English and Spanish on their own are two of the most-spoken languages in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that the two communities overlap quite a bit. And while these two languages are often treated separately, that ignores the way they interact with one another in bilingual communities. When bilingual speakers of Spanish and English converse, they don’t always chose to use purely English or purely Spanish. Instead, they go for a third route: Spanglish.
While sometimes treated like a novelty, Spanglish is not just a fanciful portmanteau of “Spanish” and “English.” It’s a complex mode of conversation that can be used very flexibly. The only problem is, linguists aren’t exactly sure how to classify it.
What Is Spanglish?
As the name implies, Spanglish — or Espanglish in Spanish — is a hybrid of Spanish and English, but there is some disagreement as to exactly what that means. There is no “standard” out there, and there aren’t official rules about how it’s spoken. It’s the catch-all term for whenever someone combines Spanish and English features in their speech. Depending on where it’s spoken, it can be more Spanish or more English or vice versa. Here’s just one famous example of it in pop culture.
Some linguists argue that Spanglish is just a version of code-switching — when people switch between languages within a single sentence. One of the most common Spanglish phrases is “pero like,” which means “but like” and could be an example of code-switching between two words. If this theory is correct, it would mean Spanglish is a very surface-level combination of two languages.
Others advocate for the idea that Spanglish refers only to a more complex combination of languages. They say that if someone just throws a few Spanish words into their English, it would more aptly be called a dialect, like Chicano English.
The linguists who think that Spanglish is more substantive than a dialect sometimes call it a pidgin. Pidgins generally form when two cultures meet without a common language, and so they invent a new language that combines their two native tongues in order to communicate. Spanglish does not exactly fit this description because it’s as complex as any other language, though. It’s also not a form of compromise between speakers of English and Spanish. Spanglish speakers are often perfectly able to speak both English and Spanish fluently.
Another phenomenon in Spanglish is borrowing, which is when English words are taken and transformed into Hispanicized ones. Examples of this include jangear for “hang out” and rufo for “roof.” These are sometimes used ironically by young people, but the important thing to note here is that Spanglish manifests in a variety of ways.
When Did People Start Speaking Spanglish?
Many articles about Spanglish tend to treat it as a recent phenomenon. But its roots are pretty old. Depending on how you define Spanglish, you could say that it’s been around since the first interactions between English and Spanish.
Ilan Stavans, the author of Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, says Spanglish has been around since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and a large part of Mexico became part of the United States, which was about 150 years ago.
There are theories that the history of Spanglish may go back even further to when English tourists were visiting Spain, but the intense intermingling didn’t start until the two languages encountered each other in North America.
Who Speaks The Language?
Surveys don’t usually offer “Spanglish” as a language, so putting an exact number on it can be difficult. But, you can make some educated guesses. In the United States, there are over 50 million people who speak Spanish. Among Hispanics who speak English, 59 percent are bilingual.
One major reason people speak Spanglish is because they were raised bilingually. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, was once asked a question in Spanish and explained that he could only answer in English: “I learned Spanish the same time I learned English. I mean, when I was a little kid, mis abuelos, ellos no habla ingles. But to be honest, what I really spoke at home was Spanglish. And as you know in our community, that’s true with just about everyone, and certainly with their kids.” On the other side of the political aisle, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a native of New York City, has tweeted about using Spanglish in speeches and her personal life number.
The places where Spanglish is most spoken tend to be places that have large Latinx populations. Because of that, Southern California and Puerto Rico are Spanglish hotspots. The Spanglish spoken by geographically distant groups can vary widely, and some Cubans refer to their version of the language as Cubonics.
There is a reason why people continue to speak Spanglish even if they’re fluent in English, Spanish or both. For many who speak it, Spanglish is not just an effect of being raised bilingually: it’s a source of pride in their Latinx identity. Speaking a certain way can signal to others that you’re part of their community. In his book Living in Spanglish, Ed Morales wrote, “Spanglish is what we speak, but it is also who we Latinos are, and how we act, and how we perceive the world.”
What Is The Future of Spanglish?
You might think that, given enough time, Spanish or English would dominate a community. Yet Spanish has been on this continent for longer than English has, and while they are not always the coziest of numbers, they’ve managed to coexist for centuries. And as long as Spanish and English intermingle, Spanglish will be widely used.
Rather than disappearing, Spanglish is popping up more and more in American culture. In 2016, The Little Prince was published in Spanglish as El Little Príncipe. The incredibly popular “Despacito,” incorporates some Spanglish, at least in the Justin Bieber version. Spanish-language music is only getting more mainstream attention in recent years, which has propelled more Spanish-English hybrid songs onto the airwaves.
One possibility of the future of Spanglish is that it may follow the same path as Yiddish. The Yiddish language is a hybrid of Hebrew and German, and it began as a dialect that was spoken mostly by German Jews starting in the 13th century. At the time, it was seen as a degraded form of language, like Spanglish is sometimes seen today. Over the centuries, though, Yiddish has established itself as an important language, used by 3 million people today. The language remains an important part of Jewish heritage, leading many people to learn it, even if they don’t technically need to.
Even if Spanglish is technically not an official language anywhere, it’s widely used in many communities. It’s probably useful for all of us to prepare por el futuro by studying la lengua de Spangles.