22 January 2011

Spanglish as literary language

The chicken-and-egg question is which comes first, the creative way in which people on the streets mix languages or the deliberate way in which poets creatively mix languages in a single text?  Did Chaucer merely capture the language being spoken in the markets of his time, or did he create that language?  In the case of Spanglish, poets can at least be credited with naming the language.  See this encyclopedia entry:

"Spanglish has existed as long as Spanish has been in contact with English in the United States and the cultures have coexisted; however, the term gained currency in the 1970s with the explosion of bilingual Latino and Latina poetry.  Nuyorican poets, such as Miguel Algarín, Tato Laviera, and Sandra Maria Esteves, and Chicano and Chicana poets, such as Alurista, Tino Villanueva, and Bernice Zamora, incorporated Spanglish in their writing and defended its use as a creative representation of the Latino and Latina vernacular.  While Spanglish is more closely associated with poetry, writers such as Roberto Fernández, Junot Díaz, and Giannina Braschi regularly incorporate it in their prose."

The answer to the riddle might seem obvious (that people mixed languages before poets), but note that poets (not novelists, who more directly capture real-life speech) were the major contributors to the spread of Spanglish as a literary language.  Perhaps William Wordsworth might have argued that ordinary human beings speak poetry in their everyday lives, but he was speaking metaphorically.  We know very well that poets craft or distill ordinary language and that we do not find people talking to each other in rhyming couplets.  I think that the role of poets in creating, not just mirroring, language is vastly underestimated.

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