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Spanglish and the Royal Academy

Not long ago, the Real Academia Española, its matrix located in Madrid, with 21 branches throughout the Spanish-speaking world, did something at once surprising and disappointing: It approved the inclusion of the word espanglish in its official dictionary. I say it was surprising because for decades the RAE systematically disregarded the existence of this hybrid form of communication, suggesting it was just a passing phenomenon unworthy of serious academic consideration. Indeed, one of the institution’s recent directors, Victor García de la Concha (1998-2010), regularly declared Spanglish  “nonexistent,” as if by ignoring it the jazzy parlance of tens of millions of Latinos in the United States, as well as of scores of people anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world, would magically disappear.

But the inclusion of the word in the lexicon was disappointing because the definition the RAE proposed was misconstrued, naturally angering users on both sides of the Atlantic. In Spanish, the definition of espanglish reads: “Modalidad del habla de algunos grupos hispanos de los Estados Unidos, en la que se mezclan, deformándolos, elementos léxicos y gramaticales del español y del inglés.” I quote it in the original for readers to enjoy its hollow eloquence. In English translation: “Modality of speech used among of some Hispanic groups in the United States, in which lexical and grammatical elements of Spanish and English are mixed, becoming deformed.”

Deformed? Quite frankly, the RAE doesn’t appear to be de este mundo, “of this world,” or at least of our day and age. No respected scholar today would dare use such an ideologically charged adjective. To think of linguistic contact as deforming the concept of code is to engage in politics, not in scientific analysis. Of course, everyone knows that the one constant in any living language is change: to be up to date, to be au courant, a language needs to interact with its environment. That interaction entails loans and borrowings. In English, prairie comes from the French, rancho from the Spanish, mafia from the Italian, chutzpah from Yiddish. Is the English language polluted because it incorporates these terms? Hasn’t the base of modern English been defined by its imperial quests? Spanglish isn’t a concoction devised to aggravate highfalutin dons. It is a dialect, with specific morphological rules, that comes about from necessity. It is also, in my view, an expression of the emergence of a new mestizo civilization, part Anglo and part Hispanic.

According to historians of the Spanish language, the first American word ever to travel back to the Iberian Peninsula after 1492, when Columbus stumbled upon the so-called New World, is canoa, “canoe.” In 1496, it replaced the word barco in a grammar published by the Salamanca philologist Antonio de Nebrija, who is credited for describing el español as “la compañera del imperio,” the companion of empire. The inclusion of espanglish in the RAE dictionary may not be the first time this mixed tongue makes it in (estrés, “stress,” might have that honor) but is certainly a moment of historical proportions.

To some of us involved with the gorgeously polluted way of communicating of college students, Spanglish is an affirmation, not a negation. Unfortunately, it will take a bit longer for the RAE legislators to understand that what they consider verbal deformation is really creative rejuvenation, and that their definition of espanglish is as much a step forward as it is a step back: a hurra to a language used freely by Latinos and a statement of intellectual narrow-mindedness.

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