Mixing and Merging Languages

Mixing and Merging Languages January 27, 2017

One thing that makes me feel very much at home in Texas is the way people talk Spanish. To explain, I did not grow up in a Spanish speaking area, but the way Latino people navigate between languages reminds me so precisely of the sort-of bilingual environment in which I spent my childhood. Thinking about that world has taught me a lot about how people through history have operated in in such societies.

If I describe that Welsh context, you will see how many analogies there are with the contemporary US. I grew up in South Wales at a time when English was universally spoken, but lots of people still spoke Welsh, to some degree. I stress that qualification. Welsh is an ancient language of literature and scholarship, but few ordinary people actually spoke that cultured version. Rather, they knew a simplified vernacular that my father called Cymraeg y gegin, “kitchen Welsh.”

The society used multiple languages, but they were in no sense equal in the sense that might be implied by “bilingual.”  Welsh was the prerogative of certain areas, ages and classes. It was rural rather than urban, poor rather than middle class, and for the old rather than the young.  My mother turned to Welsh when she spoke to family members, and neighbors from the home town – in both cases, very much to older people. Welsh was intimate and familiar. Welsh was useful when saying something you didn’t want to be understood by specific people, including children.

By the way, this situation does not fit the other label of diglossia, because that would imply a situation in which the “higher” language of English was only used in formal or bureaucratic settings, and not in everyday conversation. Obviously, English-speakers used their language for all kinds of things, including both high and low purposes.

Whatever we call that environment, the Welsh that was spoken was partial and sporadic. People included Welsh phrases almost randomly, sometimes because there was no precise English equivalent. Also, they indiscriminately borrowed technical English phrases (I remember hearing Welsh news bulletins where in the midst of the fluent Welsh you would suddenly hear an untranslated phrase like “hydraulic lifting equipment.”) People were quite capable of starting a sentence or story in Welsh, going into English mid-sentence, and reverting to Welsh at the end – or for the punch lines of jokes. The phenomenon is called code-switching, and there is a hefty literature on the subject.

Welsh also adapted common English terms in Welsh looking guise, so that “wrth cwrs” was an invented importation of “Of course” (the phrases sound similar). If I tell you that the Welsh “dim” means no or not, you won’t find it too hard to understand the Welsh sentence “Dim problem, wrth cwrs,” which equals “No problem, of course.”

I have heard all these features to varying extents in other contexts, including among Navajo people, but they are very marked with Spanish-speakers. Mixing languages in the same sentence or story is  common, whether it is a single word or a whole couple of phrases. Some of the loan-words widely used in Texas Spanish would cause a linguistic purist to cringe. In her book How to be a Texan, Andrea Valdez offers these examples of current speech:

el carro                       the car (should really be coche)

la troca                       the truck (camión)

el lonche                     the lunch – should be almuerzo

parquear                      to park (a car) – instead of estancionar

Scuchale!                     Scooch on over!   (If there ever was a classical Spanish term equivalent to scooch, I don’t know it).

I have even heard chorcha for church, and lider is widely accepted for leader. You often hear mixed forms like “Mira, look!” for “Hey, look.”

None of these words or formations is wrong, but rather they illustrate the way that all languages evolve rapidly in times of migration and cultural exchange. You are seeing a healthy living language in ferment, in transition. A lot has been written about various forms of “Spanglish.” The term itself is derogatory, and it is really misleading if it suggests that such mixed forms are somehow illegitimate or “not really” Spanish. If I use phrases like avant garde or hors d’oeuvres, etiquette or surveillance, nobody accuses me of bastardizing English with French borrowings: the words have been fully naturalized.

Take the word “Wátchale!”, Watch out! or Careful! It is obviously Spanglish in the sense that it borrows an English word, and it only exists in certain regions, mainly the Rio Grande Valley. But if it is not “real” Spanish right now, it might well be in a decade or two.

Over time, a lot of those usages migrate into the dominant culture, and Yiddish offers plenty of examples of that. (There are lots of books on this too, but I’m not going to schlepp them all over for you. Don’t kvetch). The word “interference” describes what happens when people using one language transfer that knowledge or background into their use of other languages, a process that is usually unconscious. I was puzzled when I first heard Americans say things like “Do you want to go with?”, a structure that does not exist in British English. It is a ghost of older German or Scandinavian forms: it’s interference.

And to introduce a very large topic to which I will return in other posts, you see these processes very much at work in ancient languages and texts, including the New Testament. The Book of Revelation, above all, should be retitled the Book of Linguistic Interference.

I just speculate: if we could have heard the first generation of Christians actually speak, would they similarly have mixed and matched Greek and Aramaic, freely switching codes in informal conversation? They did in their liturgies. Or as we find in the Didache, from the  early second century: “Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.”



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