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Carmen Fought discusses the dialect with Robert MacNeil

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The Distinctive Dialect of
Chicano English

It’s not “beginner English,” it’s not Spanglish and it’s not watered-down Spanish. Chicano English is a distinctive U.S. English dialect. Carmen Fought discusses the dialect common to the Southwestern United States and its roots in a bilingual culture. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 2001.)

A coworker of mine asked me recently, “Why do so many Mexican-American students seem to have such a hard time speaking English, even they were born here in the U.S.?” I realized that her comment was based on a mistaken impression. She heard some students speaking English with what sounded like a Spanish accent, and assumed that Spanish was their first language. Instead, what she was probably hearing was Chicano English. Chicano English is a dialect spoken mainly by people of Mexican ethnic origin in California and the Southwest. There are other varieties associated with Latino communities as well. In New York City, for example, one finds Puerto Rican English, which shares some properties with Chicano English, but is different in other ways.

Why Study Chicano English?

One of the factors that makes Chicano English worth a long linguistic look is the fact that it “grew up” in a bilingual setting. As immigrants from Mexico came to California and other parts of the Southwest, communities developed which included many people who spoke only Spanish. Many of these speakers began to learn English, and like other learners of a language, they spoke a non-native variety which included sounds and grammatical constructions from their first language, Spanish. But the children of these immigrants grew up using both English and Spanish, and as the communities began to stabilize, so did a new dialect of English.

Chicano English is influenced by Spanish

Because of its origins, Chicano English does have many features, especially in the phonology that show the influence of Spanish. For example, the ‘a’ sound in words like pasta or saw sounds much more like the Spanish “a” than in other dialects of English. In endings like going or talking, Chicano English speakers tend to have a higher vowel, more like ‘i’ of Spanish (as in si), so that the words end up sounding more like ‘goween’ and ‘talkeen’. There is also a special use of the word barely in Chicano English to mean ‘had just recently’ as in These were expensive when they barely came out. (In my dialect, this would be translated as: These were expensive at the beginning, when they had just come out.) This may come from the Spanish adverb apenas, which can mean that something almost did not happen but then it did (which is what barely means in many English dialects), or it can mean that something happened just recently. This latter meaning that can sometimes be attached to barely in other dialects of English (Don’t leave; you barely got here!) but not always (e.g. I barely broke my leg, which speakers of most other dialects don’t say, but which is acceptable in Chicano English).

Is Chicano English just the non-native English of Spanish speakers?

Many speakers of Chicano English are not bilingual

It would be a mistake to characterize Chicano English as “learner English”, somehow imperfect and non-native. Chicano English is a stable and fully-formed dialect, linguistically and structurally equivalent to other dialects of English, such as the varieties spoken by Anglos in the same regions. Like the coworker I mentioned earlier, many people hear Chicano English and assume that what they are hearing is the ‘accent’ of someone whose first language is Spanish. The problem with this theory is that many speakers of Chicano English are not bilingual: they may not know any Spanish at all. Despite the mistaken impression that many people have, these Mexican-American speakers have in fact learned English natively and fluently, like most children growing up in the U.S. They just happened to have learned a non-standard variety that retains indicators of contact with Spanish.

My students often insist that they can tell whether someone is bilingual or not from their English. To test this, I have made up a tape of short segments (in English) spoken by four Chicano English speakers from my fieldwork in Los Angeles in the mid 90’s. Two of the speakers are bilingual, and two speak only English. I play this tape for the students and ask them to identify each speaker as bilingual or monolingual. In every class where I have done this test, the students are unable to classify the speakers correctly. The most non-standard sounding speaker, for example, is usually labeled by a majority of the class as bilingual, yet I discovered in the interview that the most he can do in Spanish is count to ten. The truth is that you don’t need to know any Spanish to speak Chicano English.

Chicano English also includes features that are not clearly attributable to Spanish. An example is multiple negation (She didn’t tell me nothing about it) which could be related to Spanish, but could just as easily have come from other non-standard dialects spoken by working class African-Americans or Anglos, for example.

Some Chicano English speakers also incorporate features from the “Valley Girl”

More recently, it has been discovered that some Chicano English speakers also incorporate features from the local Anglo dialect, a California variety known colloquially as the “Valley Girl” dialect. Additionally, some speakers use features from African-American English.

Of course, not everyone in a particular Mexican-American community speaks Chicano English, and there is also a wide range of styles encompassed by this label, as is the case with other dialects, including standard ones. Some middle class speakers in a Mexican-American community may speak a variety that is grammatically fairly similar to more standard dialects, but retains a special phonology, while other middle class speakers might not speak Chicano English at all. Women, in general, speak Chicano English a bit differently than men. The language used by young speakers who are gang members includes terms that other members of the community do not use.

What is “Spanglish”?

Also characteristic of Chicano English is the use of Spanish lexical items. Even speakers who do not know much Spanish will occasionally throw in a word or phrase like ándale or hasta la vista as a kind of identity marker. This occasional use of a Spanish word is different from code-switching: the more complex mixing of lexical items and structures from English and Spanish in a single sentence. An example of code-switching would be Esun little boy (It’s a little boy). This pattern is most common among speakers who are highly fluent in both languages. It can also occur among Chicano speakers who don’t speak Chicano English, but mix Spanish with some other dialect of English. Linguists have discovered that there is code-switching in most communities where two languages are spoken on a regular basis. It seems to be a basic human reaction to the everyday use of two languages in a society, and is subject to rules and norms just like any other part of language. Nonetheless, people often have a negative reaction to it, and assign it a negative label. In the communities where Chicano English is spoken, the term used for code-switching is usually “Spanglish”. I think of this term as a somewhat negative one. However, I was surprised to find that the attitude toward Spanglish among the young adult speakers I talked to in Los Angeles was very positive.

teenage boys in a los angeles neighborhood

David, 17, for example, told me “Two languages sounds better for us Mexicans.” Jorge, 18, told me he liked code-switching, and explained to me that it is what distinguishes Chicanos or Mexican-Americans from people actually living in Mexico. He referred to code-switching as “Chicano language”. Several other young Chicano speakers referred to this way of talking as ‘cool’. So in some sense, one might say that fluency in Chicano English includes the acceptance of using Spanish and English in the same sentence, whether or not one does it.

Is Chicano English Influencing Other Dialects?

We know that Chicano English has been influenced by other dialects, such as Valley Girl English or African-American English. An interesting question is to what extent that influence has gone in the other direction. The pronunciation of going as ‘goween’, for example, is something that I hear increasingly among California Anglo students. Did this come from Chicano English? I don’t know the answer to this question, but in the meantime, I will keep a sharp eye on barely to see what happens in the future.

Carmen Fought is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Pitzer College and author of the forthcoming book Chicano English in Context.

Reprinted courtesy, Language Magazine

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • ‘Facts and myths about Chicano English.’ Language Magazine, vol. 1, no. 3, November 2001.
  • ‘A majority sound change in a minority community: /u/-fronting in Chicano English.’ Journal of Sociolinguistics, vol. 3, no. 1 (February 1999): 5-23.
  • Chicano English in Context .  Palgrave/MacMillan Publishers, 2003.
  • Tiffany Ana López, ed., Growing Up Chicana/o: An Anthology. New York: W. Morrow, c1993.
Carmen Fought is an associate professor of linguistics, Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Chicano English in Context (Palgrave/Macmillan) and the editor of Sociolinguistic Variation (Oxford University Press). Her research focuses on the dialects of California, from those associated with Latinos and Latinas to the infamous "Valley Girl" way of speaking. Dr. Fought is also studying the representation of language in the media, including films, television and commercials.
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