The New York Times
March 28, 1997

Is 'Spanglish' a Language?


Spanglish, the composite language of Spanish and English that has crossed over from the street to Hispanic talk shows and advertising campaigns, poses a grave danger to Hispanic culture and to the advancement of Hispanics in mainstream America. Those who condone and even promote it as a harmless commingling do not realize that this is hardly a relationship based on equality. Spanglish is an invasion of Spanish by English.

The sad reality is that Spanglish is primarily the language of poor Hispanics, many barely literate in either language. They incorporate English words and constructions into their daily speech because they they lack the vocabulary and education in Spanish to adapt to the changing culture around them.

Educated Hispanics who do likewise have a different motivation: Some are embarrassed by their background and feel empowered by using English words and directly translated English idioms. Doing so, they think, is to claim membership in the mainstream. Politically, however, Spanglish is a capitulation; it indicates marginalization, not enfranchisement.

Spanglish treats Spanish as if the language of Cervantes, Lorca, García Márquez, Borges and Paz does not have an essence and dignity of its own.

It is not possible to speak of physics or metaphysics in Spanglish, whereas Spanish has a more than adequate vocabulary for both. Yes, because of the pre-eminence of English in fields like technology, some terms, like "biper" for beeper, have to be incorporated into Spanish. But why give in when there are perfectly good Spanish words and phrases?

If, as with so many of the trends of American Hispanics, Spanglish were to spread to Latin America, it would constitute the ultimate imperialistic takeover, the final imposition of a way of life that is economically dominant but not culturally superior in any sense. Latin America is rich in many ways not measurable by calculators.

Yet I worry every time I hear broadcasts by American-based TV stations that are beamed out across the hemisphere. The newscasts sound like Spanish, but if one listens closely, it is English transposed, not even translated, into Spanish. Are they listening or laughing in Mexico City and San Juan?

The same kind of surrender occurs with American companies hoping to cash in on the Hispanic market. I cringe when I hear a clerk ask, "Cómo  puedo ayudarlo?" (a literal transposition of the English "How can I help you?"), rather than the proper "Qué desea?" On a recent flight to Mexico, a Hispanic flight attendant read a statement that would not have been comprehensible to a Mexican, a Spaniard or an American Hispanic from any region other than his. Ads on Spanish-language TV and on the New York streets are full of howlers. I wonder if recent Latin American immigrants even can understand them.

I suppose my Medievalist colleagues will say that without the contamination of Latin by local languages, there would be no Spanish (or French or Italian). We are no longer in the Middle Ages, however, and it is naïve to think that we could create a new language that would be functional and culturally rich. Literature in Spanglish can only aspire to a sort of wit based on a rebellious gesture, which wears thin quickly. Those who practice it are doomed to writing not a minority literature but a minor literature.

I do not apologize for my professorial biases: I think that people should learn languages well and that learning English should be the first priority for Hispanics if they aspire, as they should, to influential positions.

But we must remember that we are a special immigrant group. Whereas the mother cultures of other ethnicities are far away in geography or time, ours are very near. Immigration from Latin America keeps our community in a state of continuous renewal. The last thing we need is to have each group carve out its own Spanglish, creating a Babel of hybrid tongues. Spanish is our strongest bond, and it is vital that we preserve it.

Roberto González Echevarría is a professor of Hispanic and comparative literatures at Yale.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company