Definition | Spanglish language


"I am new. History made me. My first language was Spanglish. I was born at the crossroads and I am whole."
-Aurora Levins Morales

Spanglish - Definition, History and Examples of Use


What Is Spanglish? Is it a new dialect of the English language? Is it slang or even a legitimate language? Why do people choose to speak Spanglish? Are they rejecting American culture and fighting the assimilating process, or are they making attempts to acquire a better understanding of American culture by blending it with their own?

Definition Spanglish/Spanglish is a hybrid of English and Spanish used by a growing number of Latin-Americans, who view the hyphen in their heritage as a metaphor for two coexisting worlds. Current Spanglish defies any tight definition, has few rules and has many variations, but at its most vivid and exuberant, it is an effortless dance between the two languages.

Language often has its own ways. Spanglish is a movement which is happening all over the world. It is too free to be pinned down, and it is impossible to regulate its usage. Instead of struggling with which language to use, why not just mix them?

What Is Spanglish?

The history of interaction between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking people dates back to the discovery of the American continent. The Spaniards were the first people to establish settlements on the U.S. mainland in the beginning of the sixteenth century. In fact, the very first permanent European settlement, St. Augustine, Florida, was founded by the Spanish. Ever since, this relationship has defiantly impacted the cultures and languages of both nations.

The term Spanglish is relatively new, probably formed sometime between 1965 and 1970. It can be defined as "a form of the Spanish language, which employs a great quantity of words borrowed from the English language to substitute the existing Spanish words", or "a hybrid language made up from Spanish by introducing English terms instead of translating them or by using wrong translations."

Spanglish is actually a blend of Spanish and English, very much on the analogy of Franglais. An informal and often pejorative term, particularly common in North America, for any of several mixtures of Spanish and English, ranging from extensive uses of loanwords and loan translations to code-switching among bilinguals. Occasionally, the term appears in Spanish as espanglish or espangles.

Examples Spanglish/Spanglish also serves a practical use. Bill Teck, editor of the rather humourous "The Official Spanglish Dictionary: Un User's Guia To More Than 300 Words That Aren't Exactly Espanol or Ingles", which was published in 2000, says: "Sometimes there just isn't a word in English that really captures what we're trying to convey. In our attempt to melt both languages and capture the vibe of one culture in the tongue of another, Spanglish emerges."

Two basic approaches to Spanglish 

Generally, there are two basic approaches to Spanglish, with countless variations: code-switching (mixing) and borrowing. But, Alex Johnson in his magazine article "That curious mixture of English and Spanish is here to stay"(Broadsheet, 1999) points out four different types of Spanglish:

  • Code-switching- moving from one language to another in normal conversation (it is very important to honor you abuelitas (grandparents)"
  • Borrowing- the adaptation of an English word into a Spanish form ("Quiero parquear el coche")
  • Direct translation- Spanish translation of an expression using English syntax ("Te llamo para atrás" for "I’ll call you back")
  • Phonetic translation- the children’s cold remedy 'Vick’s VaporRub' affectionately becomes "bibaporú"



Code-switching (mixing) occurs commonly among bilinguals and when it does, it is often with a sense of humor. But sometimes a speaker may not be able to express himself in one language (e.g. a newly-arrived immigrant) so he switches to the other to compensate for the deficiency. This code-switching may take a number of different forms, from simple word pairs like "ninas room" (ladies restroom), to alteration of sentences with phrases from both languages succeeding each other, to switching in a long narrative ("You’ve got a nasty mancha on your camiseta") Some Spanglish words even have a completely separate meaning in Spanish ("Voy a vacumear la carpeta").

According to Marika Koivisto in her paper "Spanglish: The History and Language of Spanish-Speaking People in the USA.", in normal conversation between two bilinguals, code-switching consists of 84% single word switches, 10% phrase switches and 6% clause switches". (Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere, 1998)

Code-switching also commonly occurs when an individual wishes to to express solidarity with a particular social group. This type of switching may also be used to exclude others who do not speak the second language from a conversation. Still another reason for using Spanglish is that some Spanish words simply cannot be translated.

Young bilingual children are adept at switching from one language to another as the conversational situation demands. In one study of bilingual Hispanic children in Miami, Florida, the children had access to a non-overlapping vocabulary in Spanish and English. In this instance, knowing the two languages actually expanded their access to concepts in comparison to children who spoke English or Spanish only.

Bilingual parents can also switch codes in order to provide language that is the best match with the child's level of understanding. Thus bilingual families can use theit language environment to the child's advantage, providing alternative communication strategies to improve communication and understanding.


Borrowing words from English and spanishizing them has typically been the creation of who contort English words for everyday survival. This method makes new words by pronouncing an English word in a Spanish style, which means dropping final consonants, softening others, and replacing M's with N's and V's with B's, with the resulting word(s) transliterated using Spanish spelling conventions. For example, a housekeeper will plug in the bacuncliner to vacuum the rug.

Sometimes an English word is borrowed for reasons of efficiency, since Spanish is famously multisyllabic. Instead of saying, estacionamiento for 'parking', Spanglish speakers opt for parquin. And instead of escribir a maquína (to type) they say taipear. Another such word is los winshi-waiper for 'windshield wipers' (in Spanish las limpiaparabrisas). Swiftly advancing technology has also added the verbs bipiar (from the noun 'beeper') and i-meiliar (to e-mail) to the Spanglish vocabulary.

Direct Translation

Direct translation is really a form of transliteration. Transliteration is a word by word translation of a phrase or sentence. It is not the same thing as translation. Translation completely converts from your native syntax to the target syntax. Many languages vary in their syntax. For example, in English the adjective comes before the noun while in Spanish it comes after the noun. So, translating a string of words one at a time in sequence results in a string of words that have been translated one at a time but not translated as a whole.

Direct translation of sentences would require people to speak and write in ways they are not used to, which is one of the reasons most Americans have rejected Standard Written English (SWE) in favor of a less structured way of using words. With the exception of pre-programmed common phrases known as phrasebooks, transliteration is the method used by today's electronic translators.

Phonetic Translation

Unlike lexical or semantic methods of transliteration, which convey the actual 'meaning' of a word, phonetic translation occurs when people prefer a Spanish word 'sounding like' or 'matching with' the English word (best approximated by a phonetic translation). This commonly occurs with commercial branding and advertising because manufacturers tend to highlight or emphasize phonological English brand names of products to such an extent that consumers eventually identify with them, no matter what language they speak.

Popular examples of phonetic translation include "bibaporú", for the children’s cold remedy 'Vick’s VaporRub', and "sebenileben", for the convenience store chain 'Seven-Eleven'. Brand-loyal consumers sometimes prefer Spanish words or phrases which 'sound like' or 'match with' a favorite trademark or logo. For example, 'Kentucky Fried Chicken' affectionately becomes "El Pollo del Viejito"; 'Long John Silver' becomes "Don Juan Silva".

Spanglish - A Language In Its Own Right

Spanglish, once frowned upon for the same reasons that have motivated English-only efforts, is more and more recognized in its own right. We now ask ourselves if it is no longer an illegitimate assault on 'pure' English and Spanish. Yet, as government officials, business owners, and the media make clumsy attempts to talk about 'Latinos', because their increasing numbers have made them important as voters and buyers, the inability to break out of the mindset of 'Spanish or English' still hinders understanding of what is a truly hybrid culture.

In a recent interview, Ilan Stavans, author of the book "Spanglish, the Making of a new American Language", was asked if Spanglish would one day become a language that can express the emotion, depth, and complexity of the Latino population. He replied: "Perhaps. When people ask me, 'what will happen with Spanglish?' 'Will it become the language of the continent?', I tend to answer, 'we don't need to wait for the future to come."

"The future is already here. Spanglish is already a diverse, influential way of communication. Corporations have discovered it. It is on television, it is on radio. Novels are being written in Spanglish. Rap, rock - this is kind of a utopian dream or an anti-utopian dream."

Spanglish and the Internet

Advertisers seem to have gotten the message about the importance of Spanglish in business, mass media, technology, education, literature, and everyday life. Businesses have finally come to recognize the enormous buying power of 'Latinos'. The Pop music industry and mass media services all contribute to the spanglishizing of the English language to attract new audiences.

Yet, the internet appears to be the area where Spanglish has gained its most strength and support. Even before Spanglish was declared a legitimate language, Spanish-speaking hackers and experienced internet users managed to create a dialect within a dialect called Cyber-Spanglish. Terms like chatear (to chat), forwardear (to forward), deletear (to delete), dragear (to drag), linquiar(to link), printear (to print), cliquiar (to click) and el maus (computer mouse) are "indispensable north and south of the Rio Grande, as well as in Spain and in the Caribbean." ("The Gravitas of Spanglish”: Stavans, Ilan; The Chronicle Review, Oct. 13, 2000)

Honoring Spanglish As Resource | Eric Johnson


Recommended Spanglish Resources

¡Viva Spanglish!...
In "Praise of Blended Language", Lilly Gonzalez tells how her hybrid language of English and Spanish draws pity and criticism but also helps her find best amigas. It’s her mother tongue: She grew up on the Texas-Mexico border and it sounds like home to her. (Copyright © 2001 Texas Monthly, Inc.)

Classroom activities | Heritage Spanglish...
Spanish predated English in arriving in what is now the United States. For 400 years, the two languages have co-existed; today’s immigrants continue to bring variation. Phillip M. Carter explains how Spanish came to our shores and explores its many dialects. (University of Texas)

Resources for Teaching Spanish as a Heritage Language...
Spanglish, the fluid dialect that crosses English and Spanish, has been a staple of Hispanic life in cities like Los Angeles and New York for many years. (Harvard University)

A linguistic analysis of Spanglish...
Considered by some to be a dialect, Spanglish is now spoken by over 35 million Hispanics in the United States and characterizes the language style of Spanish radio stations on the border. (Jason Rothman and Amy Bett Rell)

Opening the door to Spanglish...
‘Spanglish’ more than a blended language; It is a culture that bound us together. (story by Angela Renee Conti, The Miami Herald)

The Gravitas of Spanglish...
Once asked by a reporter for his opinion on el espanglés, one term used to refer to Spanglish south of the border, Nobel Literature Prize-winning author Octavio Paz, is said to have responded: "Ni es bueno - ni es malo, sino abominable." (story by Ilan Stavans, The Chronicle Review)