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Latin lingo

Spanglish is everywhere now, which is no problema for some, but a pain in the cuello for purists

QUICK: WHAT'S THE WORD Cuban-Americans use in Miami for traitor? Kennedito. And what do Mexicans in East LA call an Uncle Tom? Burrito.

As any lexicographer will tell you, neither of these words, at least in the above senses, appears in a standard Spanish lexicon. And they are nowhere to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, either. Instead, they demonstrate the rapidly growing vocabulary of Spanglish, a jazzy hybrid language, part English and part Spanish, that is audible almost everywhere in the United States today.

But is Spanglish really a language? After all, a true language ought to be capable of expressing complex emotions and being understood by a wide range of speakers. And like Spanish or English, it has its academies and its concordances and other reference tools.

Or does it? In defining Yiddish, the linguist Max Weinreich famously said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that the former has an army and a navy behind it. On this account, Yiddish was never a language: It inspired no national anthem, and no president or prime minister ever spoke it at official functions. And yet Yiddish masterpieces are enjoyed worldwide and at one point in the not-too-distant past, four-fifths of the globe's Jewish population spoke Yiddish.

Not only does Spanglish lack an army and a dignitary, it has not acquired the level of standardization that Yiddish achieved by the end of the 19th century. But its status is only likely to increase. Linguists distinguish between a ``pidgin,'' a simplified combination of languages used for communication between groups speaking different tongues, and a ``creolized'' language–which boasts a more fully developed syntax and vocabulary than a pidgin because it has become a community's native tongue. For years, Spanglish was essentially a pidgin, but there are fascinating signs that more formal rules are being developed.

If nothing else, countless Hispanics north of the Rio Grande have become trilingual: They speak Spanish and English–and they also speak Spanglish. This is especially so for members of the younger urban generation.

To its detractors, Spanglish represents an unacceptable middle ground–a trap, really. Witness the limited English-language fluency of scores of Latinos: Clearly, the detractors say, bilingual education hasn't done its work. But this view is not entirely fair. Given the circumstances of rapid and ongoing migration, the acquisition of English in the Latino community is fast and solid and comparable to the language learning of previous immigrant groups. And yet Spanglish isn't going away as English proficiency grows. Instead, it's gaining momentum.

. . .

How to explain this phenomenon? First, it is necessary to remember that Spanglish isn't only a hot Latino property.

Stop at your local music store to browse through the rap and hip hop sections. You'll be surprised by the number of non-Hispanic groups that use Spanglish. Or think of Arnold Schwarzenegger's ``Hasta la vista, baby,'' not to mention the talking Chihuahua in the commercial announcing, ``Yo quiero Taco Bell.'' Then watch ``The Brothers Garcia'' on Nickelodeon and ``George López'' on ABC, both of which have large non-Hispanic followings. Or better, ask permission to enter the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant or the backroom of a flower shop. The moment you hear expressions like ``Washea los dishes, por favor,'' uttered by one staffperson, a Korean, to another, a Salvadoran, you'll know something is afoot. Meanwhile, thanks to the spread of American films, fashion, and sports, Spanglish is present across the hemisphere, from Buenos Aires to Medellín.

Of course, linguistic puritans hate it, especially those sitting in the pristine chambers of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in Madrid. For them, the jerga loca, as people call it, has a stink to it. Spaniards have never been entirely happy with the way Latin Americans treat their language. And now that Hispanics in the United States have become a political and economic force, the problem is compounded. How often have I been asked by a purista: ``Well, if any Spanish lexicon records the word techo to describe a roof, why on earth should Latinos use roofa?'' The purists believe that Spanglish is the result of pereza: laziness. But they forget that the majority of Latino homes in Gringolandia don't have a dictionary. And in any case, it's not dictionaries that tell people how to speak. Rather, it's the other way around.

Of course, the purists are right about one thing: There isn't one standardized Spanglish but many. A type of Dominicanish is spoken by Dominican Americans in Washington Heights, and it's different from the Pachuco spoken by Mexicans in El Paso and the Cubonics used by Cubans in Union City. And don't forget the ubiquitous cyber-Spanglish, used primarily by webones on the Internet.

And yet, each of these Spanglishes shows its own inclination toward standardization. Thanks to radio, TV, newspapers, and particularly the Internet–nothing travels faster than Spanglish en la Web -– certain words are understood from coast to coast and beyond our borders. This has prompted corporations and advertising firms to attempt to profit from the linguistic jumble.

Not long ago, Hallmark inaugurated a new line of greeting cards: ``Feeling sick? No te sientes bien?,'' asks one that I bought in Boston. ``Watch un poco de televisión/Drink your té con miel y limón/Habla on the telephone/Before you know it, y de repente/you'll be feeling ¡excelente!'' In my office I have a sepia poster designed to recruit Latinos to the US Army. It shows a mestizo mother and cadet son and reads, ``Yo soy el Army!''

. . .

While most of these quotations are of fairly recent vintage, Spanglish is nothing new. It has been around in some form for more than 150 years, ever since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 transferred two-thirds of Mexico's territory–what is nowadays the Southwest–to the Anglos. Inevitably, the inhabitants of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and elsewhere adapted their customs and language to novel conditions.

Spanglish can also claim a literacy legacy. For decades, Dominican and Puerto Rican authors in particular have carried out a linguistic revolution. The poetry of Miguel Algarín and Tato Laviera and the prose of Junot Díaz, Piri Thomas, Luis Rafael Sánchez and Giannina Braschi–especially her novel ``Yo-Yo Boing!''–testify to it, as does the polemical short story ``Pollito Chicken'' by Ana Lydia Vega, in which the author dissects the Nuyorican vernacular. Her protagonist is a hilarious Puerto Rican in New York who views her relatives in San Juan as decidedly inferior.

I'm often asked: But does a regular Spanish or English reader understand these poems and stories? The answer is: Maybe. Partial knowledge of one or the other language might allow one to capture the author's overall meaning–or it might not. Last year, out of curiosity and playfulness, I rendered the first chapter of ``Don Quixote of La Mancha'' into Spanglish. My translation began: ``In un placete de La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme, vivía, not so long ago, uno de esos gentlemen who always tienen una lanza in the rack, una buckler antigua, a skinny caballo y un grayhound para el chase.''

The results of my experiment were published in newspapers in Spain and throughout the Americas. I found the experience of rewriting Cervantes liberating. The explanation is straightforward: For many Latinos, myself included, Spanglish is more than a tongue and a marketing tool–it's a political stand and an ID card. ``English is broken here!'' used to be the stigma attached to our neighborhoods. We've finally realized that, paraphrasing one of Richard Nixon's cabinet members, if it ain't broken, no lo fixées!

So–is Spanglish a language or a dialect? A creole or a pidgin? It depends on the dictionary at your disposal and the people you surround yourself with. And what kind of future will it have? It is difficult to say. What matters, though, is the present: In that realm, it is firmly rooteado.

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