Susana Olague

ENG 6362S


April 25, 2003


Towards New Dialects: Spanglish in the United States


            The restaurant literature proudly proclaimed that “El Machino” could produce tortillas 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 – or masaharina – dropped into the opening, bright neon lights in blue announced to all where “El Machino” stood, awaiting interested onlookers.  In addition, the menus of the restaurant espoused the immediacy and freshness of the tortillas, made possible by the presence of “El Machino.”  What catches the attention of some onlookers, though, is not the speed 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”[1] requirement noted in Rose Nash’s 1970 article on Spanglish in Puerto Rico.  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 into 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.

            The use of terms like “El Machino” provides a gateway through which to explore what Spanglish is, and how it appears in the everyday language of both the United States and the countries of Latin and South America.  The first quandary of Spanish is its mutability; due to the influx of Hispanics/Latinos into the United States from many countries, 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.

            Under scrutiny since the 1960s, attributed to Spanglish is everything from a “protectionist movement”[2] 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.”[3]  Broadly defined, Spanglish is a mixture of English and Spanish, divided further into types of Spanglish when considering if Spanglish occurs with the use of loanwords, code-switching, or calques.[4]  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” while detractors of mixed languages cite them as “transitory forms of communication”[5] that reveal “a lack of education.”[6]  At its best, Spanglish is a new concept that enriches cultures;[7] at its worst, Spanglish is indicative of “Hispanic immigrants . . . felt to be altering the balance of society”[8] and the need for an English Language Amendment making English the official language of the United States.  Although “a normal feature of bilingualism,” [9] 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.

            The different methods in which to create Spanglish words or sentences – notably lexical borrowing and code-switching in bilinguals[10] - are evident in the writings of Hispanic/Latino authors, advertisements, news broadcasts in Spanish intended for U.S. Hispanic/Latinos, and everyday usage in the home or in public.  Code-switching can occur almost instinctively, syntactic structure intact, illustrating ease but not ignorance with two languages.  A sentence such as “Mi amá was talking with mi tío Chui yesterday about la boda de Roberto remains syntactically correct, – “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.  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 and control remoto illustrate the need to give name to products encountered first by the English language.  Finally, immigrants who learn English as a second language use code-switching, demonstrating not ease with language transition but habits retained from everyday Spanish speech: “Dice Michael, ‘Let’s stop over in Atlanta, not Dallas-Fort Worth.”

            Examples of Spanglish in everyday usage, as demonstrated by “El Machino,” 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.”[11]  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[12] - 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”[13] 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.

            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.”[14]  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.”[15]  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.

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

[2] David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 115.

[3] Nieves Pascual Soler, “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).  269.

[4] Tom McArthur, “Spanglish,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 962.

[5] Jorge Ramos, The Other Face of America: Chronicles of the Immigrants Shaping Our Future, trans. Patricia J. Duncan, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002) 202.

[6] Ramos 202.

[7] Ramos 208.

[8] Crystal 115.

[9] Crystal 115.

[10] McArthur 962.

[11] McArthur 963.

[12] McArthur 963-964.

[13] Ramos 208.

[14] Ramos 208.

[15] Ramos 213.