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Star-Tribune Newspaper

Language Purists Dismayed By Spanglish

Robert Friedman

January 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Star-Tribune Newspaper. All Rights Reserved.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be spinning in their graves as "The Sounds of Spanglish" trip off tongues in a four-credit course at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Or maybe they are posthumously enjoying the coming together of their versions of the two languages, which, after all, were undergoing modifications and word inventions at the time the two literary giants were taking quill pen to paper.

Spanglish, in fact, is the coming language in the Americas and, "as time goes by will solidify its status ," according to Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish who is offering the course at the Massachusetts liberal arts college.

From San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and points in between, Spanglish has become a fact of radio, TV, newsprint and pop culture life, much to the dismay of many of the hemisphere's intelligentsia.

Despite heavy criticism from both Spanish-language and English- language purists, Stavans maintains that Spanglish is "the poetry of the people," and, as such, deserves a place in academia.

The first-of-its-kind course, given in English, is designed as a broad survey to explain "the clash, encounter or dialogue between these two languages and cultures," said Stavans.

A major criticism has come from those Spanish quarters where the new form of expression is seen more as an invasion of Spanish by English, rather than the other way around, and as a prime example of U.S. cultural imperialism.

But Stavans says that Spanglish is rooted in the original invasion of the Americas by Spain, and that Spanish was the imperial tool of that era.

`Acquired artifact'

Spanish never was simply transplanted to the Americas, but instead adapted to the new lands where it spread, taking words and expressions from the Indian peoples that were conquered along the way. The Spanish spoken in Latin America is an "acquired artifact," according to Stavans.

"Spanglish is not, as the media portrays it, a recent phenomenon," he said. "You can find Spanglish spoken and even written in the middle of the 19th century after the Louisiana Purchase and the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, both of which paved the way for the U.S. absorption of Spanish-speaking populaces.

"Spanglish didn't just appear, rootless and out of the blue," Stavans said.

Nor did the languages of Cervantes and Shakespeare. The first grammar of Castilian Spanish, for instance, was published in 1492, to cap efforts for a unified language that would help centralize political and social power in Spain. That was the same year Columbus was sailing to the New World, and Spain was "purifying" its culture by expelling its Muslims and Jews.

Castilian Spanish, said Stavans, absorbed the various dialects of the Iberian Peninsula, where Vulgar Latin had been spoken over the centuries.

English scholars readily acknowledge all the outside influences that went into modern English: from the Angles, Jutes and Saxons; from Old English, German, Scandinavian, Greek, Latin, French - ad seemingly infinitum.

Spanglish, said Stavans, is not only spoken, sung and written in the United States, but also is alive and well in the Caribbean, Mexico, "all of South America" and even Spain.

Regional variety

There isn't just one Spanglish. "Each region and each country has its own Spanglish-isms," he noted.

For Cuban-Americans in Miami, a "yuca" is more than just another root. It is also a Young Urban Cuban American. Among the more unforgiving Bay of Pigs exiles, a "kennedito" is a traitor, according to Stavans, who is compiling the first big Spanglish dictionary, set for publication next fall. In Madrid, an "antibaby" is a condom.

The New York Puerto Rican contributions to the language are legendary, from "Loisiada" (New York's Lower East Side) to "la hara," a pejorative for the police, derived from a particularly unpleasant cop by the name of O'Hara who patrolled the El Barrio section of Manhattan several decades ago.

Nevertheless, thanks to the media - or no thanks, depending on your linguistic point of view - "we are starting to see a standardized form of Spanglish," Stavans said.

Stavans, who said he is an avid reader of medieval literature in both Spanish and English and "would be the first to say we have to teach English" to Hispanic immigrants, nevertheless maintains that "there is no stopping the spread of Spanglish."

He added: "I don't think it makes sense to penalize people because they have chosen a third way" to express themselves.

"Only dead languages are never changing," he said.

Speaking Spanglish

- Me likea el rufo. (My roof is leaking.)

- Voy a vacumear la carpeta. (I'm going to vacuum the carpet.)

- Quiero confley. (I would like some dry cereal.)

- Rochear (to be in a hurry).

- Suitche (a thing used to turn lights on and off).

- Downlodear (to download on a computer).

- Troc (a vehicle used to transport goods).

- Chor (short pants).

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