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Spanish: The Living Language. When Spanglish goes mainstream

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Just like any other language in the world, Spanish has been dealing for years with new words created as a result of new technologies. Those eventually become mainstreamed and the Real Academia Española accepts them into its dictionary, which is the governing body of the Spanish language.

Another phenomenon that has been happening for decades is the assimilation of what we all call “Spanglish.” What really is Spanglish?

According to Wikipedia, “Spanglish refers to the code-switching of English and Spanish, in the speech of people who speak parts of two languages, or whose normal language is different from that of the country where they live. For example, the Hispanic population of the United States and the British population in Argentina use varieties of Spanglish. Sometimes the Creole spoken in Spanish holiday resorts which are exposed to both Spanish and English is called Spanglish. The similar code switching used in Gibraltar is called Llanito. Spanglish may also be known by a regional name. Some people tend to believe that the "Tex-Mex" spoken in Texas, is also Spanglish, which is not the case; neither is the case of the "Ladino" spoken in New Mexico, because both are language varieties of Mexican Spanish.”

But in reality, Spanglish is the way that we, native Spanish speakers, have come to communicate in the United States. It happens so naturally that we don’t even know we are doing it. We create Spanglish words naturally as we try to speak fast in English or in Spanish and the “right” Spanish translation of an English word doesn’t come to our minds. It is so much easier to Spanishize the English word. [See, I just even used a word that only exists in the Urban Dictionary, but I bet all who read this know exactly what I mean.] We’ve all been there, mixing English words while we are speaking Spanish to friends or family or colleagues. The right Spanish word doesn’t pop in our heads, but the English word does, so we say the English word and somehow we change it slightly so that it sounds like a Spanish word. We Spanishize it. That is Spanglish!

I remember in 1997, a year after ICQ was founded, I was logged on to my ICQ account and my nephew in Uruguay contacted me when he saw me. When I asked him in Spanish what he was doing, he wrote, “Estoy chateando con mis amigos.” [Translation: I am chatting with my friends.] Chateando!!!! Being a linguist, I was horrified by the use of a word that didn’t exist, although I knew exactly what he meant. So, how do you say “chat” in Spanish, meaning conversing online by IM or in a chat room with virtual friends? Although the verb to chat has always existed, it was never used in the context it has been used since the advent of the Internet, IMs, and chat rooms. So the South American youth created a Spanish verb based on the English root and the Spanish verb “chatear” is widely used today to refer to the online chatting phenomenon. See, Spanglish is a “living language,” created from the necessity to communicate a thought quickly. As a side note, I just checked and even though chatear has been used for over 14 years, the RAE has not yet seen fit to include it in the dictionary as an accepted verb. Well, we have to give credit to the RAE for having some sort of standards!! As a linguist, I am happy to see them resist some of these changes, but as a human being that communicates in a world that is always changing, I have to admit that it is fun to be able to be part of a world that is so alive that creates new words based on other languages.

Isn’t that what has been done through history? How many of the words we used today in English had their origins in Latin? We all know that romance languages evolved from the Vulgar Latin but even though English is not a romance language, a lot of English words have their roots in Latin. So, was that the result of an intermediate language that should’ve been called at the time “Latinglish” or “Englatin”? I am kidding of course, but the similarities are very much like those of what we today call Spanglish.

We also have to realize that as a “living language” usage rules and, eventually, some Spanglish becomes accepted by the RAE and entered in the dictionary. There are many examples of Spanglish making it to the RAE but there is a very good example of an old Spanglish word that had an impact on me early on in my life. This word popped up when I was in grade school in Uruguay—that was a very long time ago, folks! People who had been in the U.S. would say that they were going to “parquear” or “aparcar” their cars, instead of saying the correct verb at that time “estacionar.” I say “the correct verb at that time” because decades later, while I was already living in the U.S., parquear and aparcar became so popular and so widely used that the RAE accepted both into the dictionary. I remember our teachers being horrified by those verbs that the dictionaries of the time didn’t show. Through the years, those verbs became more and more widely used and they became accepted parts of our speech. Since usage rules, the RAE included them as new verbs. The RAE has been doing this forever and we, purist of the language, had to adapt and basically, bear and grin.

So as I write this article I wonder if fifty years from now someone will be writing an article about new words accepted by the RAE and those will be the texting shortcuts people widely use today. I really don’t see the RAE doing this anytime soon, but when the texting generation is the one making the decisions, things might be different and the old purist of the language won’t have a say. Will our future translators find words like LOL in the RAE dictionary? [LOL tr. Reírse a carcajadas.]Who knows?

Will there be a need for translators in the future or will this globalization result in a common language that we don’t even speak today? If that were the case, translators will become obsolete.

But, we are not obsolete today and the subject of Spanglish brings translation to the forefront. Do we use Spanglish in our translations? If we don’t, how do we handle words that don’t have another way of being expressed but embracing Spanglish? We don’t work in a vacuum so we have to adapt. I believe that we are all adapting very well to the demands of an increasing vocabulary that cannot be found in dictionaries but can be found in “urban” usage. Is “urban” so wrong that we have to ignore it and continue being purists?

My answer to all that is that we do what we think is right at the time and what fits the particular situation. If we are translating highly sophisticated scholarly articles, we all know what we have to do—produce a high-end translation that is as professional and stilted as the English source. But if we are translating for the masses and the only way to say “chatting on the Internet” is using the verb “chatear,” although the RAE doesn’t recognize it, we should be able to use “chatear” without thinking twice. Plain and simple. Our goal as translators is to communicate. If we try to explain what to chat is, and many of our colleagues take that approach, are we really communicating, or are we ignoring the way people talk? Remember that “parquear” and “aparcar” were frowned upon decades ago and today they are accepted. So, let’s take the initiative as linguists and be modern and adventurous and forget the purism we are trying so hard to preserve. Let’s use chatear and forwardear and lonchera, and all those terms that make us cringe inside. Let’s not be pseudo-erudite linguists. Let’s be real and keep up with the times.

We will be doing a disservice to the reader of our translations, and to our clients, if we don’t use terms that they can understand and we opt instead for terms that will be confusing to the readers. If we do that, we have failed our main goal as translators: communicate an idea in an easily understood manner, just as the source language is doing.

Let’s be adventurous. Let’s be inventors. Let’s be human. Let’s use a real living language!


Published - February 2011

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