Written by P.A. Cornell
You’re writing a story in English but your characters are fluent in both English and Spanish. It makes sense they’d speak a blend of these, commonly known as Spanglish, so you sprinkle in some Spanish words—italicizing for effect. You pat yourself on the back because now your story has authenticity. Or does it?
First off, Spanglish is neither an official language, nor a dialect, so there’s no set of rules to guide you. What’s more, depending on your characters’ backgrounds, community or even family, their Spanglish may differ.
Before I get into the complexities, let’s address the reasons your characters might speak Spanglish in the first place. For one, it just feels natural. Spanglish speakers are often immigrants or are very closely related to immigrants. With young children, the use of Spanglish tends to come gradually. They speak Spanish at home and English outside the home. With a foot in two cultures, they learn both languages almost simultaneously. I moved to Canada from Chile at a year old, so had barely started speaking one language when I found myself immersed in a new one. For people like me, the languages are practically interchangeable, so combining them is natural. Adults, too, adapt even if it doesn’t come as naturally, or quickly as it does to children. That said, most Spanglish speakers will lean toward one language over the other.
Other reasons a person might use Spanglish include:
-Forgetting a word in one language and swapping it with the other language.
-Switching to a language that a monolingual person won’t understand.
-To convey a sentiment that’s better expressed in one language over the other.
-When using an untranslatable expression or word (e.g., when swearing).
-When using filler words like “claro.”
Here’s where things start to get complicated. Spanglish isn’t just code-switching. It also incorporates something linguists call “borrowing,” where words from English are combined with Spanish grammar rules to create new words, as in adding the diminutive “ito” to make “dogito.” This is also seen in verb creation. In Spanish, you would add the suffix “-ar” to create a verb, as in the word “salto” (jump), becoming “saltar” (to jump). To a Spanglish speaker, however, this might take the form of “jumpar.” Grammar rules still apply when modifying such words so as a child I’d say “mira como jumpo,” (watch me jump) with “jumpo” following the rules of “salto.”
Borrowing isn’t unique to children. Adults do this too, especially if the word didn’t yet exist in their native country. This is often seen with new technology, so it’s sometimes referred to as Cyber-Spanglish, with people using words like: “chatear” or “forwardear.”
Borrowing can also arise for reasons of economy. Spanish is known for its multisyllabic words, so it’s often faster to add some English into the mix. Why say “estacionamiento” when you can transform “parking lot” to “parquin?”
Which brings me to phonetically translated words. Something like “watch out” might become “guachau.” But be cautious about writing dialogue like this as it can come off as mocking an accent. In reality, this doesn’t always mean the speaker can’t pronounce the English word, they may choose to say it this way because that’s how it’s done within their community.
Then there’s cognates. The Spanish word “carpeta” means folder, but it sounds like “carpet,” so a Spanglish-speaker might say something like “You need to vacuum la carpeta.” This would be incorrect in Spanish, but in Spanglish, all bets are off.
Spanglish isn’t as simple as sprinkling Spanish words into an English story. Spanglish-speakers tend to use groups of related words in speech. To use an example from my own life, I texted my mom “A las 3:30 estoy picking the kids up so aim for 3:45 mejor” to let her know when to drop by. Why did I phrase it this way? First, she was speaking Spanish, so I began my response in kind rather than “At 3:30 I’m,” but “picking up the kids” comes more naturally to me than the translation would. I used “aim for 3:45” because the English expression to “aim for” a time conveys what I’m trying to say in a way that Spanish wouldn’t. I end with “mejor” (better) because it captures the idea of this being the best time, as opposed to just an alternate time, as the use of “instead” would. Was I consciously thinking this as I wrote it? No. It just felt right.
Spanglish isn’t something that’ll come easily for a monolingual writer, as speaking it’s largely instinctual. If you do try, my advice is to first understand how grammar works in both languages, and to learn how you might combine them. Then run your finished story by someone bilingual to confirm it sounds right. ¿Me entiendes?
© P.A. Cornell
P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian SFF writer who wrote her first science-fiction story as a third-grade assignment, and still has it in her possession over three decades later. A member of the SFWA and graduate of the Odyssey workshop, her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and genre magazines. For a full bibliography visit pacornell.com.