Spanglish is not random. It is not simply a piecemeal cobbling-together, a collecting of scraps of random vocabulary into a raggedy orphan of a sentence. It has logic and rules, and more interestingly and importantly, it embodies a constantly shifting and intimate morphology of miscegenation. It is the mix of my husband’s innate Mexicanness and my innate Americanness, of my adaptive Mexicanness and his adaptive Americanness, in Spanish and English morphemes that come neatly together and apart like so many Legos into new and ever-changing constructions.

Linguist Richard Skiba breaks down the average usage of Spanglish into percentages: 84 percent of the time, Spanglish speakers employ single word switches; 10 percent of the time, phrase switches; and 6 percent of the time, clause switches. The vast majority of the time, to use Spanglish is to slip in a Spanish word for an English one, or vice versa: Estábamos llendo por el highway cuando de repente vimos un deer. Spanglish also involves affixation and suffixation: applying the morphological characteristics of one language to another. This could mean tacking on Spanish’s beloved diminutives (a little sock becomes sockito), assigning gender (the dog becomes el dogo), or modifying verb endings (takeando un bath; mopeando el piso). Finally, it includes calques (this term itself a French loan word in English, which originally means “trace” or “echo”): direct or literal translations that impose one language’s syntax on the other. For example, one might say te hablo p’atrás—I’ll call you back—as opposed to te devuelvo la llamada, which is the typical phrasing in Spanish. Or perhaps tener un buen tiempo—to have a good time—as opposed to pasarla bien, which is more correct. This is not random; it is not haphazard. Rather, to mold phrases in this way requires a firm grasp on the morphology of two languages, not to mention an instinctive creativity and openness in slipping and sliding between the two.

— Sarah Menkedick, in The Oxford American, in an essay about the origins and use of Spanglish among “middle-class and second-generation Latinos; artists, scholars, and writers; educated Mexican-American immigrants; Mexican immigrants who’ve returned to Mexico from the U.S.; and gringos who’ve somehow wound up straddling the border.”

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Photo: Beatrice Murch