotionally invested in generating the best possible closed-captioning that’s logistically feasible if focused on as a goal. I don’t know that that’s a realistic assumption, versus the rival assumption that closed-captioning for this sort of thing is offered as a grudging accommodation to marginal groups (primarily the deaf, or I suppose to some extent non-deaf randos who happen to be watching the event in a context where they need to have the sound on their device muted) who have enough political-or-economic clout to be given something, but not enough such clout to ensure that the something they’re given be optimally-executed. (My best guess is that the captioning quality of this particular event was well within the ordinary range of experience of actual deaf Americans who rely on captioning when they watch tv.)

    Now, if this was an opera house and the financial incentives were to provide high-quality English supertitles to monolingual Anglophones who were big donors as well as purchasers of exorbitantly-priced tickets, things might have played out differently. Similarly, if the producers here had assumed that the median-or-modal monolingual Anglophone viewer really wanted real-time info on what Mr. Bunny was going on about in Puerto-Rican-dialect Spanish, they might have done more than they did. Was their implicit assumption that that viewer didn’t actually care all that much correct? I dunno. It’s an empirical question I have no insight into, and no financial stake in the answer to, other than the sense that normie-Americans who watch football on tv are not particularly similar to (to give an example from my own life the other evening) the sort of marginal weirdos who attend the singing/playing of a Bach cantata and are grateful for (if not arrogantly expectant of) being handed a program that tells you what the German lyrics that you’re about to hear mean in English.

    But wanting to actually understand the words you’re hearing in a song is in any event a very uptight bourgeois concern. Could we late-Seventies American punk-rock kids make out what Plastic Bertrand was singing about in Walloon French? No. Did we care? No. Did we expect the record label or the government or the school district or some performing-arts non-profit to hold our hands and explain it to us? No. Heck, some of us had been made to sing a lame arrangement in 6th-grade chorus of that one unthreatening Beatles song where part of the lyrics are in French and had learned the French phonetically without caring what it meant.

  12. It’s closed-captioning for non-hearing English speakers/readers. If a hearing English-speaker wouldn’t understand what’s being said, the non-hearing viewer is advised that “here’s something you don’t need to understand.”

    This occured to me. The problem is that I don’t understand why a deaf viewer wouldn’t want to see Spanish.

  13. If the song were translated Bloix
    But wanting to actually understand the words ” JWB

    Are we discussing English translation ???? :-/

  14. @JWB – Yes, CC was offered originally (grudgingly or not) as an accommodation to the deaf or hard of hearing, but it’s offered increasingly as an accommodation for everybody, because people are having a hard time hearing what’s going on on the screen. I thought it was just me getting old, but no: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYJtb2YXae8

  15. I stream guilty-pleasure junk TV at double speed with both soundtrack and subtitles/captions on, a trick inspired by reading Microserfs. If an Anglophone CC says [speaking French] I may slow it down to listen as I would for non-junk. If it says eg [speaking Albanian] I may resent the potential spoiler. If it says [Albanian accent] I may wonder if the actor is Albanian or just doing Generic Eastern European Accent. I don’t recall [speaking non English] in scripted CCs but OTOH I haven’t yet seen eg [speaking Malayalam]

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, maybe it would be helpful to think of the range of theoretical alternative options here. Instead of [SINGING IN NON-ENGLISH], is the desire for:

    B. [Spanish lyrics written out in caption]
    C. [English translation of Spanish lyrics written out in caption]
    D. [Other?]

  17. Spotted on Twitter today

    “With the InstructGPT paper we found that our models generalized to follow instructions in non-English even though we almost exclusively trained on English.”

  18. I watch with CCs on as a defense against mumbling actors, or stuff shot in the now-fashionable style in which the person shown on the screen is never the person speaking. As a result, I often see “[Speaking foreign language]”, which is extremely irritating for U.S. Spanish, say, or for Navajo.

    I have also seen double captions, with the CCs turned on for something that already contains a translation caption; in the best case, you see both the original language and English, though often you get a square-bracketed indication and a translation.

    But the worst fucking thing is white CCs against a white background such as snow, where you cannot read a single fucking word. Sometimes whole movies are the illegible in pursuit of the inaudible.

  19. J.W. Brewer:
    “Well, maybe it would be helpful to think of the range of theoretical alternative options here.”

    I think B (Spanish written out) is the best option because it parallels to the greatest extent what a listener would experience. If the listener knows Spanish, he can interpret it & if the reader knows Spanish he can interpret it equally as well.

    A seems equivalent to what was already there & C could be misleading because a deaf reader might believe the song was English.

    An alternative could be something like “[Spanish] los verbos”.

    (How do you Italicize text here?)

  20. (How do you Italicize text here?)

    With HTML, thus: <i>italicized text</i> displays italicized text.

  21. @JWB:

    your entire argument* applies equally well [sic] to written words. personally, i’m very glad to get to read things in translation, and wish there were more of them into languages i know.

    (and thanks, Eduardo G, for pointing out the basic historical facts that one would think would be pretty darn obvious to anyone who has lived through the entire process.)

    * to promote it, however inaccurately, from “trolling” for the sole reason that i want to feel better about taking the bait.

  22. JWB isn’t trolling, he’s just a lawyer. They don’t think like ordinary people. He does, however, have good taste in music.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    By chance, I just came across this intriguing example of [SINGING IN NON-ENGLISH]: the original 1980’s lo-budget video, with no captions or subtitles, for a song that is claimed to be the first one* ever commercially released in a “rock” style with the vocals in an indigenous Australian language, specifically what wikipedia calls “Luritja dialect.” Note also the interestingly-scope-limited trigger warning for the video “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this video may contain video footage and voices of deceased persons.”

    *Although I think this is the 1987 remake from their second full album, not the version released in ’83 as their debut single on a new-at-the-time indie label. That original single does appear per internet references to have an English translation of the lyrics on the back of the sleeve. It’s out of print but some dude in Italy has a copy he’s asking 30 Euros (not including shipping) for.


  24. All-too-common news reports about untimely deaths of indigenous Australians will have such a warning if and only if it’s a public-sector broadcaster.

  25. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The UK equivalent seems to be ‘<speaks own language>’, which avoids the issue of figuring out if it is a foreign language and not, say, Gaelic or Welsh, but adds a new problem of knowing that it actually is their own language and not someone else’s…

  26. I personally don’t even have my own language to speak, only languages I share with others.

  27. I must confess that I was very surprised to read that Bad Bunny “was the first artist to reach the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart singing solely in Spanish”. Up here in the Great White North, Quebec in fact, a CD of songs in Spanish only (by an American singer of mixed American and Mexican parentage, Lhasa de Sela) was a massive hit just over 25 years ago, despite the percentage of L1 hispanophones being insignificant compared to what was and is found in the United States:


    This is the most famous song from that album, which for quite some time was VERY hard to avoid if you listened to the radio regularly:


  28. Pretty sure I never heard it (or heard of her), but then I wasn’t keeping up with the musical scene by then.

  29. “was the first artist to reach the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart singing solely in Spanish”

    Yes that surprises me. I would have thought Buena Vista Social Club — from about the same time — was way better-known. Ok not everything of theirs is in Spanish (so is that claim some legalistic nicety?), they also do Cuban Patois and covers of 1940/1950’s Jazz classics in Spanish.

    Like Hat, I’ve never heard (of) Lhasa de Sela before.

  30. I know of Lhasa de Sela. I bought her album! The song that Etienne posted immediately came to mind before I checked the link. The reason i knew of her is because I am a Gen-Xer who was into “Alternative Music” during the 90s and she was promoted in the U.S. as part of that scene or as part of the “World Music” genre rather than part of the “Latin” music scene although she must have gotten some promotion in that direction but I really don’t remember much promotion (other than some mentions in a local Spanish-language weekly newspaper.)

  31. JWB isn’t trolling, he’s just a lawyer.

    Quite so. “The first thing you learn in a lawin’ family,” says Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, “is that there ain’t no definite answers to anything.” I can testify to that. (The context was Atticus’s proposal for Tom to appeal his case. In my opinion, Atticus was quite likely right: see my Quora writeup on the Scottsboro Boys.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    With no disrespect to Mr. Bunny, reaching the #1 position on the Billboard albums chart is not per se nearly as impressive an accomplishment in absolute terms (maybe it’s still per se impressive in relative terms? that’s harder to say) as it was before the early-in-this-millennium collapse-or-transformation of the traditional sales-of-physical-objects-based music industry.

    OTOH, the Buena Vista Social Club album reportedly made it to #1 on the charts in Germany back in the late Nineties (and #2 in Finland) and Mr. Bunny has not thus far done so well in those markets. It never made it all that high in the main U.S. albums chart but proved a steady seller over time and has almost certainly sold more cumulative copies than dozens of albums that charted higher at the time. Different albums have different medium/long-run arcs, if you imagine the X axis as time and the Y axis as albums sold-per-week or something like that, and a curve that never gets all that high on the Y axis may have a larger total area underneath it if it doesn’t fall off so sharply from its peak,

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    This purports to list the supposedly only eight songs that made it to #1 on the Billboard singles chart between 1958 and 2020, some of which are, let’s say, macaronic, with substantial English mixed in with the lyrics, at least in the chart-topping version.


  34. You could argue either way on whether the 9th non-English chart-topper was “My Universe” by Coldplay and BTS, in September 2021, since the lyrics are roughly 1/3 Korean to 2/3 English.

    Every Non-English Song to Reach the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 lists 30 songs, with the most recent reaching the chart in January 2023:

    Looking at the other 29 non-English-language top 10s, Bad Bunny tallies the most, with seven (four of which are from his 2022 smash album Un Verano Sin Ti) …

    Spanish is the most common non-English language listed below (15 of 30 top 10s), followed by Korean (seven), German (three), French and Italian (two each) and Japanese (one).

    Meanwhile, 18 of the 30 top 10s have reached the tier since 2012, following a 16-year break between “Macarena” and PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”

  35. @J.W. Brewer “one of those wacky Balkan literati mentioned from time to time at the Hattery who were fluent in six or eight languages”

    I know two of those, one of which teaches at Max Plank and was my therapist for several years.

  36. In other deafness-related awards show errors: https://uk.news.yahoo.com/bad-moment-carey-mulligan-incorrectly-185216760.html

    Last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner, CODA star Troy Kotsur, presented the award using sign language.

    While Kotsur was signing that Banshees of Inisherin actor Kerry Condon had won, the sign language interpreter mistakenly said the name Carey Mulligan.

  37. David L. Gold says

    “When Puerto Rico became a possession in 1899, the United States changed its name to Porto Rico and imposed English schooling (the name was changed back to Puerto Rico in 1931).”

    To set the record straight:

    Under no Catalan, English, French, Galician, Italian, Portuguese, or other non-Spanish influence, the toponym Porto Rico was coined in native Peninsular Spanish by no later than 1562 (in that year, the Spanish government published an engraved map showing all the territories it claimed in the Western Hemisphere and there we find Porto rico as the name of the Spanish settlement that eventually became the city of San Juan). The map may be seen at https://www.loc.gov/collections/discovery-and-exploration/articles-and-essays/the-1562-map-of-america/ (the copy in the Library of Congress) and at http://www.myoldmaps.com/renaissance-maps-1490-1800/400-diego-gutierrez-map/400-guitierrez.pdf (the copy in the British Library is reproduced on the last page).

    That spelling (with minor variants such as Porto rico, porto Rico, and Portorico) is attested down to our times in the speech and writing of native speakers uninfluenced by any other language.

    For example, the third of those variants appears in a nautical chart entitled Plano de la Aguada nueva de Sn Antonio de Portorico de las Indias y costas entre los Cavos Calvache y Cavoxoso echo en los meses de 7bre y 8bre de 1740, now held by the Archivo Cartográfico y de Estudios Geográficos del Centro Geográfico del Ejército of the Ministry of Defense of Spain (Catálogo General de Publicaciones Oficiales, Ministry of Defense, November 2007, SG. Ar.J-T.4-C.2-71, p. 29, accessible at http://bibliotecavirtualdefensa.es/BVMDefensa/es/consulta/registro.do?id=83892); title translated: ‘Map of the new watering station at St. Anthony of Porto Rico of the Indies and of the coast between Cape Calvache and Cape Xoso [?] drawn in the months of September and October 1740’ (September and October were respectively the seventh and eighth months in the Roman calendar). St. Anthony of Porto Rico was founded in about 1725, first called la Villa de San Antonio de la Tuna, and later renamed Isabela, its present name.

    Still later evidence, oral, comes from the Dominican Republic of the first half of the 1940s, reported to me by Sol Steinmetz, who lived there from April 1939 to August 1945.

    In light of the frequent monophthongization of Spanish stressed /ue/ to /o/ when the stress shifts to a later syllable (capitals indicate the stressed syllable here: PUERto versus porTEño, VeneZUEla versus venezoLAno, conCIERto versus concerTISta, and so on), Puerto RIco > Porto RIco is not surprizing.

    Likewise, PortoVIEjo (the official Spanish name of a city in Ecuador) and Porto PLAta (the unofficial but not infrequent pronunciation of the Spanish name of the city in the Dominican Republic officially called Puerto Plata).

    By the 1890s, both Porto Rico and Puerto Rico were being used in written American English and shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War the federal government officialized Porto Rico and Porto Rican (solely for official correspondence, in English, official publications of the federal government and of the Puerto Rican government in English, and the official names of government entities in English).

    Which is to say, no attempt was made to officialize the variants with /o/ in spoken Spanish or o in written Spanish, including official correspondence and documents of the Puerto Rican government, which have only ue.

    Consequently, we find bilingual texts of various kinds with ue in Spanish and o in English, as in the paper money issued by the Banco de Puerto Rico = the Bank of Porto Rico (see the 200-peso ~ 200-dollar and the 5-dollar notes at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Currencies_of_Puerto_Rico#/media/File:200pesos.jpg).

    In summary, the officialization of the English name Porto Rico noted three paragraphs above was nothing out of the blue: that English name derives from the native Spanish name Porto Rico and it was in widespread use by the 1890s.

    More details here: Gold, David L. 2012. “The Politicization of a Monophthong: A Refutation of All the Puerto Rican Myths About the Native Spanish Place Name Porto Rico.” In Estudios de lingüística española: Homenaje a Manuel Seco. Félix Rodríguez González, ed. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp. 215-268.

  38. ktschwarz says

    Thanks, DLG, and now I’m slapping my forehead, because Language Hat and I had already seen your explanation at Wordorigins less than a year previously.

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