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Is Spanglish Killing Spanish?


September 8, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

Amherst College in Massachusetts is offering a course on Spanglish this fall semester. It is being taught by Mexican American writer Ilan Stavans, author of a dictionary (to be published later this year) of that hybrid Spanish and English dialect.

"The course spans almost five hundred years, from 1521 to the present," proclaims the Amherst catalog. "It starts with the Spanish explorers to Florida and ends with today's rappers and poets..The various modalities of Spanglish, spoken by, among other groups, Nuyoricans, Chicanos, and Cuban-Americans, will be compared. The development of Spanglish as a street jargon will be compared to Yiddish, Ebonics, and other minority tongues."

Millions of Hispanics use Spanglish in the United States. That makes it as worthy of academic study as any other phenomena, from the migration of peregrine falcons to the causes of the Great Depression to organic chemistry to Chinese poetry of the T'ang dynasty. Like it or not, Spanglish is a reality, so it is incumbent on academics and even we humble journalists to see what it is all about.

And since Spanglish has its own vocabulary, why not a dictionary? Absolutely nothing wrong with a book that records the fact many Hispanic Americans say "troca" for "truck" instead of standard Spanish "camión." Or that other nearly universal term in colder climes, "estoy frizado" (adding a Spanish-like suffix to English "I am freezing") instead of the standard Spanish "estoy congelado."

I confess I use Spanglish, sometimes, when speaking informally in Spanish. No, I have never said "troca" since "camión" is perfectly fine for me. Frizando? Sometimes.

One Spanglish term I nearly always resort to is "parquear," which means "to park" rather than the actual Spanish term "estacionar." Many times, too, I will switch to Spanish in the middle of a conversation otherwise in English-only -- with fellow Spanish-speakers, of course.

Spanglish can be fun. One of the most hilarious, laugh-out-loud things I have ever seen in print is "bibaporrú." It appears in "The Official Spanglish Dictionary: Un User's Guide to More Than 300 Words and Phrases That Aren't Exactly Español or Inglés," by the editors of a magazine called "Generation Ñ" ("Un User's" is "A User's"). It is a Spanish pronunciation of "Vick's Vapo-Rub," which to Hispanics of my generation brings a rush of memories about mothers, childhood colds, and mentholated chest ointments.

There is a place for Spanglish, as long as it remains a kind of inside joke. But when it goes beyond self-aware bicultural, bilingual humor, Spanglish is dangerous.

Spanglish does not threaten the ability of Hispanics in the United States to learn standard English, because it is words in standard Spanish that Spanglish mangles. What Spanglish does is threaten the ability of Hispanic Americans to retain standard Spanish.

Spanglish is a street dialect, a household dialect. It does not work elsewhere. It is not even a full-fledged language. José from Miami will sound foolish speaking Spanglish at a business meeting in Mexico City. María from El Paso will be laughed at in Madrid -- and in Amherst, Massachusetts -- if she lectures on Socratic philosophy in Spanglish. And will any physicist use Spanglish to talk about the Big Bang?

As Yale Spanish literature professor Roberto González Echevarría puts it, "Spanglish is an invasion of Spanish by English. Spanglish treats Spanish as if the language of Cervantes, Lorca, García Márquez, Borges and Paz does not have an essence and dignity of its own."

Well, I think it's OK in good fun, Roberto. The problem isn't using Spanglish, the problem is that too often it has become a substitute for Spanish. It isolates Hispanics in the United States from the rest of the Hispanic world.

When Hispanic Americans use Spanglish because they don't know "real" Spanish, the survival of the language of Cervantes and Borges in the United States is in grave danger.

Roger Hernández is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in-Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at

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