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THE STATE | LINGUISTICS

What Language Is on That Billboard?

September 07, 1997|Jacqueline Lopez | Jacqueline Lopez is a graduate student in Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge

When driving around Los Angeles, one begins to wonder whether some of its signs are English or Spanish. Or is there a new language emerging out there? What's a "shoeteria"? Or a "wateria"?

Some experts call it Tex-Mex, or Spanglish, and define it as a blend of Spanish and English spoken in the Southwest--not just in Los Angeles. Other experts would say it is indeed a whole new language, and ordinary folks who don't like it blame it on the reputed immigrant invasion of the Southwest.

Actually, what is happening is a natural development in linguistics. More and more Spanish speakers are moving back and forth from Spanish to English, occasionally adding a Spanish inflectional ending on an English root. The practice appears to transcend generations.

Tex-Mex works something like this: to "park" becomes "parqiar"; to "lunch" becomes "lonchar"; the expression "to back up" becomes "baquear pa'atras," and so on. In Texas, where some say a Spanish-English hybrid is as old as Texas itself, Spanglish--or Tex-Mex, as they call it--is commonplace. It can also be heard in New Mexico and most of Arizona. Although it's been a permanent resident in California as well, it has only recently appeared on billboards.

Educators in particular deplore "code-switching" between languages, often dubbing it a product of laziness and ignorance. To some extent, Spanish does get a bit hazy to American-born Latinos who come to depend on English words to fill the gap.

Those who wish Spanglish would die on the fruit picker's vine have been heard to say, "If in addition to 'taking all those good fruit-picking jobs,' we then begin bastardizing the language, we are really going to catch it," says Christy Haubegger, a Mexican American lawyer who also publishes Latina magazine. "We don't need another strike against us," she adds.

But such misgivings have not limited Spanglish's prevalence and popularity. Indeed, her very magazine's headlines are frequently seasoned with Spanglish. "When He Says Me Voy . . . What Does He Really Mean?" one headline recent read.

So why all the hullabaloo if English and Spanish are fostering a whole new language? Chaucer spoke more French than English. English did not become English until after it was seasoned by 400 years of French. And Spanish did not become Spanish until it went through the same experience with 700 years of Arabic. In similar fashion, Latin became French only after consorting with the Gaelic languages.

Spanglish is such another example of language in flux. Soon we'll be saying, "Let's do 'lonche' at the 'burgeria.' "

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