America Has More Than One Spanglish

New York Times, Nov. 23, 2021


Credit…Delcan and Co.

Opinion Writer

It’s easy to think that where language is concerned, in the United States we have a sort of vanilla, mainstream English and then some minor variations upon it — Southern, Upper Midwest, Southern California “Valley” maybe. Our dialects overall aren’t as different from one another as the various ones in Britain — Cockney, Scottish, West Country — because English hasn’t been here long enough for the dialects to drift their different ways to such an extent. Modern media makes our dialects even more uniform than they would be anyway. And, it seems, immigrants bring their languages here, only to see them blow away in the wind after a generation or two. Plus, speakers of all these languages, English and beyond, tend to have a way of thinking that their kids speak them wrong.

But there’s more going on than that, I’m happy to say.

In my neighborhood, I hear Spanish spoken about as often as I hear English. It’s hard not to notice that there tend to be a lot of English words in it — Spanglish, as it’s called — and there are Spanish speakers who see it as impure, a digression from “real” Spanish. The Nobel laureate Octavio Paz is said to have had it that Spanglish is “neither good, nor bad, but abominable.”

What they mean is not only that a lot of English words and phrases are sprinkled in, but also that Spanish words are used with meanings influenced by English. So if your own Spanish goes only so far, you might think “carpeta” means “carpet,” but it means, roughly, “file folder” or “binder” — at least in the Spanish of, say, Madrid or Mexico City. But in Spanglish, “carpeta” is used to mean, indeed, “carpet” because it sounds like it would be. In Spanish, “para atrás” means “backward.” In Spanglish, you refer to calling someone back on the phone as “llamar para atrás,” which is patterned on how we use “back” in English, but in original Spanish would mean calling someone backward rather than calling them again.

Yet this kind of thing is perfectly normal in the grand scheme of things. To see it as remarkable would be like wondering why the clouds now aren’t in the same places they were yesterday. The question isn’t why this would happen, but why it wouldn’t happen.

Take English: When the Normans ran England for a spell after 1066, French was the language of writing, government and ceremony while English was thought of as the language of the peasantry, unwritten and unobserved. During this time and afterward, French words flooded into English, such that today we use many French words as a matter of routine: “art,” “pleasant” and even “very” all came from French. To be sure, there were wonks who found this, and the similar flood of Latin words, annoying. They thought English would be purer and even clearer if it stuck to using its own roots to form new words, and thus they advised words like “endsay” instead of “conclusion” and “inwit” instead of “conscience.”

But few listened, they’re dead and here we are. Nobody now regrets that, for example, this very sentence has four French and Latin words. We think of the procession from the Old English of “Beowulf” to the Middle English of Chaucer to the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as a noble procession, handed down by official decree, perhaps as French horns coo Hollywood-kitsch medieval. But if today someone uses “structure” as a verb or tries to clear up the ambiguity between singular and plural “you” by saying “you all,” they’re often told they’re doing something wrong.

The phenomenon goes much wider than English and Spanish, of course. (And, of course, every European language spoken in America, including English, started out as an immigrant language.) The classic model of what happens to immigrant languages in America is simple but oversimplified: that immigrant generations are more comfortable with the language of their land of origin, even if they use English for utilitarian purposes; the next generation is bilingual, but perhaps a little more comfortable with the new language; and the generation after that frequently only speaks the old language in bits and pieces.

Linguists these days are looking more closely at the language of that second generation, and it is becoming clear that the mixed nature of Spanglish represents a general phenomenon. Among people born in and growing up in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach — where it’s common to hear Russian and Ukrainian spoken — lots of English words are mixed in. A term like “Russglish” wouldn’t roll off the tongue quite the way “Spanglish” does, that’s why there isn’t one. But the pattern among the second generation still fits: Because they didn’t grow up as profoundly immersed in Russian as their parents, and while they are probably fluent speakers, their rendition lets go of some of the knottiest aspects of the grammar that take the most practice to get used to. Spanglish can be like this as well. An English speaker often finds Spanish’s subjunctive mood tricky to get the hang of. Spanish speakers born in the United States and brought up in Spanish-speaking households, while knowing their way around it, sometimes use it less than their parents.

And this new Russian isn’t used just by younger folks at home with their families. Russian-speaking peer groups speak it among themselves in any number of everyday situations. Among many of them, English, too, is taking on new forms below the radar. Many have definite Russian accents despite having been born in New York City. Life in Brighton Beach is so profoundly Russian — some born there casually refer to New York beyond the neighborhood as “America” — that an outsider can forget he’s in the United States at times. Naturally, one can grow up there and hold on to the accent of one’s parents, instead of letting it go as you get older and spend most of your time with peers who speak mainstream American English

The evolution is everywhere: One linguist has found that some younger Asian Americans shape some of their vowels in subtly different ways, with the differences patterned, subconsciously, on the languages they may have spoken at home. For the past several years, I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin. (I just had to — it’s my sports.) I’ll be lucky to get to the speaking level of a 6-year-old. But I’ve reached the point that I’ve started to at least be able to tell that the proprietors of two businesses that I frequent in my neighborhood speak Mandarin with most Chinese speakers but something else among themselves.

As a customer and a neighbor, I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but as a linguist and Mandarin learner, recently I took a deep breath and asked each of them what this other language was. It turns out it’s Wenzhounese, a separate Chinese variety spoken in various parts of the Chinese diaspora that has a reputation for being harder for speakers of other types of Chinese to understand.

All of this is what is happening among what can seem to a New Yorker like just a lot of people from a lot of places chatting on the subway. The myriad ways people talk, and how these ways change, kaleidoscope-style, over time, as often as not while colliding and mixing and working it all out, is part of why people become linguists. It’s exhilarating.

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