What Is A Macaronic Language?

No, it’s not about pasta. Macaronic languages are interesting combinations of two (or more!) languages.
Glass cup filled with mac and cheese to represent macaronic language.

You know when people are speaking and suddenly add a little je ne sais quoi into their sentence? Those brief insertions of foreign phrases into an otherwise… como se dice… normal conversation? These cominglings of two or more languages are known as macaronic languages. Unlike pidgin and creole, which are the creation of new forms of communication between multiple languages, macaronic languages involve the incorporation of just a few phrases or segments from one language into another. It also encompasses bilingual puns, or phrases that are used in the same context between the languages in question.

The History Of Macaronic Language

The word “macaronic” derives from the Italian word for dumpling, maccarone. You may also recognize the word as the world’s favorite pasta shape, macaroni and the French pastry, macaroon. It was used in a generally derogatory manner but also to refer to the mixing of languages with the intent of being satirical or humorous. The term was originally applied to the mixing of Latin vernacular and endings with other languages. In the Middle Ages, Latin was still the predominant language used amongst scholars, but it was beginning to make its way out of usage amongst poets and storytellers. This developed into mixed-language literature, beginning with Latin as the primary language in combination with other languages including English, Dutch, Italian, German and more. One of the main branches of mixed language literature was something called macaronic verse. 

Macaronic verse is poetry that uses more than one language to make puns and humor the reader. 

Here’s an example from Brian P. Cleary’s “What Can I C’est?”

My auntie Michelle is big in the BON
(As well as the hip and the thigh).
And when she exhales, OUI haul out our sails
And ride on the wind of VERSAILLES.

While these intentional insertions of foreign phrases are mainly comical mistranslations or misused, they occasionally are used for more serious poetry as well. Many of these texts became widely popular and carried on until today. Modern macaronic literature is still used across a variety of different art forms including novels, poetry, theater, film and song, and it’s used to refer to many different combinations of languages.

Macaronic Language Today

While you may not be read up on old macaronic Latin verse, these modern day examples of macaronic language might ring a bell. In today’s context, macaronic language is more closely aligned with code-switching or code-stiching. These “languages” developed as a result of the natural and, some forced, blending of cultures and thus languages. Let’s look at the top modern macaronic languages, their origins, and examples. 

Spanglish [Spanish + English]

The most commonly used macaronic language is Spanglish, a mix of English and Spanish. Many experts view it as a prime example of code-switching, while others argue it is a language born out of necessity for communication and now represents the combination of the two cultures. Spanglish can be seen as an umbrella term for a multitude of linguistic instances including loan words from English, English phonetics in Spanish, loan translations from English, and code stitching within the same clause. 

Spanglish first popped during the 19th century after the Mexican-American war when large parts of Mexico suddenly became part of the United States. Over time, the coexistence of English and Spanish resulted in an intermingling of the two. Spanglish also arose in many other Spanish speaking countries under the presence of the United States, most notably Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Subsequently, a multitude of Spanglish dialects were born. The variations in Spanglish dialects developed from the different Spanish-speaking countries but also from the North American cities where they ended up at. New York, Florida, Texas and California have some of the largest populations of Spanglish speakers in the United States and each dialect is unique. 

Let’s look at some examples of Spanglish next to their traditional Spanish words:

  • Parquear — To park. In Spanish it’s estacionar. [Loan word]
  • Jamberger — Hamburger. In Spanish it’s hamburguesa. [Loan word]
  • Ver un show — To see a show. In Spanish it’s ver un espectaculo. [Code-stitching]
  • Googlear — To Google, this one was just fun. [Loan translation]

Portuñol [Spanish + Portuguese]

Another relatively popular macaronic language is Portuñol, a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. Similar to Spanglish, Portuñol is an umbrella term for all non-systematic mixings of the two languages. This includes mixing of vernaculars, grammatical errors from speakers attempting to speak the second language and invented speech to create communication between the two cultures. 

Portuñol was born out of continued contact between the two languages in border communities. Examples of these border communities include areas between Portugal and Spain as well as between Brazil and neighboring Spanish speaking South American countries. Given the varied regional backgrounds of the Portuñol speakers, there isn’t a standard version of the language and subsequently many dialects. It’s also important to note that Portuñol is more heavily influenced by Spanish as opposed to Portuguese. 

Here are just a couple examples of this language: 

  • Camiáu — Truck. In Spanish it’s camion, and in Portuguese it’s caminhão.
  • Dame este biscoito — Give me this biscuit. In Spanish it’s dame esta galleta, and in Portuguese it’s me dê esse biscoito

Franglais [French + English]

Another English-based macaronic language you may have heard of is Franglais or Frenglish. The term goes both ways, so it includes French words in the English language, as well as English words in the French language. For the most part, it consists of bilingual speakers speaking French and replacing the words they don’t know with English words, often adding -ing to French words. It also includes the use of false friends between the two languages, as well as loan words or translations from English.  

Franglais has multiple dialects, and there are distinct versions of it in Canada and in France. In France the growing English population following World War II resulted in much backlash and the coining of the term “Franglais” in 1964. Growing imports from America led to frequent use of English phrases in the French language. In accordance with the French people’s backlash, they began implementing public policies to restrict the use of Franglais, however it still continues to grow in use to this day. In Canada, specifically Quebec, English and French have coexisted for centuries, and as a result, so has Franglais. It’s more common than not to find bilingual speakers there mixing the two languages on a daily basis.  Franglais is also in the African country Cameroon, where it’s called Frananglais. 

Here are some examples of Franglais:

  • Relooking — A makeover. In French, it’s une cure de jouvence.
  • Un chien chaud — A hot dog. In French, it’s actually just un hot dog.
  • On va bruncher? — “Do you want to go to brunch?” In French it’s Voulez-vous aller au brunch?
  • Un shake-hand — A handshake. In French, it’s une poignée de main.
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