Saturday, April 09, 2005

Viva la Spanish

Linguistically speaking, Spanish is one of the richest languages in the world. But, with a more globalized world, the language must cope with double-meaning words and notorious spanglish.

By Robert Valencia

Thalia, the Mexican’s soap opera queen and wife of Sony Music mogul Tony Mottola, has released a brand-new chocolate bar called Elegancita, a chocolate bar created by Hershey’s. This joint venture, called “La dulcería de Thalia [Thalía's Sweet Shop]” also includes Kisses with caramel and other spicy candies.

In the last two months, an advertisement running in People en Español and other Spanish-language magazines, features a shot of the Mexican bombshell about to bite into the Kiss with a slogan saying ''sabor a chocolate blanco con cajeta'' (white chocolate taste with goat's-milk caramel).

Nevertheless, the word “cajeta” has ignited a very intense debate among Spanish-speaking residents in the United States. In Mexico, cajeta is a type of a very sweet, caramelized condensed milk eaten throughout Latin America. But in other South American countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, this word implies a vulgar term for the most delicate part of the woman’s anatomy….if you know what I mean.

Latin Americans often joke about the double meanings of several words that generally have innocent meanings, but a more despicable one in a specific region. Words like papaya, refers to tropical fruit, but to Cubans, Nicaraguans, Panamanians and Mexicans, papaya is the female genitalia. “Pito,” Spanish for “whistle,” refers to the male organ in many other countries.

In an interview offered by the Miami Herald, Ex-Miami Mayor Candidate José Cancela mentioned, “for Spanish-language media in the United States, it's a particular challenge to avoid missteps because the U.S. Hispanic population comes from all over Latin America, plus Spain.”

Cancela also pointed out even though there are 11 million Mexicans out of 36 million Hispanics in the United States, it is ridiculous to spend millions of dollars in advertisement if the other half of the population does not understand.

In a mission to make Spanish jargon understandable among Hispanic communities, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists wrote a book called Palabras Malsonantes, in which it depicts words that have different meanings in other countries. However, not all words refer to specific parts of the human body, there are words like “guagua,” Cuban for bus, but it also means “little kid,” for Chileans.

But this is not the only phenomena Spanish undergoes. Across the United States, we see conversations like “Washeame los dishes por favor [Wash the dishes for me, please]” or “typeame esta carta [type this letter].” This trend is called “spanglish.”

This trend has grown so much we may think Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is spinning in his tomb. One Latino writer dared to write the first lines of Don Quixote de La Mancha in Spanglish, “In un placete de La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme, vivía, not so long ago, uno de esos gentlemen who always tienen una lanza in the rack, una buckler antigua, a skinny caballo y un grayhound para el chase.''

Although words like “washear” or “typear” do not appear neither in the Oxford nor the Larousse Dictionary, it is demonstrating a rapidly growing vocabulary of a jazzy hybrid language, part English and part Spanish that is audible almost everywhere in the United States today. This form of language is deeply rooted for members of the younger urban generation. However, there are different ways of Spanglish; for instance, a type of Dominicanish is spoken by Dominican Americans in Manhattan, and it's different from the Pachuco spoken by Mexicans in Los Angeles and the Cubonics used by Cubans in Union City and the “Saguecera” in Miami.

But Spanglish is not accepted by some linguists; instead, Spanish purists hate it, especially those who belong to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in Madrid. Spaniards have never been happy with the way Latin Americans treat their language. And now that Hispanics in the United States have become a political and economic force, the problem is bigger. A purista may say: "If there is a word to describe 'type' in Spanish, which is 'escribir a maquina' why would we use the word ‘typear’?'' Purists believe there is a part of the population who do not have a wide knowledge of the Cervantes language, and it is partly because there is no Spanish diccionario in Latino’s homes.

Spanglish has become a way to attract Latino market. The U.S Army, in a desperate way to recruit Hispanic men to the armed forces, uses words like “Yo soy el Army.” Even magazines like “I caramba” mingles Spanish and English together.

Can we consider Spanglish as a language or a dialect? The Spanglish case can be compared with Yiddish, a language spoken by Jewish. Max Weinreich, a renowned linguist, said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that the former has an army and a navy behind it. In other words, Yiddish was never a language: It was not an official language and neither president nor prime minister spoke it at official meetings or functions, yet Yiddish masterpieces are enjoyed worldwide and basically, four-fifths of the globe's Jewish population spoke Yiddish. Indeed, a true language must be capable of expressing complex emotions and being understood by a wide range of speakers.

But Spanglish is nothing new. It has been around in some form for more than 150 years, ever since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 transferred two-thirds of Mexico's territory to the “Gringos.” Consequently, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado residents adapted Latino and Anglo traditions.

How can we confront these two linguistic phenomena? Basically, it depends on the people you surround yourself with. The first case can be seen as a two-edged situation because it will enrich your knowledge about other people’s way to talk –and it is good to avoid some blushes. As for Spanglish, what kind of future will it have? It is difficult to say. What matters, though, is the present: Es fashionable.


These forms of transformation are not new. People living in what is today Spain spoke Latin at one time, but over the centuries Spanish and other Romance languages such as French and Italian gradually differentiated themselves. The Latin dialect that eventually became Spanish was highly influenced by the invasion of the Arabic-speaking Moors in 711. For many centuries, Latin/Spanish and Arabic existed side by side, and even today many Spanish place names retain Arabic roots

Words that start with “al-," such as "algebra," "Allah," "alkali" and "alchemy," come from Arabic, and they exist in Spanish as álgebra, Alá, álkali and alkimia, respectively. But they are far from the only ones. A variety of other types of common words such as "coffee," "zero" and "sugar" (café, cero and azúcar in Spanish) also come from Arabic.

'El castellano' as the Spanish language is also known, is the product of more than a thousand years of development, when the diverse languages of the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula were modified by the influence of Roman and Arab invasions. At the end of the fifteenth century, with the union of the monarchies of Castilla and Aragon (known as La Reconquista), which overextended its dominance in the Iberian peninsula, the language of Castilla - el castellano - became more important than other languages like Catalan or Basque, and crossed the Atlantic on the ships of conquistadores and missionaries.

Soon after, the contact between conquistadores and indigenous groups also gave origin to other words taken from Tainos and Caribs in the Caribbean such as huracán (hurricane), hamaca (hammock), to name a few.

Since then, transformations have never stopped. Today, the Spanish language is extended across the planet. It is the world’s second most important language and the third most spoken, with more than four hundred million native speakers.


Almost 25 percent of the Spanish language has Arab origin. Here are some words :

aceite — oil
adobe — adobe
aduana — customs (as at a border)
ajedrez — chess
Alá — Allah
alacrán — scorpion
azul — blue (same source as English "azure")
baño — bathroom
barrio — district
berenjena — eggplant
burka — burqa
café — coffee
cero — zero
chisme — gossip, gadget
Corán — Koran
cuzcuz — couscous
dado — die (singular of "dice")
embarazada — pregnant
jaque — check (in chess)
jaque mate — checkmate
jirafa — giraffe
laca — lacquer
lila — lilac
lima — lime
limón — lemon
mezquita — mosque
momia — mummy
mono — monkey
muslim — muslim
naranja — orange
ojalá — I hope, God willing
olé — bravo
paraíso — paradise
rubio — blond
talco — talc
tamarindo — tamarind
tarea — task
tarifa — tariff
toronja — grapefruit
zanahoria — carrot

Gerald Erichsen, Spanglish: English's Assault on Spanish
The Miami Herald


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