Chicano English. Dialect or language?

Term Paper, 2021

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Outlining Chicano English
2.1 Definition and Misconceptions of Chicano English
2.2 Demographics
2.3 History of Chicano English
2.4 Social Context and the Future of Chicano English

3. Linguistic Aspects of Chicano English
3.1 Phonology
3.2 Prosody
3.3 Syntax
3.4 Semantics

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

It is well known that there is a specific language spoken in every country. Some countries even have the very same official language. English is one of the languages that is spoken as a native language in many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and many more. Most people also know that there are differences within one language, for instance, differences in British and American English, as well as within the United Kingdom itself. Those differences are so-called national and regional varieties (cf. Gramley & Pätzold 2004: 1). Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the United States of America with a population of 328 million people (cf. United States Census Bureau, n.d.) has its own regional varieties. This is especially due to the United States’ history, particularly when looking at early settlements and invasions that led to the development of variations in language. Those linguistic influences have arisen, for example, through settlers from England, also called the Pilgrim Fathers (cf. Finegan 2006: 386).

Over centuries, the United States has emerged several dialects. Dialects are “a form of a language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar […]” (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.).

The dialect outlined in this paper is the Chicano English dialect. The aim of this paper is to gather data and research made about Chicano English. Particularly Carmen Fought, Otto Santa Ana, Joyce Penfield and Jacob L. Ornstein-Galicia have contributed profoundly to this field with their studies and findings about Chicano English.

Due to the fact that laypersons often mistake a dialect as incorrect and erroneous speech, this paper unveils Chicano English as an actual dialect. It examines who Chicanos and Chicanas are, how the dialect evolved and surveys the dialect’s history. A special focus is centered on the linguistic aspects phonology, prosody, syntax and semantics. The paper mainly compares Chicano English to the General American variety, which is the standard spoken in the United States of America.

It should be noted that not every Chicano English speaker will use all the features that are listed here. However, the paper will present what the majority of speakers realize in their speech or what most speakers have in common in their speech that is different from the Standard American way.

2. Outlining Chicano English

Chicano English, “spoken predominantly by Mexican-Americans” (Penfield & Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 1), developed through contact with another language, namely Spanish. Although not every Chicano speaker is bilingual in Spanish and English, the Chicano community is mostly in close contact with Spanish speakers or lives in areas where there is less contact with English speaking people (cf. Bayley & Santa Ana 2008: 573-574).

In order to understand this paper, the terms Chicano/Chicana, Latino/Latina and Hispanic need to be clarified. Someone who is Hispanic is defined as “a native of, or descends from, a Spanish-speaking country” (GENIAL n.d.: 1) whereas a Latino or Latina is “someone who is native of, or descends from, a Latin American country” (GENIAL n.d.: 2). A Chicano or a Chicana, as the third distinction, is “someone who is native of, or descends from, Mexico and who lives in the United States” (GENIAL n.d.: 2).

The following subsections intend to examine how Chicano English is defined and also to investigate what common misconceptions are involved with this dialect. Additionally, an outlook of where Chicano English speakers in the U.S. are chiefly located will be given.

2.1 Definition and Misconceptions of Chicano English

Santa Ana, a sociolinguist from California, states that “Chicano English is an ethnic dialect that children acquire as they acquire English in the barrio or other ethnic social setting during their language acquisition period” (1993: 15).

Moreover, he addresses the common misconception that Chicano English is only spoken by English language learners who emigrated from a Spanish-speaking country, foremost Mexico. As is often the case, people listen to Chicano English speakers and believe to hear an accent. Santa Ana specifies that “Chicano English is spoken only by native English speakers” (Santa Ana 1993: 15).

Furthermore, Chicano English is defined as a “non-standard variety of English, influenced by contact with Spanish, and spoken as a native dialect by both bilingual and monolingual speakers” (Fought 2003: 1).

Fought presents myths in her studies about Chicano English. One of those myths is the wide-spread assumption that Chicano English is just “Spanglish” (cf. Fought 2003: 5). This misconception is built up upon speakers who do not speak the Chicano dialect themselves and mistake codeswitching as lack of proficiency in English. She rebuts this myth by stating that codeswitching allows Chicano English speakers to adjust in a conversation (cf. Fought 2003: 6).

In connection to the preceding myth, Chicano English is also misunderstood as being erroneous in terms of grammar structure. This is, again, based on the public’s lack of knowledge about Chicano English. (cf. Fought 2003: 7-8)

2.2 Demographics

In order to present where the largest proportion of Chicano English speakers are located in the United States, it is crucial to reiterate who is considered Chicano or Chicana. However, the United States Census Bureau does not distinguish between Chicano or Chicana, Hispanic and Latino or Latina. Instead, the United States Census Bureau lists the Hispanic and Latino population in one figure.

Nonetheless, Mexicans represent the largest share of all Hispanics in the United States and account for 62 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The share of foreign-born Mexicans living in the United States is 11,190,000 as of 2017, whereas the share of U.S. born Mexicans is more than twice as much, ranking 25,444,000 as of 2017. (cf. Noe-Bustamante, et al. 2019)

Despite the fact that the United States Census Bureau does not list Chicanos, Latinos and Hispanics separately due to the lack of documentation as a consequence of illegal immigration, the allocation of the largest proportions of Hispanics will still be listed here. This is because of the fact that Mexicans do comprise a very large share of Hispanics in the United States. (cf. Library of Congress n.d.)

The total number of Latino/Hispanic population is 18.5 percent according to the United States Census Bureau. This population is considerably large in the following seven states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas. All these states, except from Nevada, New Jersey and Florida, abut the U.S.-Mexico border. (cf. United States Census Bureau, n.d.)

Foremost is New Mexico with 49.3 percent Hispanics, which presents nearly half of the states’ whole population. New Mexico is followed by Texas with 39.7 percent and 39.4 percent in California. The state of Arizona holds a Hispanic population of 31.7 percent. Nevada, adjacent to California, has a total populaltion of 29.2 percent of Hispanics. Florida’s 26.4 percent Hispanic population, however, mostly descends from Puerto Rico and Cuba, rather than Mexico. (United States Census Bureau, n.d.)

2.3 History of Chicano English

After having established where the greatest proportions of Latinos are located in the United States, the questions of where the roots of Chicano English are found and how Chicano English developed can now be answered. As already mentioned, California is home to one of the highest Latino populations in the whole country of the United States, as of the 2019 census. This is due to the fact that California has not always been part of the U.S. but was rather a part of Mexico. Moreover, the states adjacent to the border were “first explored and colonized by Spain, and […] ceded to the USA by Mexico after the war of 1848” (Fought 2003: 14). Californian and Mexican people, therefore, have consistently moved from one part to another (cf. Fought 2003: 11). This movement of Latinos into the United States of America, especially in countries located near the Mexican border, has always been immense and is still, to this day, the primary destination for Mexican emigrants (cf. Israel & Batalova 2020).

As the official language in Mexico is Spanish, Mexican immigrants, who came to the United States, were in contact with both Spanish and English, of which the latter they learned as they have settled. These Mexican immigrants started a family in the U.S. and their children, in most cases, grew up bilingually in Spanish and English. The community began to grow substantially and a new dialect established. (cf. Fought 2003: 14)

Due to the fact that Chicano English is a contact dialect, it implies that it has evolved through contact with at least another language or another dialect. Fought suggests that there might be an influence of African American English and California Anglo English on Chicano English. The latter can be explained by recalling where Chicanos and Chicanas are located in the United States. As California was once part of Mexico and is in close proximity to the Mexican border, languages are likely to have clashed and adjusted. This probably had an influence on the development of Chicano English, as well. (cf. Penfield & Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 6-7; Fought 2003: 15)

Regarding the influence of African American English on Chicano English, there is evidence that both dialects share common language patterns. The most salient of these elements is the use of the “habitual be” (cf. Fought 2003: 95). An example of this can be seen in the sentence “The news be showing it too much.” (Fought 2003: 96). It is evident that the “is” is substituted for the infinitive form “be”. The same also applies to the auxiliary verbs “am” and “are”.

African American English and Chicano English seem to also share the use of “it” as a substitute for “there” (cf. Fought 2003: 96). For instance, “It’s four of us, there’s two of them.” (Fought 2003: 96). There are other features that both dialects share which, consequently, could indicate that there is an influence of one dialect on the other.

2.4 Social Context and the Future of Chicano English

As with other dialects, Chicano English is sometimes viewed as a dialect that will disappear or vanish in the future. Quite the contrary, the dialect is considered as an important aspect by its community, historically and culturally, so it is very unlikely to be relinquished by the Chicano community. (cf. Fought 2003: 2; Gramley & Pätzold 2004: 261)

Additionally, this assumption can be refuted when looking at the social context of Chicanos and Chicanas and the social structure of Chicano families. Fought’s study in Los Angeles in 1994 included bilingual and monolingual participants mostly in the age of 15 to 32 years representing a wide spectrum of social classes (cf. Fought 2003: 15-16). The findings from her study, therefore, seem representative to a great extent.

Since the origin of Chicano English has its roots in people that immigrated from Mexico to the United States of America, Mexican traditions still remain in most families. Mostly girls, but also males of the family, bear strict rules (cf. Fought 2003: 31). This especially “highlights an important element of the construction of gender in the community” (Fought 2003: 31). These strict rules, along with the fact that children spend a great period of their lives at home, contribute to the maintenance of Chicano English as a dialect and also their individual linguistic development. Consequently, the Chicano dialect is passed on from generation to generation (cf. Fought 2003: 31).

3. Linguistic Aspects of Chicano English

There is a number of aspects in which Chicano English varies linguistically compared to Standard American English or even other American English dialects. The following subchapters will examine how Chicano English diverges in these linguistical aspects, namely phonology, prosody, syntax and semantics.

3.1 Phonology

The first section that will be further examined is the aspect of vowels in Chicano English phonology.

Beginning with the first aspect in which Chicano English phonology differs from General American English is the aspect of vowel reduction. The first findings of vowel reduction in the speech of Chicano English speakers are found by Santa Ana in 1991 (cf. Fought 2003: 64). Fought states that “Chicano English speakers show less frequent vowel reduction” (Fought 2003: 64). This especially seems to be the case in unstressed syllables. Moreover, Fought cites that unstressed vowels move differently and also rather peculiar. While /u/ and /i/ show only very slight centralization, /i/ is rarely reduced in unstressed syllables (cf. Fought 2003: 64). An example given by Fought is together, which is spoken as /tʰugɛðɚ/ by Chicano speakers (cf. Fought 2003: 64), whereas the standard General American pronunciation is /təˈɡeðər/1.

The second aspect pointed out in Fought’s study, which is also examined by Santa Ana, is the lack of glides, especially in high vowels and some diphthongs. An example of that is the word least pronounced as /lis/ by Chicano English speakers. The General American realization of this word is /liːst/. Another example is the adverb ago which is not realized as /əˈɡoʊ/ but rather realized as /əgo/ by Chicano English speakers. She also detected that there is a higher articulation to a small degree combined with the high vowels. (cf. Fought 2003: 64)

Another distinction in Chicano English phonology compared to Standard American English is the realization of the high vowel /ɪ/ that often occurs in combination with the morpheme {ing}. For instance, the verb working, which is pronounced as /wɝːkɪŋ/ in Standard American English, is realized as /wɚkin/ by many Chicano speakers. The adjective embarrassing, /emˈberəsɪŋ/ in General American English, is realized as /ɪmbɛɹəsin/ in Chicano English. (cf. Fought 2003: 65)


1 The website was used for all transcriptions. Any mistakes remain my own.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Chicano English. Dialect or language?
University of Vechta
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Chicano English, phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology, history, Chicanos, Mexican-American, USA
Quote paper
Leonie Michalowski (Author), 2021, Chicano English. Dialect or language?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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