Defining the Linguistic Phenomenon 'Spanglish'

A short introduction to the debate.

Canva image Spanglish conversation

The term ‘Spanglish’

Language contact can cause linguistic conflict, linguistic interference, and over time, lead to language substitution and the appearance of new languages. For example, in the United States, the contact between English and Spanish has resulted in the emergence of the linguistic phenomenon, Spanglish. As the name indicates, Spanglish is an intermix of Spanish and English; the term ‘espanglish’ (the Spanish translation of ‘Spanglish’) was coined in the late 1940s by Puerto Rican poet Salvador Tío (Betti & Enghels 2018, p. 351). Presently, there is a dearth of rules associated with Spanglish, and thus it manifests in different forms. Consequently, ‘Spanglish’ is currently a catch-all term used to describe the acts of combining English and Spanish in a given speech or text.

Controversy and Previous Research

Although English and Spanish first converged when Britain colonised the Americas in the early seventeenth century, it is difficult to determine with precision when Spanglish emerged (Stavans 2003, p. 38). In addition to being a communicative practice, Spanglish is a true demonstration of multiculturalism and, for many Latinos, a form of identity (Betti & Enghels 2018, p. 352). Although a bicultural and bilingual society is not uncommon, Spanglish has sparked greater controversy than most other languages in contact (Montes-Alcalá 2009, p. 97). Some argue that it attests to the richness of Spanish. In contrast, language purists (prescriptivists) argue that it is a sign of linguistic ignorance and pollutes the dominant language in the United States, English (Sayer 2008, p. 96).

Further, scholars debate its origin, its place in society and popular culture, and remarkably, its linguistic features and how to define/label the phenomenon accurately. However, linguistic research is still considerably scant, given that Spanglish is not a new phenomenon and the fact that the United States has the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world; it is home to 41 million native Spanish speakers, which is 13 per cent of the population of the United States, and 12 million additional bilingual Spanish speakers (López & Gonzalez-Barrera 2013).

Working Towards a Definition

Hancock (cited in Stavans 2003, p. 5) states that Spanglish is difficult to define; Stavans (2003, p. 5), on the other hand, argues that it is not impossible to define, but that people are simply not willing to define it. Spanglish has been referred to as a pidgin, that is, a simplified form of a language used for communication between individuals who do not share a common language (Muysken & Smith, 1994); Lipski (2008, p. 69), however, argues that Spanglish does not fit this description as it is no less complex than a language.

Ardila (2005), on the other hand, considers Spanglish to be an Anglicised Spanish dialect. However, some versions of Spanglish consist of a higher level of English than Spanish, which contradicts this definition. Generally, a dialect is a relatively accurate definition as Spanglish emerged in a geographical location in which settlers developed a form of language mixing to communicate in a highly bicultural society effectively. Nevertheless, it is unlike a dialect with regard to the fact that, although subject to change, a dialect is a relatively stable variety of a language that one can learn. In contrast, Spanglish currently lacks a consistent structure and thus cannot be learned.

Variations of Spanglish

Interestingly, Lipski (2008, pp. 223–224) does not attempt to pinpoint one definite version of Spanglish, but instead categorises three different levels which depend on one’s level of bilingualism: the first requires minimal fluency in the second language and instead consists of borrowings to suit the phonological system of the second language; the second requires a high level of bilingual proficiency, loan translations (or calques), and a syntactic structure which results in a high convergence between the languages; the third involves fluent bilinguals who can switch between the languages with ease in a single conversation or text.

A typical example of a loanword that can be used at the first and second levels is ‘jangear’, derived from ‘to hang out’ in English (Stavans 2003, p. 152). This word is phonetically English whilst consisting of a regular Spanish verb suffix, -ear. Further, the letter ‘h’ in Spanish is silent, and so the use of the letter ‘j’ creates a sound in Spanish that is similar to the sound of the letter ‘h’ in English. Additional examples of lexical borrowings are located in the first and only Spanglish dictionary, Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, by Professor Ilan Stavans (2003). This dictionary includes words, termed ‘hybrid words’ by Stavans, which combine both languages and are principally phonetically and orthography English words with Spanish grammar. Examples of hybrid words include ‘flirteo’, which means ‘to flirt’ and ‘flodiar’, also spelt ‘flodear’ or ‘fludear’, which means ‘to flood’ (Stavans 2003, p. 124). This dictionary (which includes approximately 6,000 words) follows a rule structure and is the first evidence of a consistent Spanglish variety.

Concerning Lipski’s third version of Spanglish, this level involves code-switching, which occurs when a word or phrase in one language is substituted for a word or phrase in another. There are two types of code-switching: intersentential code-switching involves switching between sentences, and intrasentential code-switching involves switching within a single sentence, which is more elaborate and complex as proficiency in both languages is necessary to avoid violating the grammatical structure or either language (Montes-Alcalá 2000, p. 219). However, intrasentential code-switching may not always represent the complexity of Spanglish; in the command “Dame una hamburguesa sin lettuce por favor”, for example, an English word is incorporated into a Spanish sentence, which exemplifies a Spanish dialect with loanwords and does not demonstrate a complex form of Spanglish, although it meets the criteria for an example of Spanglish and intrasentential code-switching nonetheless. Overall, Spanglish cannot accurately be described as a pidgin or a dialect but rather a code used by bilingual speakers, which can manifest in many forms.

The Future of Spanglish

Notwithstanding Spanglish’s notoriety for corrupting Spanish and English (Sayer 2008, p. 96), its vitality persists in the streets and across various types of media (Betti & Enghels 2018, p. 351). Variations of Spanglish appear in the television series Ugly Betty and Dora the Explorer, and popular Hollywood films, including Madagascar and Happy Feet, among other forms of broadcasting. Spanglish is gaining increased recognition as a result of the platform offered by the media, a platform that is paving the way for standard Spanglish (Stavans 2014).

According to Betti and Enghels (2018, p. 352), however, “the streets will always be one step ahead”, which renders it difficult for scholars to standardise and conceptualise Spanglish. Although the future of the phenomenon cannot be accurately determined, over time, it may stabilise and develop into a new hybrid language, as was the case with Yiddish (Sayer 2008, p. 99). Indeed, its continuous evolvement and further linguistic research may grant Spanglish a linguistically recognised definition and consistent structure.

Reference List Ardila, A. 2005. ‘Spanglish: An Anglicized Spanish Dialect’. Journal of Behavioural Sciences, 27(1), pp. 60–81. Betti, S and Enghels, R. 2018. ‘Spanglish: Current Issues, Future Perspectives, and Linguistic Insights’. In: Stavans, I. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Latino Studies. Oxford University Press. Lipski, J.M. 2008. Varieties of Spanish in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. López, M.H. and Gonzalez-Barrera, A. 2013. ‘What is the Future of Spanish in the United States?’ Pew Research Centre. Last accessed: 11.11.20. Available: <>. Montes-Alcalá, C. 2000. Attitudes Towards Written and Oral Codeswitching in Spanish-English Bilingual Youths. University of California: Santa Barbara. Montes-Alcalá, C. 2009. ‘Hispanics in the United States: More than Spanglish’. Camino Real, 1, pp. 97–115. Muysken, P. and Smith, N. 1994. ‘The Study of Pidgin and Creole Languages’. In: Arends, Muysken, and Smith (eds) Pidgin and Creoles: An Introduction. Philadelphia: John Benjamin. Sayer, P. 2008. ‘Demystifying Language Mixing: Spanglish in School’. Journal of Latinos and Education, 7(2), pp. 94–112. Stavans, I 2003. Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language. New York: HarperCollins. Stavans, I. 2009. ‘The Mestizo Tongue’. Last accessed: 12.11.20. Available: <>.