Towards New Dialects: Spanglish in the United States

©2003 Susana Olague





Easily defined as a seemingly random splicing of the English and Spanish languages, the term Spanglish carries a greater weight than prescribed to it when characterized as an “informal and often pejorative term” (McArthur 962).  Although the use and recognition of Spanglish alarms language purists of both languages, there is no denying that Spanglish itself thrives in the Latino/Hispanic communities of the United States, making itself known through literature, print advertisements, music, and other forms of mass media.  The Latino cultural boom of the late 1990s and early 21st century notwithstanding, the presence of Spanglish has long found scrutiny, both for the threat it seemingly presents to both English and Spanish, and for the possibility that Spanglish might be emerging as a new dialect for present day Latino/Hispanic Americans and generations to come.


Varieties of Spanish and Spanglish


As with Canadian, American and British English, varieties of Spanish exist, varying from country to country, from immigrant to immigrant entering the United States.  Even as Castilian Spanish is the established Spanish of choice in modern Spain, the flux of the language from Cuba to Mexico to Venezuela to El Salvador creates a colorful spectrum of Spanish, influencing the manifestation of the language in the United States.  The first wave of the Cuban exodus in the 1960s brings a decidedly Cuban flavor to Florida; Puerto Rican travel and settling in New York brings about Nuyorican Spanish; the southwest United States – once the northwest territory of Mexico – inherits a long tradition of Spanish-speaking people with roots in Mexico.  Naturally, the lumping of such distinct cultures causes consternation and the need to create pointed differences that sometime extend to separate a larger group into subsets, distinguished not only by language but also by geographical location.  However, such differences, although immediately recognized by each group, may not be readily apparent to those outside Hispanic/Latino groups.  Although the larger society might not see the differences between a Mexican raised in Detroit, Michigan’s Mexicantown and a Mexican raised forty miles away in a suburb with little Hispanic/Latino interaction, each party in this example would find themselves at a loss if confronted with one another; simply put, their culture has varied while their nationalities remain the same.


Unsurprisingly, Spanish variety causes Spanglish variety; the first quandary that Spanglish presents to those encountering it is its mutability.  Due not only to the current influx of Hispanics/Latinos into the United States from many countries but also to already-present subsequent generations from earlier immigrants, countless varieties of Spanglish exist.  The concentration of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Columbians, and many other nationalities in specific areas of the United States allows for the possibility of Spanglish to exist in immeasurable forms, changing from city to city, making it difficult for not only English-only speakers to understand the varieties, but also Spanish/Spanglish speakers to confuse one another greatly.  Again lumped under the umbrella term of Spanglish, researchers are able to distinguish between varieties of the emerging dialect based on national origin of the speaker.  “Cubonics” is the dialect of Cuban-Amerians; “Tex-Mex,” although often bundled together with Spanglish, implies a mixing of anything Texan and Mexican “especially along the 1,200-mile border” between the state of Texas and the country of Mexico (McArthur 1037).  Puerto Rican Spanglish often labels itself as the original Spanglish, citing the extended interaction of the island and the United States through its commonwealth status.  Studied briefly by Rose Nash in the early 1970s, the possibility for Englanol exists, although it is limited specifically to well-educated Puerto Ricans whose use of both English and Spanish is superior to those using Spanglish.


The How-To of Spanglish


The songs “Green Grows the Lilacs” and “Green Grows the Rushes” are two possible sources for the Spanish term gringo, a “contemptuous name for an Englishman or Anglo-American” (OED, 2nd ed, s.v., “gringo”), adapted when soldiers in the Mexican army heard Americans singing during the Mexican-American War.  Although this particular explanation for the term’s origin is dubious, “gringo” proves to be an early word in the Spanglish lexicon that is still developing today.  If the above explanation for the term “gringo” were conclusive, one could say that the word is a loanword (or loanwords) from English that function to identify a particular person by his or her skin color.  Besides loanwords, McArthur identifies calques and code-switching as the principal vehicles through which to create a Spanglish dialect.


Loanwords from English, such as change or flip easily become the Spanglish changear and flipar.  Evident is the adding of the Spanish infinitive ending ‘ar’ to the English verbs.  Lexical borrowing, such as jani instead of honey, adapt terms of endearment in English for Spanglish usage – although relatively similar in pronunciation, Spanglish modifies the word to maintain Spanish rules of orthography and phonology.  Technological novelties, such as maus (mouse) and microonda (microwave) illustrate the need to give name to products encountered first by the English language.


A calque – or a loan translation – is defined as “a compound or complex loan in which, rather than borrow an expression directly, speakers analyze the parts and replace them with similar native forms” (McArthur 623).  The most commonly cited is the calque of to call back or llamar para atrás.  Although the calque is completely in Spanish, the translation occurs under the influence of English (Nash 228) even though a conservative Spanish equivalent exists for the phrase (volver a llamar).  Other examples range from simple phrases such as el sabe como hablar ingles (he knows how to speak English) instead of sabe hablar ingles (Nash 229) to obvious, even necessary loan translations, such as Casa Blanca (White House).


Finally, code-switching can occur almost instinctively, syntactic structure intact, illustrating ease by not ignorance with two languages.  A sentence such as mi mama was talking with my tio Chui yesterday about la boda de Roberto remains syntactically correct – my mom was talking with my Uncle Chui yesterday about Roberto’s wedding – yet gives emphasis to the family members involved in the discussion by using Spanglish.  Conversely, immigrants who learn English as a second language employ code-switching, demonstrating not ease with the language translation but habits retained from everyday Spanish speech: dice Michael, ‘Let’s stop over in Atlanta, no en Dallas-Forth Worth’ (Michael said [or says], ‘Let’s stop over in Atlanta, not in Dallas-Fort Worth’).


PDS: Public Displays of Spanglish


As demonstrated, Spanglish occurs in a variety of ways, through a variety of media.  The recent appreciation of many things Latino (one hesitates to say all), particularly music, brought to the fore the use of Spanglish in Hispanic/Latino communities.  Not only did some musicians use code-switching of English to Spanish in their music, but also employed a Spanish to English technique.


A prime example is Enrique Iglesias’ “No Apagues La Luz,” a song that exists on the same CD as “Don’t Turn Off the Lights.”  The English version occurs first in the liner notes, the chorus reading “So don’t turn off the lights / I don’t want to be in the dark tonight,” the Spanish version reading “No apagues la luz / necesito verte cada vez mas” (roughly translated as “Don’t turn off the lights / I need to see you each time more”).  However, varying from the liner notes, Iglesias chooses to add the word ‘so’ to his Spanish version, making the song read “So no apagues la luz.”  Be it for need to fill in a beat or purposeful usage of Spanglish, the song nonetheless is an example of Latino culture in the United States using Spanglish in its works.


Also widespread is Hispanic/Latino literature that uses Spanglish in order to convey an accurate representation of Hispanic/Latino culture (or an aspect of it) to readers.  Peppered throughout Latino literature are loanwords, calques, and code-switching.  Pobrecita (poor little one), she could hardly get a word in edgewise!” write Julia Alvarez (136) regarding Scheherazade.  When referring to her family, Alvarez – and countless other Latino/a writers – refer to them as la familia.  As demonstrated by the example of code-switching above, the emphasis in family members and the thing most familiar to writers brings out the need to convey the ideas in Spanglish.


Finally, news broadcasts and shows directed at Hispanics and Latinos, while mostly in Spanish since they are beamed to Spanish-speaking countries, contain the occasional slip of Spanglish.  Terms like okay, el rock, el club, and las gangas find their way into even serious newscasts.  Emerging mostly from Hialeah, Florida, the Spanish networks that employ first generation immigrants and beyond realize that Spanglish becomes a part of the discourse to the pleasure and displeasure of millions of viewers.


Even the Americans Are In On It!


The restaurant literature proudly proclaimed the El Machino could produce tortiallas every fifty-three seconds, the contraption prominently on display by the tables and booths of the Tex-Mex restaurant in southeastern Michigan.  Designed with a clear casing so that curious customers could see how a tortilla emerged once a ball of tortilla dough – masaharina in Spanish – dropped into the opening, bright neon lights in blue announced to where El Machino stood, awaiting interested onlookers.  In addition, the menus of of the restaurant espoused the immediacy and freshness of the tortillas, made possibly by the presence of El Machino.  What catches the attention of some onlookers, though, is not the seed with which El Machino produces tortillas; it is the acquisition of Spanglish by an American company to provide authenticity to the customers of this Tex-Mex restaurant.


The Spanglish of El Machino adheres to the “English derived” vocabulary (Nash 223) requirement of the emerging dialect.  Although translatable to la maquina in Spanish, terms like El Machino appeals to not only the possible Spanglish-speaking population of southeast Michigan, but plays upon the comic effect of combining two languages in a simplistic, seemingly incorrect form.  With the translation in Spanglish, El Machino becomes a masculine noun, replacing the feminine maquina.  Curiously enough, this particular use of Spanglish occurs in an area where Latino/Hispanic influence is minimal and under the auspices of an American-owned business with little authenticity in either its food or its use of Spanglish.  El Machino demonstrates the integration of Spanglish into English usage – simplistic enough for non-Spanish speakers to understand, yet comical enough for bilingual, Spanglish, or English-speaking Latinos/Hispanics to appreciate.  Although Spanglish retains “the phonological, morphological, and syntactical structure” (Nash 223) of both English and Spanish, the Spanglish of El Machino is fundamentally incorrect.  Yet, the American company attempts to reach its customers, following a trend noted by media watchers.


The Social Implications of Spanglish


Under scrutiny since the 1960s, attributed to Spanish is everything from a “protectionist movement” (Crystal 115) designed to preserve and give official language status to English in the United States to an ability to “address . . . the politics of multiple identities, of dispossession, objectification, marginalization, and survival” (Soler 269).  The nature of Spanglish is one of controversy – proponents for the usage of this emerging dialect point out that Spanglish is “the vocabulary of practical everyday living and working in a two-language world, in which not everyone commands those two languages fluently” (Ramos 202) while detractors of mixed languages cite them as “transitory forms of communication” (Ramos 202) that reveal “a lack of education” (Ramos 202).  At its best, Spanglish is a new concept that enriches cultures (Ramos 208); at its worst, Spanglish is indicative of “Hispanic immigrants . . . felt to be altering the balance of society” (Crystal 115) and the need for an English Language Amendment making English the official language of the United States.  Although “a normal feature of bilingualism,” (Crystal 115) the loanwords, code-switching, and calques typical to the varieties of Spanglish threaten both the English and Spanish languages, with purists on both sides condemning the budding dialect.


Proficient use of Spanglish, although still without a firm definition and still progressing towards a dialect, is common among citizens of areas with large populations of Hispanic/Latino communities, enabling a common basis of communication for these groups.  Although frowned upon by such groups as English Only movements and the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, the use of Spanglish shows no sign of abating given the influx of immigrants and “high birthrate among Latinos” (Ramos 208).  A common feature of bilingualism, the perception of Spanglish as a threat to English nevertheless remains as a possibility as Hispanics/Latinos grow to be the largest minority in the United States. The prospect of subsequent generations adopting English as their primary language is contrary to the beliefs of Ilan Stavans of Amherst College –author of The Dictionary of Spanglish – who doubts not “that in two or three hundred years there will be great works written in Spanglish” (Ramos 213).  Seemingly random and arbitrary, the emerging dialect of Spanglish speaks not only to the changeability of English, but also to social and political questions prompted by the ascendancy of one minority group which is increasingly visible and influential in the U.S. media of today.




Examples of Spanglish in everyday usage, as demonstrated by El Machino, para atrás, and talking with mi tio Chui are common in the United States due not only to the ‘Latinization’ of American culture, but also to the fact that “Spanish has been spoken longer than English in what is now the U.S.” (McArthur 963).  Considerable borrowing by each language – the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries for the borrowing of Spanish into English and the borrowing of English into Spanish in recent decades (McArthur 963-964) - contribute to the emergence of Spanglish as a dialect.  Like the use of Spanish in the late sixteenth century when referring to cultural novelties from the New World, Spanglish is “a bridge of sorts: a generational, linguistic, technological, digital, and cultural bridge” (Ramos 208) enabling immigrants and subsequent generations of the same family to communicate and name novelties that do not yet have a Spanish equivalent.  Although some critics assure that future generations of immigrant families eventually become bi- or monolingual, the use of Spanglish is not only a way to give names to new concepts, but an identifying marker of Hispanic/Latino communities fighting to hold onto their cultural identities in a country that increasingly insists on acculturation.



For Further Reading:


Alvarez, Julia.  Something to Declare.  New York: Plume, 1998.


Corces, Laureano.  “Re-Evaluating Spanglish.”  Geolinguistics 25 (1999): 35-38.


Crystal, David.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


Friedman, Robert.  “Language Purists Dismayed by Spanglish.”  Geolinguistics 27 (2001): 195-196.


McArthur, Tom.  The Oxford Companion to the English Language.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.


Montes-Alcala, Cecilia.  “Two Languages, One Pen: Socio-Pragmatic Functions in Written Spanish-English Code Switching.”  Diss.  DAI 62.3 (2001).


Morales, Ed.  Living in Spanglish.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.


Nash, Rose “Spanglish: Language Contact in Puerto Rico.”  American Speech 45.3 (1970) 223- 233.


Pascual Soler, Nieves.  “Linguistic Terrorism at the Juncture of Cultures: Code-Switching in U.S. Latina Self-Narratives,” English Literature and Other Languages, vol. 24 (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999).


Ramos, Jorge.  The Other Face of America: Chronicles of the Immigrants Shaping Our Future, trans. Patricia J. Duncan.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.