Spanglish: The Validity of Spanglish as a Language

May 2, 2019

            Spanglish is a phenomenon that is very well recognized among many Americans, though many do not understand what Spanglish necessarily is. Even scholars seem to be unable to come up with a consensus for how to define Spanglish. Before beginning my research, I only knew of Spanglish as a dialect that is a mix of Spanish and English. Initially, I believed that the most important topic worth discussing was the matter of differences between regional variations of Spanglish (such as Chicano Spanglish in the Southwestern United States and Miami Spanglish spoken in many parts of Florida). Through the analysis of various articles and scholarly works on the matter, it became clear that before the different regional variations of Spanglish could be analyzed, the most essential question was: is Spanglish a language? Linguists are torn on the matter. However, based on the works of several notable linguists and Spanish language experts, as well as the research of mixed language and creole language experts Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman, I will attempt to clarify the key aspects in this debate and propose a definition of Spanglish. Through this, I will also distinguish what makes regional versions of Spanglish unique. The three essential concepts to understand in order to answer the question of the ‘languagehood’ of Spanglish are how speakers acquire the language, the historical context of the evolution of Spanglish, and Thomason and Kaufman’s proposed qualifications of a mixed language. For the most part, Spanglish speakers are multilingual, and the acquiring of Spanglish is something that comes after learning one’s native language.

            The majority of Spanglish speakers are raised in homes in the United States where the parents of children speak Spanish, and as such, Spanish is spoken in the household. However, these children speak English at school and among other members of the community. The fluency and context with which both languages are spoken results in the linguistic phenomenon of ‘code-switching’. Code-switching, also known as language alternation, refers to when a speaker switches between languages in a conversation (Villa, 2010). Frequent code-switching results in what are sometimes considered mistakes in the two languages. The speakers begin to speak English with the rules of Spanish, or vice-versa. In the context of the prior mentioned Spanish and English speaking individuals, code-switching occurs between the two languages when with other bilingual individuals. This code-switching is triggered by historic elements of the language rather than what is normally considered imperfect knowledge of the language (Villa, 2010). This simply means that when Spanish speakers move to an English speaking country, they encounter things in English that may have not been a concept in their country of origin when they left. An example of this is the Spanglish work ‘parquear’. Many Spanish speakers who moved to the United States before automotive vehicles became mainstream did not have a word for ‘to park’ in Spanish because there was never a need for it. Therefore, while living in the United States when the concept of ‘to park a car’ came about, these individuals adopted the English word, ‘park’ and used it with the rules of Spanish— despite Spanish developing its own word for ‘to park’ at the same time (estacionar). In Spanish, adding the suffix ‘-ar’ to a word creates a verb, and therefore, the term ‘parquear’ came to be. Historical context is not the only requisite for code-switching, as familial social classes determine code switches for various vocabulary words as well (Villa, 2010). For these reasons, Spangilsh dialects vary between families and regions, as the Spanish dialect spoken in one city may be different than that of other cities.

            As previously mentioned, one aspect in the evolution and variation of Spanglish is the immigration time and location of Spanglish speakers. Different words are adopted into Spanglish from English (or Spanish) based on the vocabulary of the time and the location that Spanglish speakers are in. Many Spanglish speakers also speak Spanish as a second language and English as a third language, with another (often a Latin American indigenous language) as a first language. Due to this, Spanglish often contains not only Spanish and English, but indigenous Latin American language vocabulary or grammatical structures. One common language with elements found in Spanglish is Náhuatl, an Uto-Aztecan language native to the central region of Mexico (Pew Hispanic Researchers). Historically, the creation of Spanglish as a widespread ‘language’ can be traced back to the indoctrination of a significant number of Spanish speakers from Mexico to the United States when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed following the Mexican-American War in 1848. The new Mexican Americans adopted Spanish versions of English words, by pronouncing English words with the rules of the Spanish language (Villa, 2014). Although this is the initial widespread introduction of Spanglish as a language, one aspect that causes linguists to question the validity of Spanglish as a language is that the dialect spoken by the many Mexican Americans following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo developed separately than other so called ‘Spanglish’ dialects in different parts of the United States. In Miami, it was not until the 1960s that a large influx of Spanish speakers entered the city, and most of these speakers came from Cuba fleeing the communist regime led by Fidel Castro (Castrillo, 2018). These Spanglish speakers not only came from a country that has significantly different vocabulary that that spoken by the Mexican Americans indoctrinated to the U.S. in 1848, but also picked up on English words unique to Miami as opposed to the Southwestern United States. Across the country, Spanglish dialects differ due to immigrants from various countries moving into the United States at different times, and learning different regional dialects of English. Because of this, there is huge debate as to whether or not different dialects of Spanglish can even be considered the same language.

            In their 1988 book regarding language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics, Thomason and Kaufman propose several requirements for a combination of two languages to be considered a mixed or creole language. Their first proposal is that “A language’s geographical area may become fragmented, through physical and/or social factors, from the point of view of regular intercommunication” (Thomason & Kaufman, 1988). This is not required for the creation of a new language, but often does result in language splits. Spanglish’s geological area has been fragmented based on both social and physical factors in different dialects of Spanglish. For example, in the case of Mexico, due to social factors (the treaty) a large portion of Spanish speaking land was given to a majority English-speaking nation. In the case of Cuba, the physical geography of Cuban immigrants changed when they crossed the Caribbean Sea to Florida, thus creating an oceanic divide between traditional Cuban Spanish and the newly created Miami Spanglish.

Their other assumption states that “change can occur at any and all levels of the linguistic system” (Thomason & Kaufman, 1988). This means that in the development of a mixed language, there are different levels of language change. For a combination of two languages to be considered a new language, borrowing must occur, but not simply in the lexicon. Structural features such as phonological, phonetic, syntactic, and sometimes (though rarely) morphological elements must also be borrowed (Thomason & Kaufman, 1988). Although the Spanish lexicon is often adopted into English vocabulary (i.e. ‘tranquila’ replacing ‘calm down’), and English lexicon is adopted into Spanish vocabulary and grammatical rules (i.e. ‘parquear’), this does not show much change other than lexical. It can be debated as to whether or not the addition of the Spanish verb suffix ‘-ar’ counts as a morphological change, though Thomason and Kaufman do not count this as such and instead consider it lexical.

Thomason and Kaufman also propose that “language is passed on from parent generation to child generation and/or via peer group from immediately older to immediately younger, with relatively small degrees of change over the short run, given a reasonable stable sociolinguistic context.” as well as that “the label ‘genetic relationship’ does not properly apply when transmission is imperfect” (Thomason & Kaufman, 1988). Essentially, if the speakers who acquire a new language are not integrated into the group of speakers that initially provided the language, the language may become varied enough to be another new language. If language change occurs in this way, then Thomason and Kaufman argue that the newly created dialect is in fact a language as the change evolved from being passed down through generations rather than simply lexicon borrowing, though it may appear as such. This fourth assumption is challenging to apply to Spanglish because the group of speakers that learn Spanglish are generally still integrated into the community that taught them Spanglish in the first place. However, they are not integrated into the communities from which both languages originate (i.e. completely Spanish speaking communities or completely English speaking communities).

Their fifth assumption and condition is actually their disagreement with a previously proposed assumption regarding what a language requires. The previously proposed assumption is that “a language cannot have multiple ancestors in the course of normal transmission” (Thomason & Kaufman, 1988). Both linguists disagree with this statement, rather, they believe that a language can be created from multiple ancestors. Spanglish does have multiple ancestors— English, Spanish, and occasionally indigenous languages. The way in which these assumptions can be applied to Spanglish provide insight into the validity of Spanglish as a language.

            Based on the social acquisition of Spanglish, the historical context, and the application of Thomason and Kaufman’s assumptions, I propose that Spanglish is a language, however, each regional Spanglish is its own language separate of one language group called Spanglish. In simpler terms, Miami Spanglish and Chicano Spanglish are their own languages, and completely separate from each other, rather than dialects of one large Spanglish language. Of course, Thomason and Kaufman note that what defines a language varies by field. What a sociologist or anthropologist might consider a language will be different than what a linguist considers a language based on the different criterion for language in the fields. My proposal is simply based on historical linguistic criterion. Although each region’s Spanglish originates from (generally) the same two languages, the way that each Spanglish is created and evolve makes them separate languages, yet languages just the same.

A final note on Spanglish as a term used to define the mixed language spoken in many parts of the United States is the proposal of Spanish linguists Ricardo Otheguy and Nancy Stern. The two call for the deletion of the word ‘Spanglish’ from the English vocabulary, though not for reasons regarding the validity of the language-status of Spanglish. Instead, Otheguy and Stern state that most speakers of ‘so-called Spanglish’ are bilingual and the term should rather be replaced with simply Spanish in the United States. The justification for this argument does not necessarily counter the theory that Spanglish adopts a mix of English and Spanglish words to create a new language, however suggests that the term be deleted as it suggests decreased personal and political development by Spanglish Speakers in many of its uses (Otheguy & Stern, 2010).


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Rachel Bierly
Rachel Bierly is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Linguistics as well as pursuing a minor in Computer Science and a certificate in Latin American Studies. Though her focus lies in Latin American languages, culture, and politics, she also finds interest in East and Southeast Asian culture, and is studying both the Chinese language. Rachel's interest in Latin America comes mainly from working as an intern in Phoenixville Area School District's English Language Learner (ELL) program as well as travelling to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.