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Habla usted Spanglish?

One of the things I love about growing up in New York City is the fact that I live among a variety of cultures and languages. In a multicultural city, it’s not uncommon to hear various languages merge and blend into a hybrid language befitting its mixed environment. One noticeable example of this is Spanglish.

While the word Spanglish is defined as “a hybrid language combining words and idioms from both Spanish and English,” for me Spanglish usually means a switch between both languages in mid-conversation. I grew up hearing a conversation start out in English and ending in Spanish or the other way around. For example, a talk with my father would begin with me asking a question in English. If my father didn’t know how to phrase his answer in English, he would start out by saying the noun cosa (the Spanish term for thing) while gathering his thoughts. After a few attempts of trying to describe what “esa cosa” is in English, I’d usually ask him just to tell me what he meant to say in Spanish. After he finished his explanation, the cycle began anew when I asked him another question.

The comedian Bill Santiago illustrates the Spanglish I’m accustomed to hearing:

“Compramelo por favor que esta on sale!” is a phrase I first heard some years ago while shopping. The sentence as a whole translates into English as “Please buy it for me because it’s on sale.” The sentence is in Spanish until the end when an English phrase well known to all shoppers takes over. I later learned this is an example of code-switching, or the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.

“Alex Rodriguez says adiós to la pelota!” is another example from Santiago that I’ve heard numerous times while watching baseball on television. In Santiago’s humorous take on an Anglophone speaking Spanglish, the speaker’s phrasing is English, but with the insertion of Spanish terms like adios (goodbye) and la pelota (the ball) into the sentence. That’s something I find myself doing from time to time. In my own conversations, I’ll usually speak in English while occasionally inserting Spanish words or phrases that I picked up from my parents, for example, “esa cosa” or “por favor, can you help me find my keys?” This is an example of code-mixing, where a speaker switches at frequent intervals from one language to another, for no discoverable external reason.

Spanglish isn’t limited simply to mixing or adding phrases from both of the original languages. Individual words can combine aspects of English and Spanish. The Spanish language adopted the English verbs to rent and to park as rentar and parquear, and they are conjugated in Spanish accordingly: yo rento (I rent), tu rentas (you rent), yo parqueo (I park), and tu parqueas (you park). Of course, American English has adopted several words from Spanish too. We have more than a few fashionistas (fashion plus the Spanish suffix –ista) in the city and what New York neighborhood would be complete without a bodega?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell where one language ends and another begins. I always thought the verb googlear entered Spanish via the English verb google (from proprietary name of search engine Google), but it may have originated and evolved in Spanish independently. Such confusions often mean little to everyday speakers but can become fraught political topics among linguists and cultural advocates. What makes a word English versus Spanish?

Whether it’s within my own home, with my friends, or overhearing a conversation while walking down the street, Spanglish is an often overlooked but essential part of my life. While it’s not a necessarily new or shocking development in language, Spanglish has embedded itself into our society to the point that it’s a natural part of daily life for many people. The same can be said of other hybrid languages that make up the fascinating fabric that is New York culture.

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