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Spanglish

October 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: “Spanglish, The Making of a new American Language. The author of is Ilan Stavans, the president of Latin America and Latino culture at Amherst college. With el come.

ILAN STAVANS, Author, “Spanglish:” Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: What is Spanglish?

ILAN STAVANS: Spanglish is the encounter, perhaps the word is marriage or divorce of English and Spanish, but also of Anglo and Hispanic civilizations not only in the United States, but in the entire continent and perhaps also in Spain. It is the way of communication where one starts in one language, switches to the other back and forth or perhaps coins a few new words or thinks in one language and reacts in another one. It is a very creative jazzy way of being Latino in the U.S. today.

RAY SUAREZ: But is it really a language? I don’t want to sound pedantic, but is what’s being made by this encounter a language?

ILAN STAVANS: Not yet, not quite. Perhaps we’re in the process of becoming one. We are closer to being a dialect. There is really not one Spanglish. There are varieties of Spanglish. There’s Spanglish spoken by Cuban Americans in Miami called cubonics is different from Mexican American Spanglish, but thanks to the Internet, thanks to radio and television, thanks to what is happening in the classrooms, in the streets in the restaurants, we are finding a middle ground.

The same way there is not really one Latino, but a number of different Latinos, the Latinos of different backgrounds, these varieties of Spanglish are finding a middle ground and perhaps as time goes by, we’ll discover that we are closer to becoming a standard way of communication, perhaps.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, is one language crashing into the other in an equal kind of way, or is this something that’s really happening to the way Spanish is spoken without much movement in the other direction?

ILAN STAVANS: Well, it really depends where you are based and the type of Spanglish that you’re listening to. If you are in Puerto Rico, you will hear one type of Spanglish where English and Spanish really get intertwined. It also depends on the social class. If you are in the U.S.-Mexican border, a variety of Spanglish will be sensible to you. But if you go down to Buenos Aires, there are words that are borrowed from English and incorporated into Spanish.

And if you go into certain parts of the U.S., where the Latino population is not the predominant one, you will hear more English and less Spanish. So it really depends on the location of the listener or the speaker, the frequency with which one language will mix or clash or become intertwined with the other.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a peculiar American event, or with the many other languages that have come to this continent, have we seen this kind of blending before?

ILAN STAVANS: We have seen this kind of blending before. Every time there is an immigrant group that makes it to America, that wants to become part of the so-called melting pot, there is this period of transition between the so-called immigrant language that slowly disappears with the children of immigrants and the grandchildren of immigrants and the acquisition of English as the great equalizer, the one… the language that makes us all one. But the difference with Latinos is a dramatic one and an important one whereas Jews or the Poles or the Germans virtually gave up their immigrant generation by the third generation, that is by the grandchildren of the immigrants, because of the closeness of the place once called home, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Central America, Spanish is not disappearing.

Spanish actually is becoming a major force in this country. But it’s not surviving in an uncontaminated, pure way. And in that sense, Spanglish is similar to previous patterns of linguist assimilation but very different in that Spanish remains alive and strong and is creating this mixture that is unique and is defining the way Latinos describe themselves, feel, think. I think Spanglish is more than a way of communication; I think it’s a way of thinking, a new way of being for us almost 40 million people in the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: But haven’t there been defenders of Spanish, fans of the language, people who want to maintain a kind of uniqueness in the United States who’ve decried not only Spanglish but decried your book, who, when they hear “maborpalancha, “they say that’s terrible. That’s not Spanglish. That’s bad Spanish.

ILAN STAVANS: That’s right, by all means, and the critics or the accusers or attackers are strong and need to be heard as much as those that are supporting Spanglish should be heard. One has to keep in mind, ray, that at any given point, languages are in constant change. In order to survive, Spanish had a h to become what it became, what it is today by incorporating words from the French, from the Italian, from the English; 100 years ago, the Spanish that was spoken in Spain was very different from the one that we speak today, let alone 500 years ago, when Miguel des Bantis was writing 400 years ago, when he was writing his masterpiece, Don Quixote tape. Like with English, 500 years ago English was very different than what it is today.

I think that being able to appreciate Spanglish enables us tore see the process of language formation. It is like an astronomer discovering a new galaxy. It is not only an opportunity to see how galaxies are created, but to see how our own galaxy was formed. I think Spanglish enables us to think how Spanish and English became what they are, how they at one point became colonial languages, imperial languages, Spanish as much as English, and how they became the status quo. All other languages that are formed, that are shaped tend to come from the sides and eventually come to the center. And that is what is happening I think with Spanglish.

RAY SUAREZ: But with Spanglish, will you ever have a grammar, a form, rules? I mean this seems to be a language that’s formed by breaking the rules.

ILAN STAVANS: And that is exactly the way it happened to Yiddish 700 years ago. Yiddish originally in Eastern Europe was considered the language of children, of the illiterate, of women. And 500 years later, by the 19th century, by the 18th century, writers realized that, in order to communicate with the masses, they could no longer write in Hebrew.

They needed to write in Yiddish, the language of the population. Will Spanglish become a language that can express the emotion, the depth, the complexity of the Latino population? Perhaps. When people ask me, “what will happen with Spanglish? Will it become the language of the continent?” I tend to answer, “we don’t need to wait for the future to come.

The future is already here. Spanglish is already a diverse, influential way of communication.” Corporations have discovered it. It is on television, it is in radio. Novels are being written in Spanglish. Rap, rock — this is kind of a utopian dream or an anti-utopian dream.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Stavans, thanks for being with us. “Spanglish, the making with of a new American language.”

ILAN STAVANS: Thank you for having me.