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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

A Hybrid Tongue or Slanguage?

Spanglish, a mix of Spanish and English, is hip lingo to some -- including marketers -- but a mangling of two languages to others.

December 27, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

On a muggy Sunday afternoon at the Duenas home in South Gate, mariachi music bumped from a boombox on the concrete in the driveway. The roasted smells of carne asada lingered over a folding picnic table, like the easy banter between cousins.

"Le robaron la troca con everything. Los tires, los rines," a visiting cousin said.

Translation: "They robbed the truck with everything. The tires, the rims."

"theseQuieres watermelon?" offered Francisco Duenas, a 26-year-old housing counselor, holding a jug filled with sweet water and watermelon bits.

"Tal vez tiene some of the little tierrita at the bottom."

Translation: "Want watermelon? It might have some of the little dirt at the bottom."

When the Duenas family gathers for weekend barbecues, there are no pauses between jokes and gossip, spoken in English and Spanish. They've been mixing the languages effortlessly, sometimes clumsily, for years, so much so that the back-and-forth is not even noticed.

Spanglish, the fluid vernacular that crosses between English and Spanish, has been a staple in Latino life in California since English-speaking settlers arrived in the 19th century. And for much of that time, it has been dismissed and derided by language purists -- "neither good, nor bad, but abominable," as Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously put it.

But the criticism has done little to reduce the prevalence of Spanglish, which today is a bigger part of bilingual life than ever before.

Now it's rapidly moving from Latino neighborhoods into the mainstream. Spanglish is showing up in television and films, with writers using it to bring authenticity to their scripts and to get racy language past network executives. Marketers use it to sell everything from bank accounts to soft drinks. Hallmark now sells Spanglish greeting cards. And McDonald's is rolling out Spanglish TV spots that will air on both Spanish- and English-language networks.

In academia, once a bastion of anti-Spanglish sentiment, the vernacular is now studied in courses with names like "Spanish Phonetics" and "Crossing Borders." Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans published a Spanglish dictionary with hundreds of entries -- from gaseteria (which means "gas station") to chaqueta (for "jacket," instead of the Spanish word "saco"). Stavans said new Spanglish words are being created all the time, altering traditional notions of language purity that remained strong just a generation ago.

Growing up, "I was told in school that you shouldn't mix the languages," said Stavans, whose college plans to hold the first Conference of Spanglish in April. "There used to be this approach that if you use a broken tongue, you have a broken tongue. It's not about broken tongues; it's about different tongues, and they are legitimate. I think you're going to see a lot more of that."

The rise of Spanglish says a lot about the demographic shifts in California and other states with large Latino populations.

Migration movements are traditionally accompanied by the mixing of the native language with the newly acquired one. Within a generation or two, the Old Country tongue -- whether Polish, Chinese or Italian -- usually recedes.

But unlike immigrants from Europe and Asia, Latinos are separated from their cultural homeland, not by vast oceans, but by the border with Mexico and the 90 miles between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

The Latino immigrant population is constantly replenishing itself. Meanwhile, Spanish-language media, such as industry giants Telemundo and Univision, continue to grow, which means that the immigrants' original language remains a force in the community.

Today, Spanglish is especially popular among young urban Latinos who are U.S.-born -- people like Francisco Duenas, who was raised in South Gate, lives in Echo Park and works in an office in South Los Angeles. Spanglish, he said, allows him to bridge two cultures: the largely Spanish-speaking world of his parents and the English-language world of work and friends.

"I think this Spanglish, being to go back and forth, it's a way of saying, 'Look, I can do both,' " Duenas said. "And I think here in Los Angeles particularmente, it's not necessary to speak just Spanish or English. No puedes describir la vida aqui [you can't describe life here] without speaking both."

As Spanglish spreads, academics and marketers are finding that it's much more complicated than simply forming sentences with both Spanish and English words.

The most basic part of Spanglish is "code-switching," in which someone inserts or substitutes words from one language into another. For instance, Spanglish might sound like "Vamos a la store para comprar milk." Translation: "Let's go to the store to buy milk."

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