The American Language/Appendix 7

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The American Language by H. L. Mencken
Spanish

The mutations of Spanish in Spanish-America have been very extensively studied by Spanish-American philologists, and there are separate monographs on Cubanisms, Mexicanisms, Porto Ricanisms, Venezuelanisms, Argentinisms, Peruanisms, Chileanisms, Costa Ricanisms and Honduranisms, and even extensive discussions of the dialects of single cities, notably Buenos Ayres and the City of Mexico. [1] The influence of the Indian language has been especially studied. [2] But the only extensive treatise upon the Spanish spoken in the United States is a series of four papers by Dr. Aurelio M. Espinosa, of Leland Stanford, Jr., University, in the Revue de Dialectologie Romane under the general title of “Studies in New Mexican Spanish.” [3] These papers, however, are of such excellence that they almost exhaust the subject. The first two deal with the phonology of the dialect and the last two with its morphology. Dr. Espinosa, who was a professor in the University of New Mexico for eight years, reports that the Spanish of the Southwest in its general characters, shows a curious parallel with American English. There is the same decay of grammatical niceties —the conjugations of the verb, for example, are reduced to two—the same great hospitality to loan-words, the same leaning toward a picturesque vividness, and the same preservation of words and phrases that have become archaic in the standard language. “It is a source of delight to the student of Spanish philology,” he says, “to hear daily from the mouths of New Mexicans such words as agora, ansi, naidien, trujo, escrebir, adrede”—all archaic Castilian forms, and corresponding exactly to the fox-fire, homespun, andiron, ragamuffin, fall (for autumn), flapjack and cesspool that are preserved in American. They are survivors, in the main, of the Castilian Spanish of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, though some of them come from other Spanish dialects. Castilian has changed very much since that time, as standard English has changed; it is probable, indeed, that a Castilian of the year 1525, coming back to life today, would understand a New Mexican far more readily than he would understand a Spaniard, just as an Englishman of 1630 would understand a Kentucky mountaineer more readily than he would understand a Londoner.

New Mexico has been in the possession of the United States since 1846, and so it is natural to find its Spanish corrupted by American influences, especially in the vocabulary. Of the 1,400 words that Dr. Espinosa chooses for remark, 300 are English, 75 are Nahuatl, 10 come from the Indian languages of the Southwest, and 15 are of doubtful or unknown origin; the rest are pure Spanish, chiefly archaic. As in the case of the Pennsylvania Germans, the French Canadians and the Scandinavians of the Northwest, the Spanishspeaking people of New Mexico have borrowed the American names of all objects of peculiarly American character, e. g., besbol (=baseball), grimbaque (=greenback), aiscrim (=ice-cream), quiande (=candy), fayaman (=fireman), otemil (=oatmeal), piquenic (=picnic), lonchi (=lunch). Most of them have been modified to bring them into accord with Spanish speech-habits. For example, all explosive endings are toned down by suffixes, e. g., lonchi for lunch. So with many r-endings, e.g., blofero for bluffer. And sibilants at the beginning of words are shaded by prefixes, e. g., esteque for steak and espechi for speech. Not only words have been taken in, but also many phrases, though most of the latter are converted into simple words, e. g., olraite (=all right), jaitun (=hightoned), jamachi (=how much), sarape (=shut up), enejau (=anyhow). Dr. Espinosa’s study is a model of what such an inquiry should be. I cordially commend it to all students of dialect.

English has also greatly influenced the Spanish spoken in Spanish America proper, especially in Mexico, Cuba, Porto Rico and in the seaports of South America. Sandwich and club, though they are not used by the Spaniards, are quite good Mexican. Bluffer is quite as familiar in Cuban Spanish as it is in New Mexican Spanish, though in Cuba it has become blofista instead of blofero. I take the following from El Mundo, one of the Havana newspapers, of June 28, 1920:

New York, junio 27.—Por un sensacional batting rally, en el octavo inning en el que los Yankees dieron seis hits incluyendo un triple de Ruth y tubeyes de Ward y Meusel, gano el New York el match de esta tarde, pues hizo cinco carreras en ese episodio, venciendo 7 a 5. Mays el pitcher de los locales autuó bien, con excepcion del cuarto round, cuando Vitt le dió un home run con dos en bases.

Nor are such words any longer exotic; the Cubans have adopted the terminology with the game, and begin to use it figuratively as the Americans use it. Along the east coast of South America the everyday speech of the people is full of Americanisms, and they enter very largely into the fashionable slang of the upper classes. Cocktail, dinner-dance, one-step, fox-trot, sweater, kimono, high-ball, ginger-ale and sundae are in constant use, and most of them are pronounced correctly, though sundae is transformed into soondÿ;e. Bombo (=boom) is used by all the politicians, and so are plataforma (=platform), mitin (=meeting), alarmista, big-stick, damphool and various forms of to bluff. The American auto has been naturalized, and so has ice-cream, but in the form of milkcream, pronounced milclee by the lower orders. The boss of a train down there is the conductor del tren; a commuter is a commutador; switch is used both in its American railroad sense and to indicate the electrical device; slip, dock and wharf (the last pronounced guÿ;fay) are in daily use; so is socket (electrical), though it is pronounced sokÿ;ytay; so are poker and many of the terms appertaining to the game. The South Americans use just in the American way, as in justamente a (or en) tiempo (=just in time). They are very fond of good-bye and go to hell. They have translated the verb phrase, to water stocks, into aguar las acciones. The American white elephant has become el elefanto blanco. In Cuba the watermelon—patilla or sandía, in Spanish—is the mélon-de-agua. Just as FrenchCanadian has borrowed Americanisms that are loan-words from other immigrant tongues, e. g., bum and loafer from the German, so some of the South American dialects have borrowed rapidas (=rapids), and kimono, the first brought into American from the French and the second from the Japanese. [4]


Notes[edit]

  1. See the Bibliography—Non-English Languages in America: Spanish—under Abeille, Arons, Ferraz, Maspero, Armengal y Valenzuela, Malaret, Calanno, Pichardo, Rincón, Ramos y Duarte, Sanchez and Toro y Gisbert.
  2. See Ferraz, Armengal y Valenzuela, Robelo, Sanchez and Espinosa in the Bibliography.
  3. Tome i, p. 157 and p. 269; tome iii, p. 251; tome iv, p. 241.
  4. For most of these observations I am indebted to Dr. A. Z. López-Penha, the distinguished Colombian poet and critic.