Code Switching as Spanglish

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Code Switching
2.1 Code Switching vs. Lexical Borrowing
2.2 Grammatical and Lexical Theories of Code switching
2.2.1 The Free Morpheme Constraint
2.2.2 The Equivalence Constraint
2.2.3 The Matrix Language Frame

3. Spanglish
3.1 Case Study: Gibraltar

4. Conclusion


1 Introduction

“No creo ni en el latín ni en el bilingüismo. El latín es una lengua muerta. El bilingüismo, dos lenguas muertas.” (cf. Lipski 2008:41) Such was the opinion of Salvador Tió, the Puerto Rican journalist who is originally said to have coined the term Spanglish; a term, which since its inception, has been used to describe a multitude of linguistic phenomena, for the most part carrying with it a somewhat negative association. Nowadays, however, it has become synonymous with the much studied linguistic phenomenon known as code switching. Ironically, it is precisely this style of bilingual communication in the case of Spanish and English that Tió found so undesirable, and which today, seems to have evolved into a positive means of expressing one’s own identity within a number of Spanish-English bilingual communities. I will discuss that particular topic in greater detail in chapter 3 of the paper.

Firstly, it is necessary to define what is meant by code switching, and how that differs in comparison to other linguistic phenomena such as lexical borrowing, loan translations or loan words.

Secondly, it is my aim to concentrate on what I, and many others, consider to be the three most prevalent grammatical and lexical theories pertaining to code switching at present; The Free Morpheme Constraint, The Equivalence Constraint and The Matrix Language Frame Model. There are many theories in existence and as Cantone (2007:53) mentions in her study of code switching in bilingual children; it continues to be a contentious subject among linguists:

Most of the proposed constraints have been widely debated in the last 25 years, ending up in ruling out almost all proposals. It is nonetheless important to introduce them, since they are crucial for the discussion of the empirical data, and also because they show how code-switching can be analyzed from a grammatical perspective.

Finally, I wish to specifically address the term Spanglish, its different varieties and what can be incorporated under this definition nowadays. In summary of this chapter I will illustrate the use of Spanglish, that is to say Spanish-English code switching, by way of a current example: the bilingual population of Gibraltar.

It is my opinion that a linguistic phenomenon such as code switching, which appears to play such a remarkable role as a form of bilingual interaction within a variety of language-contact blends, “including Taglish (Tagalog-English in the Philippines), Hinglish (Hindi-English in India), Franglais (mixture of French and English), Portuñol/Portunhol (Portuguese-Spanish), Guarañol (Guaraní-Spanish), and many others,” (Lipski 2008:40) deserves the attention of linguists and linguistic students alike. In a day and age in which the number of bilinguals and bilingual communities is ever increasing, this is a subject matter that will only grow in its importance and relevance to the study of languages as a whole. It is with this in mind, that I write my paper.

2 Code Switching

Before taking a closer look at the main theories pertaining to the grammatical constraints of code switching (hereafter CS), it is necessary to define what exactly is to be understood by CS in this particular paper. The following definitions are suggested by some of the foremost authors on the subject and, in my opinion, give a solid, well-rounded explanation of the term. The most general definition is that of Poplack (1982:213), who states that “code-switching is the alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or constituent.” According to socio-linguist, Gumperz (1982:59), CS is “the juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems or subsystems.” Myers-Scotton adopts the more specific view of a dominant language, the matrix language, into which utterances from a second language are interposed: “Code-switching,” she says, “is the selection by bilinguals or multilinguals of forms from an embedded language (or languages) in utterances of a matrix language during the same conversation.” (cf. Cantone 2007:57) The final definition to which I wish to refer is that of Meisel which I find, personally, the most accurate, as it incorporates the language competence of the speaker into the definition which I consider to be of notable importance. He states that:

Code-switching is the ability to select the language according to the interlocutor, the situational context, the topic of conversation, and so forth, and to change languages within an interactional sequence in accordance with sociolinguistic rules and without violating specific grammatical constraints. (cf. Cantone 2007:57)

Cantone (2007:57) correctly, I believe, observes that “along this line, CS requires ability on the bilingual’s part, and hence is a positive statement about this speech style and the speaker’s competence in it. Furthermore, this definition supposes that code-switching is constrained by grammatical rules.” I will focus on the grammatical rules of CS later on in this chapter. Firstly, I think it is worth giving a brief explanation of some of the other relevant language contact phenomena that exist alongside CS and which also have been referred to as instances of Spanglish, in order to gain a better understanding of how we are to best differentiate between the various phenomena.

2.1 Code Switching vs. Lexical Borrowing

One of the more difficult aspects of language contact research is the ability to clearly distinguish between the different phenomena, which in many cases appear to have similar characteristics. Alongside CS, it is also worth familiarising oneself with the term lexical borrowing, which can be sub-divided into two categories: loan words and loan translations. By way of distinction Gumperz (1982:66) claims that:

Borrowing can be defined as the introduction of single words or short, frozen, idiomatic phrases from one variety into the other. The items in question are incorporated into the grammatical system of the borrowing language. They are treated as part of its lexicon, take on its morphological characteristics and enter into its syntactic structures. Code switching, by contrast, relies on the meaningful juxtaposition of what speakers must consciously or subconsciously process as strings formed according to the internal rules of two distinct grammatical systems.

Within the parameters of lexical borrowing, as mentioned above, fall the categories of loan words and loan translations or calques. These, according to Backus and Dorleijn (2009:75), “are defined as words or phrases that are reproduced as literal translations from one language into another.” The difficulty hereby arises, for example, when a word or phrase from one language is used often enough in CS discourse within the same language-contact pair that it ceases to be a code switch and instead becomes incorporated into the lexicon of the other language as a loan word or translation. The question is, where does one draw the line between the two? For Poplack (1982:231) an utterance ceases to be a code switch when it is “phonologically, morphologically, and syntactically integrated into the base language.” If it only demonstrates one of the elements of integration, however, it remains a code switch. An additional factor to be considered is the frequency of the usage. Gardner-Chloros (cf. Winkelmann 2007:24) claims that every lexical borrowing started out as a code switch, that is to say that if an utterance is used consistently and with increasing frequency when code switching in a community, it will gradually develop into a lexical borrowing. The following are just a few examples of English borrowings in Spanish in order to better illustrate the above concepts. Loan words include “many variants of the verb park (as in to park a car) – such as parcar, parquear, aparcar, parqueo, aparcamiento, and parcadero.” (Lipski 2008:224) Lipski also gives examples of borrowed words which reflect certain circumstances, such as the adoption of the words: güelfer (welfare), yánitor (janitor) and sobgüey (subway). As an example of a loan translation, he goes on to refer to what he calls:

By far the most commonly cited – and most often criticized – loan translation found in all bilingual Spanish-English communities in the United States (…) the use of para atrás (usually pronounced patrás) as a translation of the English verbal particle back, as in to call back, to pay back, to talk back, to give back. (Lipski 2008:226)

Otheguy (cf. Backus and Dorleijn 2009:81) gives an example of the use of para atrás in a sentence in the following instance: “Papi, tú me prestas esa pluma y yo te la doy para atrás; please, please, préstamela y yo te la doy para atrás.” It is clear that in the case of para atrás, it is not being used out of the necessity to fill a void in the Spanish lexicon, as every Spanish speaker is aware of the Spanish equivalents: devolver and volver. Two further examples (cf. Lipski 2008:229) include the literal translations correr para (to run for political office) and aplicar para (to apply for). According to Lipski:

All such loan translations fully obey Spanish grammatical rules; many are based on partial or false cognate relationships between Spanish and English words, all arise spontaneously whenever Spanish and English are spoken in bilingual communities, and all are readily understood by Spanish-English bilinguals.

Having only taken a brief but at the same time hopefully beneficial look at the differences and similarities between the most common forms of language-contact phenomena, I wish to move on to discuss in greater detail, the three foremost grammatical theories of CS.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Code Switching as Spanglish
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Romanistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Code-switching, Spanglish, Spanisch, Englisch, Gibraltar, Latino, Llanito
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Bethany Johnston (Author), 2010, Code Switching as Spanglish, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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