Tag Archives: Sociolinguistics

Spanglish is older than you think

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch  (Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch (Wikimedia Commons)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

To truly explore the early roots of Spanglish, we have to go back to the dawn of the Dons.

Picture California in the early-19th century, when Los Angeles was known simply as the little “pueblo” and “Alta California” as the region was then called, was still a part of Mexico.

And living in the a rancho just north of the pueblo was a young Scottish adventurer named Hugh Reid. In the 1830s he left the old world for the new — Mexico. And in his adopted home he was rechristened with an additional Spanish name, Perfecto Hugo Reid. Reid would eventually settle down on a ranch in southern California near the San Gabriel mission in what’s now Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, where he married a local woman, Doña Victoria.

Robert Train has been obsessed with Hugo Reid’s backstory for the last few years. Train is a professor of Spanish at Sonoma State University. We met recently at the Huntington Library archives in Pasadena, to read Reid’s extremely yellowed letters.

Reid wrote to a man named Abel Stearns, another gringo — yes, that was a term, Train says, that was used around that time — living in Alta California. Stearns had emigrated from Massachusetts and, like Reid, he had also become a Mexican citizen. Reid’s letters to Stearns detail daily life in early California.

In one letter, Reid tells Stearns about his recent trip around other parts of Mexico. It’s a fairly ordinary letter at first, except woven into the mostly English letter are phrases in Spanish. Often sentences will start in one language and shift to fluidly to the other language. Neither Spanish nor English, this is pure Spanglish.

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Hugo Reid wrote letter after letter to Abel Stearns in Spanglish. That’s not to say he couldn’t write in strictly Spanish or strictly English. He could. And he did — Train has plenty of examples of those — but often the Scotsman chose to use both at once doing what Train calls code-switching.

“It’s not about not knowing one language or the other. That’s a sort of myth that some people seem to think — that code-switching is all about not knowing one language, not being able to find the word. But that’s not typically the case. He knew how to say “take a little rest,” says Train.

Reid could’ve easily communicated to his English-speaking-mate in English. But instead he chose Spanglish.

Both Reid and Stearns married native Spanish speakers. Historians don’t know for sure but assume they spoke Spanish inside their homes. And Reid’s correspondence reflects a sort of back and forth between worlds. The Spanish words often key into domestic affairs, like requests from Reid to buy cloth from Abel Stearns store. Stearns was a merchant. He is credited with helping to start the port in San Pedro.

In another letter, Hugo Reid writes, “… the old woman requires for the house a piece of percale and best in manta blanca. Si no hay percala send her pura manta blanca. I remain yours truly, Perfecto Hugo Reid.”

“Percala” is a type of cloth called percale in English and “manta blanca” is coarse cotton, but the most curious part of the exchange is not Hugo Reid ordering fabric for his wife in Spanish but what he calls his wife in English: “the old woman.” It’s a direct translation, says Train, of how men in Alta California might’ve referred to their wives in Spanish.

“La Vieja, which I guess is the standard use of this time for ‘the old lady,’” Train says.

So what’s the big deal? A few native English speakers spoke Spanglish to each other way back when. What’s this have to do with anything today? Simple, says Train. Hugo Reid’s letters are reminders that California was, is and has always been a multilingual place.

In fact, when California became a state in 1850, the new constitution was written in both English and Spanish. For many years, California laws were written in both languages. But somewhere along the way, English usurped Spanish. And Spanish became, well, a foreign language.

When I learned Spanish in southern California public schools, I learned it as my foreign language prerequisite.

Reading the signs as you drive down Third Street in East LA, Spanish is far from a foreign language. But the real lingua franca is Spanglish. The sign for the East LA institution, King Taco is a great example. “King Taco. The Best Food in Town. Burritos y Tacos Al Pastor. Y Carne Asada. Park here.”

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

Robert Train and I did park and eat and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the women sitting at the table next to us. Two young mothers, Desiree Gardenas and Brenda Padilla, and their toddlers are speaking Spanish and English and, yes, Spanglish.

Do you ever mix the languages together, I asked them. Yes, of course they said. It’s normal.

Post lunch, around the corner from King Taco, Train and I made one final stop at the Calvary Cemetery.

It’s a beautiful, old cemetery on a hill. Thousands of stone monuments commemorate the early residents of the pueblo of Los Angeles. And the modern city, with her tall skyscrapers and her smoggy skies, can be seen in the distance. This is where Hugo Reid and Abel Stearns — these early Spanglish speakers — are buried mere miles from where Spanglish continues to thrive.

“I read this part of a whole immigrant story, part of an unexpected one really,” Train says.

Hugo Reid died at the age of 42, just two years after Mexican Alta California became the 31st United State. Incidentally, in his final days he became obsessed with saving another language, the language of the Gabrieleño Indians, the ancestral language of his wife Doña Victoria. Sadly, that language has not survived.

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Straight outta ESL class: learning English by learning slang

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Josie Huang

Donald Chung stood in front of his classmates at the UCLA Extension school and started to throw a fit — well, as much as the mild–mannered student from Taiwan could muster.

“I don’t know what he’s trying to pull,” Chung said. “The guy’s a total flake!”

His friend Jiu Hua Zhang chimed in: “You said it!”

The students had spent a good portion of the class practicing these expressions as part of their “street talk” course. In many foreign countries, English classes start as early as pre-school. But thousands of students still come to the US to get what they can’t get back home: the idioms, the catchphrases — the slang.

“My conversation is more academic, or more like an essay,” Zhang said. “I need to be more, like, American.”

She and Chung enrolled less than half a year ago at UCLA Extension’s American Language Center, one of multiple schools throughout California offering street talk classes. Zhang wants to get all of the jokes on her favorite American sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Chung would like to catch what commentators are saying during NBA games.

“I think it’s very difficult to understand what they’re talking about because they use some vocabulary I can’t understand,” he said, sounding frustrated.

Hip-hop as a second language

There’s a lot to learn. But because slang is constantly evolving, there aren’t many teaching materials devoted to it. Texts get dated faster than you can say YOLO.

So teachers are often left to find their own method of teaching American lingo, in ways creative and resourceful.

English as a Second Language teacher Stephen Mayeux enjoys hip-hop. So he figured his students at UC-Davis might, too.

He crafted lesson plans around 1990s hip-hop. N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” has come in handy teaching reductions in English — for example, how “out of” gets shortened.

“They’re saying ‘straight out of Compton,’” Mayeux said. “But I think a lot of people, especially Americans, we pronounce it ‘outta.’”

Mayex shares his lessons with students outside of his Hip-hop as a Second Language class through his website eslhiphop.com.

He said some educators might frown on what he’s teaching. But, as someone who’s studied linguistics, he believes “you have to treat every form or variety of the language as if it’s equally complex and valid.”

“So the English that a rapper or hip-hop artist uses is no better or worse than what a university professor is using,” Mayeux said.

Fitting in

Mayeux also uses the music to take the opportunity to teach about hip-hop culture, and give the students some context for what it is like to grow up in America.

He said that he has many close friends from other countries, and a lack of understanding about pop culture can leave them feeling left out.

“They do experience a little bit of alienation,” Mayeux said. “They feel like they can’t be fully part of the group because they’re not speaking the same lingo.”

Judy Tanka, who teaches English at the American Language Center, agreed.

”You may understand every word of the lecture,” Tanka said. “But when you have to go to your study group or you have to call a classmate, slang is going to be necessary.”

Tanka tries to incorporate slang into her everyday conversation with her students. She stays on top of the latest lingo with the help of a daughter in her 20s, but she finds a surprising number of phrases have stayed popular through the decades.

When her students tried to make up an excuse for not doing homework, she told them, “I don’t buy that.”

“And they looked at me. ‘Buy what, teacher?’ And then I explained and they loved it. Now they’re telling each other, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

For the latest slang, go to the source

As a young man, David Burke had a knack for picking up slang.

His ears pricked up whenever he heard interesting phrases. He’d write them down on his arms, later switching to a tape recorder.

Burke went on to make a name for himself as “Slangman” and published a whole series of self-titled books in which he teaches slang not just in English, but in foreign languages.

He got the idea to teach American slang after hanging out with a French friend more than 10 years ago.

“Somebody ran up to him and said, ‘Hey, Pascal, what’s up?'” Burke said. “And he froze for a second and looked up and started checking the ceiling.”

Now, at age 56, Burke gets the scoop on the newest slang by striking up conversations with young people.

“I saw a kid at the gym working out with a friend of his,” Burke said, “and I said, ‘Can I ask you guys a question, what word would I not know?'”

Recently, Burke brought his compendium of slang to UCLA’s American Language Center for a special presentation before English language learners. To complicate matters, Burke told students, slang isn’t just about words.

”Americans use a lot of grunts — I’ll show you,” Burke said.

“For example, ‘I don’t know’ becomes ‘I dunno.’ ‘I dunno’ becomes the shoulders-up grunt, ‘uh-uhh-uh.'”

Burke got students to try out the “uh-uhh-uh.”

“How many cars on the freeway right now?”

“Uh-uhh-uh.”

ESL students at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

ESL students at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Like a cow

In the audience was Donald Chung and Jiu Hua Zhang. They hung on Burke’s every word.

In their short time in the US, they’ve managed to incorporate slang into their everyday conversations.

Chung is a fan of “what’s up!” Zhang says she no longer enters a room saying ”Good morning, everyone.”

“We just say, ‘hi, guys!'” she said brightly.

Zhang is feeling pretty awesome about this. Or as kids in China say: “hĕn niú” which translates into “very cow-like.”

But Chinese slang — that’s a whole other lesson for another day.


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