Rich new languages are being created even as old ones disappear
The Manx language was pronounced dead on December 27, 1974, when the last native speaker passed away at age 97 in a fishing village on the Isle of Man called Cregneash. By outliving his generation, Ned Maddrell became famous, symbolizing the lost heritage of this British-governed island in the Irish Sea. In Ned's name, the Manx people have spent the past three decades attempting to inspire a revival, compiling vocabularies and teaching the language in school. But with only 150 semifluent speakers, Manx remains a far cry in popularity from Welsh or even Scots Gaelic. So is it, as the Canadian journalist Mark Abley claims in his 2003 book Spoken Here (Houghton Mifflin), "a test case for rebirth"?
These are the statistics: Of the 6,800 languages spoken today, half will be dead by the end of the century -- one tongue every two weeks. These are the standard villains: capitalism, tourism, television. And these are the typical arguments for resisting language assimilation: A society that loses its language loses its culture; a country that loses its language loses its autonomy; a civilization that loses its languages loses its diversity.
Such arguments have, naturally, been advanced on behalf of Manx. Words such as coghal -- a big lump of dead flesh after an opened wound -- evoke the harsh life lived by Ned Maddrell's ancestors, while his contemporaries left little doubt about their attitude toward the future when they used jouyl, the Manx word for devil, to mean automobile. The Manx parliament writes all laws in Manx as well as in English in the effort to preserve local identity. But are the purposes of rebirth served by holding Manx classes on a modern, English-speaking island?
Clearly, speaking Manx will neither exorcise the island of cars nor impel the children of bankers to expose their tender flesh to the high seas. If the language is not to be a ceremonial artifact of a fairy-tale past, it can neither enshrine the coghal nor demonize the automobile. Of all the arguments advanced by endangered-language advocates, only the case for linguistic diversity is coherent. Unfortunately, it also turns out to be irrelevant. Biologists tell us that we should protect species from extinction for self-serving as well as altruistic reasons, that we should care about each plant and animal because any one may some day be found to cure a disease, and because the ecosystem with the greatest variety is the most robust. So it would seem to be with languages: Each may contain useful knowledge and allow for a range of expression beyond the main global languages.
The trouble with this analogy is that languages either become extinct or evolve -- dropping old-world terminology for new. Wolfsbane, the folk name for aconitum lycotonum, suggests how this plant was once used in the countryside, yet the term has dropped from our common parlance as we have moved to the city. If it is folk wisdom we want to preserve, we needn't worry whether English survives, but rather concern ourselves with how well anthropologists have documented its earlier forms. To extract knowledge from language, we don't have to keep it alive. We only need to dissect it.
For the sake of knowledge and poetry, what matters is not the sanctity of languages, but their indiscriminate mingling, their bastardization. That is, after all, how a complex idea from one language actually gets into another one. Rather than worrying whether Manx will endure, we should -- atención -- embrace the birth of Spanglish.
Mexican-born writer Ilan Stavans has done just that, and he attracted an armada of enemies. Stavans started teaching Spanglish at Amherst College in the mid-1990s, drawing the interest not only of students, but also of reporters from NPR and the BBC. For his educational efforts, he has been called a "monster" and "anti-Hispanic," and his efforts to compile a Spanglish lexicon have been denounced by the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española, earning him the title, among his allies, el Salman Rushdie de los latinos.
The reasons for this linguistic fatwa are as disparate as the factions engaged in it. Yet for all that opposition, nobody seems even to have defined Spanglish before Stavans compiled his lexicon: "Spanglish (SPAN-gleesh), n, m, mestizo language, part English, part Spanish, used predominantly in the United States since the second world war. Also Casteyanqui, Gringonal, and Inglanol."
Spanglish has no pretense of standardization. It comes in many blends, each with a patchwork vocabulary as discombobulated as old-world Yiddish, yet with an essential difference. Rather than evolving with gradual geographic migrations, Spanglish moves with the speed of mass culture. The product of simultaneous explosions in population and technology, Spanglish is more American than the star-spangled banner or apple pie.
Stavans first came to appreciate the language by listening to one of his students. A Chicano ex-gang member from East Los Angeles on an affirmative action scholarship, she felt out of place at a liberal arts college in WASPy Massachusetts. After two and a half years, she told her profe that she was going back home. "I don't feel bien," she confided. "I'm just a strange animal brought in a cage to be displayed pa'que los gringos no sienten culpa." Stavans couldn't persuade her to stay. "Judging from her vocabulary and syntax," he realized, "she had already departed New England for Los Angeles. She was inhabiting the language of her turf, su propia hala, not the language of the alien environment where she found herself at present."
Spanglish doesn't belong to any particular region, yet there are realms in which even Aramaic would sound less foreign. Academia is just the most obvious. In business, speaking Spanglish is as good as declaring bankruptcy. And in society? Only disemboweling your host would be considered more gauche.
Spanglish is a language of the impoverished -- although by no means an impoverished language -- a tongue that stigmatizes those who use it outside the barrio as if what they had to say were worthless. Yet, again like Yiddish in previous generations, it also links people thrown together from different countries and connects the underbellies of distant cities: It's an ad hoc umbilical cord among Americans newly born. Spanglish is spoken not only by Mexican gang members in Los Angeles and Cuban bouncers in Miami, but also by Chinese cabbies in New York. There is also an emerging pop culture. Hip-hop musicians such as Latin Lingo and Chicano Soul 'N' Power rap in Spanglish. Authors including Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros have worked it into their fiction. Most significant of all, in a country where the Latino population will shortly surpass that of white Anglo-Saxons, Spanglish is the lingua franca of talk shows on the Telemundo and Univision cable networks, watched by millions daily.
Members of the linguistic elite hate Spanglish because they believe it threatens the lexical purity, and undermines the structural rigor, of English and/or Spanish. Both accusations are justified. A Spanglish sentence might begin in Spanish and end in English, or vice versa. The decision is a matter of personal expression, up to the individual speaker. Meanwhile, there's more shared vocabulary every day. Masculinity is macho. Stationario is writing stationery. Occasionally, a single word straddles both sides of the etymological boundary: Amigoization is defined by Stavans as "the process of Mexicanization of the U.S. Southwest." ¡Qué pedo!
Spanglish flourishes for all the reasons that minority languages are threatened. Capitalism, tourism, and television have eroded the linguistic authority of Spanish and English, encouraging their casual intermixtures as an uninhibited expression of Latin American culture. This is why linguists, assiduously cultivating exotic Manx or Mohawk, treat Spanglish as a weed, perhaps the only tongue less palatable than Ebonics. A mere dialect, they say: mutant, cancerous.
Stavans, on the other hand, compares it to jazz: syncopated, a language of improvisation. Spanglish is a broken language: lawless, fugitive. It loosens the tongue, belongs to nobody, yet will speak up for anyone. It thrives in neighborhoods where Spanish and English barely survive. It adopts and adapts. It lives in the present. And that is what makes it unlike Manx.
Jonathon Keats is a novelist and essayist, and a director on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Adapted from the British cultural and political journal Prospect (Oct. 2003). Subscriptions: $93/yr. (12 issues) from Carey Court, Bancombe Trading Estate, Somerton, Somerset TA11 6TB, UK.