Spanglish, Ilan Stavans argues, is the linguistic result of an “encounter of the two weltanshauungs, Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic”. In other words, the logical outcome of a collision between two imperial supercultures. He sets the date at 1492 (date of dates!) and for good reason. Spanglish is a New World tongue concocted from two old world languages, much as Yiddish was the result of tenacious Hebrew and medieval German (to make a long story short). So it only makes sense that the first person to attempt to fix Spanglish—ever an evolving entity—on the page would be, well, a Yiddish speaking Mexican-American Jew.
In his book Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, published in 2003, Stavans put his powers as an amateur linguist and barrier-breaker par excellence to work. His lexicon arose out of his encounter with New York City, unsurprisingly. It was that cultural and linguistic mishmash (incidentally a Hebrew word, as Stavans quickly points out) that set him on his path. One can imagine the young Ilan trying to figure all this out in his head: how to make sense of this ruckus? Yiddish was a touchstone. At the time he was studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The language itself is vibrant and delicious. Many of the entries are merely hispanically pronounced English words: dogibag, friqui, couch (respectively “doggy bag”,” freaky” and “coach”). Others are less obvious, and this is where the fun begins. Take “culear”, defined as “to be afraid. From the Spanish culo, ass.” Then another meaning, “to calm down, chill out” from the English “cool”. Finally, the ballbreaker: “to copulate”. Some terms sound almost forced, like the awkward “weakeniar”, “to weaken”. Then there’s “guaflear”, “to eat waffles” which not only sounds hilarious but suggests that Spanglish speakers (Spanglophones?) eat an inordinate amount of waffles. Enough, at least, to merit having coined a term for it. “Warmop” is not a mop to clean up after war, but rather something an athlete might do before a game. “Waract” is, you guessed it, an act of war. Go figure.
Stavans even gives the geographical origin of many of the terms: East L.A., New York, New Mexico, Cuba and even Spain. Something sounds almost odd in his inclusion of Spain, as if the Spanglish he loves was somehow spiritually divorced from its mother land. It seems, in these pages, to possess a New World consciousness all its own. It thrives on it. He delivers his final blow to the Real Academia Espanola de la Lengua (who are not fond of his sort of meddling) by translating the first chapter of “Don Quixote” into Spanglish. The result is a most unimaginable and joyous cacophony, and it is precisely there that one sees the true possibilities of Stavans’ experiment. Anything is possible. This is a language spoken by millions of people who comprise the largest and fastest growing minority in the United States, many of whom speak neither Spanish nor English “properly”. This is a language awaiting its own literature. Stavans will be its prophet.
Marc Alan Coen (also in the NEWYORKERS column of this blog)