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Is Spanish a threat to American English?

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Author Ilan Stavans explores a new lexicon

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Hispanics are underrepresented

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Spanish in the U.S.

Correcting Myths
Spanish predated English in arriving in what is now the United States. For 400 years, the two languages have co-existed; today’s immigrants continue to bring variation. Phillip M. Carter explains how Spanish came to our shores and explores its many dialects.

Local, regional and national news stories have recently raised the misconception that native Spanish speakers are only now beginning to populate areas of the United States en masse. Although recent Census reports show that the U.S. Hispanic population has experienced an upsurge since the early 1990’s, Hispanic communities and varieties of the Spanish language have been maintained in the United States for well more than four centuries. In fact, Spanish actually antedates English in the areas that now make up the composite United States — a fact that surprises many Americans. In terms of continuity and longevity in the United States, the Spanish language is second only to Native American languages that were spoken for centuries prior to colonization.

In parts of the Southwest, for instance, there are longstanding Hispanic communities where varieties of Spanish have co-existed with English varieties for centuries.  Likewise, varieties of Spanish have been maintained for decades alongside English in a number of major urban U.S. cities. In this paper, I highlight a number of historical events in the history of Spanish in the United State s. I also hope to show how Spanish use today is not solely a function of immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries, but rather the consequence of social and historical factors that are as much a part of American history as the factors that lead to the development of American English.

A Brief History of the Spanish Language in the United States

By 1565, the Spanish established their first permanent colony in San Augustín, FL

Led by Ponce de León, the Spanish first arrived in 1513 on the present-day United States on the Florida peninsula and returned in 1520 for further exploration. By 1565, they had established their first permanent colony in San Agustín, Florida, under the leadership of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Between 1520 and 1570, the Spanish vigorously explored the Atlantic coast, with specific explorations taking place in the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and along the New England coast. Much later, the Spanish attempted to exert further influence in the Southeast with the 1763 purchase of Greater Louisiana from the French, though this territory was later resold.

After few successful attempts to produce prosperous colonies on the Atlantic coast, the Spanish turned their attention to the vast, unexplored territory in the West and Southwest of the present-day United States, where they left an indelible cultural and linguistic mark. Today, much of the long-term U.S. Spanish-speaking population is located in these areas, which include portions of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. The earliest Spanish explorations of this region date to 1540, first by Francisco Coronado.  Juan de Oñate followed in 1598. Spanish settlements were established throughout the Southwest. In 1605, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established, making it one of the oldest cities in the United States. Spanish exploration and colonization of the Southwest was more successful than earlier attempts in the Southeast. According to Hernandez-Chavez et al. (1975), as many as 100,000 Spanish speakers were living in this region by the mid-19th century.

Despite the growing Spanish-speaking population in the Southwest, Anglo English-speakers were also rapidly populating the region. American immigration to present-day Texas was especially robust. Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and within one year, the new nation was offering land to American settlers willing to raise cattle in the barren northern regions of the country (present-day Texas). By 1835, the American immigrants, joined by a small number of native Spanish-speakers, decided to pursue independence from Mexico and establish an independent Texan republic -- thus sparking the Texas Revolution.  Just one year later, Texas was established as a republic. In 1845, Texas was admitted into the United States, a move that angered the Mexicans and led to the Mexican-American War in 1846, the outcome of which was the American annexation of vast territories to the north and west of Texas in 1848.

This geographic co-optation, in conjunction with the general American policy of westward expansion — fueled by the ideological notion of “manifest destiny,” facilitated the spread of English across much of North America, as well as the demise of Spanish as the first language of most of the area’s future inhabitants.  However, despite the marginalization of Spanish, the language endured in many Southwestern communities and developed into unique regional varieties (Post 1933; Rael 1939; Ornstein 1951) that are still used as the first or second language of Hispanics. Though English eventually became the dominant language of the United States, Spanish played an important role in the early linguistic landscape of the country, as the Spanish influence spread to nearly every region by the mid-19th century. Similarly, the Spanish-language will significant shape the linguistic landscape of America in the 21st century, as evidenced by the sizeable Spanish-speaking communities located throughout the country.

Spanish Language Variation in the United States

A common misconception is that Spanish in the U.S. is a monolithic entity

Another misconception commonly held by many native English-speaking Americans is that “Spanish in the United States” is a singular, monolithic entity.  Sociolinguists and dialectologists have shown time and again that American English is a dialectally diverse language, but less often do we think of American Spanish as being equally diverse. As with American English, Spanish-language variation in the United States is due in part to diversity among Spanish speakers who settled during colonization. Although the Iberian Peninsula (home of Spain and Portugal) is relatively small, it has been home for centuries to rich linguistic diversity. When groups representing different regions of Spain settled in the New World, they brought unique varieties of Spanish, resulting in what linguists call the founder effect, which can trace linguistic features of contemporary dialects to dialect differences at the time of settlement.

For instance, linguists have identified a number of unique Spanish dialects within the United States, each with core features traceable to 16th- and 17th-century Spain. In the evolution of Spanish, many monophthongs (single vowel sounds) underwent a process of diphthongization, which combines two vowel sounds into one vocalic segment. The Spanish of Colorado, for example, exhibits forms with the earlier, monophthongal vowels instead of the later diphthongal developments.  Many words that begin with /h/ in Spanish (hijo, “son”) began with /f/ in Latin. As Spanish evolved, the /f/ slowly changed to /h/, passing through several intermediary stages in the process. Many lexical items in Coloradan Spanish that would be /h/-initial in other varieties of Spanish still exhibit some of the intermediary stages in the evolution of this development.

Other Spanish varieties in the United States (New Mexican, Arizonan, New Mexican, Texan, etc.) that evolved independently of Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America show other dialect features, such as the reduction of consonant clusters (bsà s; ptà t, etc.) and the aspiration of word final /s/ (vamoh for vamos). Additionally, varieties of Spanish in the United States are distinctive because of their unique contact situations with various Native American languages. Some words were borrowed into Spanish from indigenous languages in the Southwest, though these contributions are generally regarded as relatively slight.

Cuban Spanish, Puerto-Rican Spanish and dialects of Mexican Spanish are the most notable varieties

Not all dialects of Spanish in the United States are the result of the founder effect. In addition to the dialects of Spanish common in the United States (resulting in part from the founder effect), there are now a number of varieties from the Spanish diaspora, most notably Cuban Spanish, Puerto-Rican Spanish and dialects of Mexican Spanish, as well as other varieties from disparate locations in the Spanish-speaking world. In sum, Spanish in the United States represents many dialects that are the result of a number of historical and social factors, above all the 400 years of development in America.

The Coexistence of Spanish and English in the United States

Despite the robust diversity, enduring nature and increased visibility of Spanish in the United States in the 21st-century, the Spanish language in no way poses a threat to English, contrary to the speculation of many English-only zealots.  In fact, just the opposite may be true. For instance, there is some evidence that the Spanish language tense system may be undergoing simplification in parts of California (Silva-Corvalán 1991). Moreover, immigrant languages are usually lost by the third generation of speakers.

Although Spanish has successfully endured in some parts of the country, there is evidence that language shift may be underway for some speakers, even in communities where Spanish is ostensibly thriving. For example, there is some preliminary evidence that Spanish may not have the staying power for Miami Cubans that many people once assumed (see: Lynch 2000; Resnick 1988; Zurer Pearson & McGee 1993). Many young second-generation Mexican-Americans in Raleigh, N.C., where the Hispanic population increased approximately 400 percent between 1990 and 2000, report a preference for English use with peers and siblings, despite the presence of a strong Spanish-speaking community (Carter 2004). In sum, many Hispanics may perceive the access to social opportunity that English language-use affords as outweighing the cultural, social and familial benefits of maintaining Spanish.

Correcting the Myths about U.S. Spanish

As this essay has shown, a number of myths about Spanish in the United States are being continually reproduced and promulgated.

MYTH #1: Spanish in the United States in purely a function of immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries .

REALITY:   Spanish has been spoken in the United States as long or longer than English.

MYTH #2: Spanish in the United States is a monolithic entity and is not characterized by the same amount of variation as American English.

REALITY:   Spanish in the United States is highly diverse and exhibits a wide array of variation regionally, ethnically and socially. Variation in the Spanish of the United States is due to the results of a founder effect, later immigration from across the Spanish diaspora, and sociolinguistic variables such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age and gender.

MYTH #3: Spanish language use in the United States presents a threat to the use of English.

REALITY:   The use of Spanish by Hispanics poses no threat to the dominance of English in the United States. Spanish and English have coexisted in this country for nearly 400 years.

Although the Spanish language has become more visible in the United States over the past decade, it is important to remember that Spanish has quietly been used by Hispanics for nearly four centuries in this country, not only by immigrants, but also by Hispanics born within U.S. borders. Whatever role Spanish may have in the linguistic fabric of United States’ future, we should honor its unique place in American linguistic history.

Reprinted courtesy: Phillip M. Carter, North Carolina State University

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Beardsley, Theodore S. Spanish in the United States. In: Spanish in the Western Hemisphere in Contact with English, Portuguese, and the Amerindian Languages.  Ed. Chang-Rodriguez, Eugenio. New York: International Linguistic Association, 1992.
  • Cardenas, Daniel N. Mexican Spanish. In: Dominant Spanish Dialects Spoken in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1970.
  • Carter, Phillip. The Emergence of Hispanic English in the Raleigh Community: A Sociophonetic Analysis. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. North Carolina State University. Raleigh, NC, 2004.
  • Hernández-Chavez, Eduardo; Andrew Cohen; and Anthony Beltramo (Editors). El Lenguaje de los Chicanos. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Lynch, Andrew. Spanish-speaking Miami in sociolinguistic perspective: bilingualism, recontact, and language maintenance among the Cuban-origin population. In: Research on Spanish in the United States. Ed. Ana Roca. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, 2000.
  • Mixco, Mauricio J. Spanish loanwords in indigenous languages: the story of European-Indian contacts in La Nueba México. Plenary address delivered at 34th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages (LSRL). Salt Lake City, March, 2004.
  • Resnick, Melvyn C. "Beyond the ethnic community: Spanish language roles and maintenance in Miami." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 69 (1988): 89-104.
  • Silva-Corvalán, Carmen. Spanish language attrition in a contact situation with English. In: First Language Attrition. Eds. Seliger, H. and R. Vago. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1991.
  • Wolfram, Walt. A Sociolinguistic Study of Assimilation: Puerto Rican English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1974.
  • Zurer Pearson, Barbara and Arlene McGee. Language choice in Hispanic-background junior high school students in Miami: A 1988 update. In: Spanish in the United States: Linguistic Contact and Diversity. Eds. Ana Roca and John Lipski. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993.
Phillip Carter is currently a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at North Carolina State University. He previously earned his MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University after completing his bachelor's in Spanish Language and Literature. His primary research interests are in the field of sociolinguistics and his current research explores the production of speech prosody in Spanish and English and the acquisition of rhythm by Hispanic immigrants living in an urban community in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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