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date: 21 March 2023

The Spanish Language in Latin America since Independencefree

The Spanish Language in Latin America since Independencefree

  • Ilan StavansIlan StavansLewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College


The Spanish language arrived in Latin America as a tool of Iberian colonization. Indigenous languages struggled to survive under the implacable presence of an imperial tongue serving not only to make all subjects part of the Spanish Empire but also, and primarily, as a mechanism to evangelize a population considered by the conquistadors, soldiers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs as barbaric. During the age of independence (1810–1910), defined by bloody armed movements, the emerging republics in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean Basin declared their autonomy by seceding politically, economically, and legally from Spain while pushing for a vigorous nationalist agenda that shaped them as nations. Spanish was an agglutinating force toward a new collective identity, regionally and locally. Important figures like Venezuelan philologist, lexicographer, and diplomat Andrés Bello established an agenda that helped define the cultural parameters of the young republics in terms of grammar, syntax, and morphology. Followers include Rufino José Cuervo.

Various aesthetic movements, such as modernismo, led by figures like Rubén Darío and José Martí, helped consolidate a transnational sense of linguistic unity. During the 20th century, the nationalist fever spread throughout Latin America, encouraging educators to establish pedagogical patterns that emphasized the uniqueness of the language within the country’s context. The effort was supported by ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociolinguists like the Cuban Fernando Ortiz and Venezuelan Ángel Rosenblat intent on finding what was local in the language. Simultaneously, each nation developed its own idiosyncratic media, which, again, allowed for verbal peculiarities to be included while also driving toward a standardized form. In this atmosphere, the Spanish language has been used as an organ of control by the state. It is also an invaluable tool through which to understand regional, national, and cultural differences.

By the end of the millennium, a new phenomenon emerged, not in Latin America per se yet intimately linked to it: Spanglish. It is a hybrid tongue used by millions of immigrants in the United States, whose power is increasing as time goes by. Spanglish has the potential of reconfiguring the way the Spanish language is understood in the future.


  • Church and Religious History
  • Cultural History
  • Colonialism and Imperialism
  • Intellectual History

Castellano, Español, or Españoles?

Spanish is spoken today as a native language by almost half a billion people. The vast majority of them are in Latin America, including the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The foundation for the formidable presence Spanish in the region is traceable to the period of colonization, a time in which the language, having been brought in from the Iberian Peninsula by soldiers, conquistadors, missionaries, and entrepreneurs representing the Spanish Crown, took hold across all elements of society within a relatively short period of time. Indigenous tongues struggled to survive under the implacable presence of an imperial mandate intent on making all subjects part of the empire. As colonization came to a close and during the age of independence (1810–1910), a succession of republics in the Americas declared their autonomy by pushing for a nationalist agenda. Spanish was an essential agglutinating force in the shaping of these national identities.

Before proceeding with an exploration of the linguistic development of Spanish in the Americas, it is crucial to fine-tune an issue of nomenclature. In the vernacular, Spanish is often called by two names: castellano and español. The Harvard scholar Amado Alonso pondered the theme in his book Castellano, español, idioma nacional (1938). The former recognizes its origin, around the year 1000, as a regional language in Castile, in central Spain. The latter refers to the transition the language made from the regional to the national around 1492, as the project of the Reconquista was in full gear and Antonio de Nebrija, a philologist at the University of Salamanca, published Gramática sobre la lengua castellana, a grammar of the language in which, in a dedication to Queen Isabella, he referred to it as “la compañera del imperio,” the companion of empire, portraying it as a tool Spain needed to use in its trans-Atlantic forays. In Latin America, people don’t distinguish between castellano and español. Although these terms are seen as synonymous nowadays, it is historically appropriate to choose the latter when discussing the vicissitudes of the language in the Spanish colonies across the Atlantic.

The spirit of freedom gave place to insurrections in Latin America starting at the end of the 18th century. The first country to achieve independence was Mexico. As such, it serves as a useful case study. Among the creoles, the decision to secede was inspired by two foreign models: the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Leaders such as Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavón, in what was then known as Nueva España, mimicked the ideals of freedom, equality, and republicanism. Democracy, as a concept, was less developed. Their entire ideological rhetoric was conveyed in Spanish, which by then was the lingua franca of all social classes. The spirit of liberation spread quickly mostly across urban centers, primarily in the capital, originally built in what was known during the pre-Columbian era as Tenochtitlán, the heart of Aztec civilization, which used Nahuatl as its lingua franca. The name chosen for the new nation was “Méjico,” but a switch a spelling it with an x came about when the letter was perceived to be symbolically connected with Nahuatl. An effort by lexicographers, philologists, and educators involved legitimizing indigenous words, such as hamaca (hammock), cacahuate (peanut), escuincle (child), and aguacate (avocado).

Independence was followed in Mexico by an extended period of political instability. Among the first political projects was a monarchy ruled by Joaquín de Iturbide that undermined the drive toward democracy and pluralism. It encompassed what is described as Mesoamerica, stretching northward from present-day El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras in the south to what was once the American Southwest, including California, Texas, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. It isn’t surprising, then, that the varieties of Spanish in these regions coincide with the standard Mexican variety. Given the broad territory, that variety was never homogenous. It has been noticed by linguists of diverse theoretical persuasions that Mexican Spanish, particularly in the center of the country, loses strength in the pronunciation of vowels, whereas consonants are pronounced strongly. There are several varieties of Mexican Spanish: Norteño, both eastern and western; Bajacaliforniano; Western; Bajío (lowlands); Altiplano (central); Sureño (southern); Costeño (coastal), Chiapaneco (southeastern), and Yucateco (eastern peninsular).

Next in line in the fight for independence was Brazil, which is part of Latin America although culturally and linguistically its roots are quite different. (Pedro Henríquez Ureña, an influential 20th-century philologist from the Dominican Republic, who in the mid-1940s delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard under the title of Literary Currents in Hispanic America [1945], preferred to refer to the region as two: Hispanic America and Luso—Portuguese—America.) In 1823 Brazil finally pushed the Portuguese out, followed by the liberation of various regions of South America, from Argentina to Peru and from Venezuela and Colombia. Figures like Simón Bolívar, Francisco de Miranda, and José de San Martín fought an extended series of insurrections that spread over decades.

The Spanish spoken in Argentina, also known as español rioplatense, uses the pronoun vos instead of the informal and the formal usted. This feature is known as voseo, in contrast with tuteo, where the form is used flexibly. It is obvious in oral communication. The conjugation of verbs with vos employs the second-person singular (vos estás) and usted uses the third-person singular (usted está). In Central America, the phenomenon of voseo affects verbal conjugations in the present, present subjunctive, and imperative. For instance, instead of saying piensas they say tú pensás, instead of pienses it is tú pensés, and instead of piensa it is tú pensá. There are other linguistic patterns distinguishing it from Iberian Spanish (loísmo instead of leísmo, seseo, etc.).

Argentine Spanish, again studied by Amado Alonso as well as by Américo Castro (La peculiaridad lingüística rioplatense y su sentido histórico [The linguistic peculiarity of the River Plate and its historical meaning, 1961]), is essentially colored by the infusion of immigrants to the region, at first from Italy, Eastern Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula and subsequently from Asia and elsewhere. Unlike Mexico and Central America, where the aboriginal population played a crucial role, in Argentina and Uruguay the role of indigenous tribes was rather small in comparison. Intriguingly, there developed in the region a rural type, called Gaucho, that in complex ways is the equivalent of the cowboy in the American West and, in the national imagination, is seen as a kind of aboriginal type. The question of what role the gaucho ought to play was explored, notably, by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an important 19th-century intellectual during the Rosas dictatorship and eventually the country’s president. In Civilización y barbarie (Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, 1845), he looks at the Gaucho as an obstacle—awkward, primitive—to Argentina becoming a modern nation. The antidote, he proposes, is European immigration.

Indeed, Argentina opened its doors in the 1870s to an influx of immigrants. People with diverse origins arrived: Spanish, Basque, Galician, Portuguese, and northern Italian. There were also new arrivals from France, Germany, and other European countries. Between 1910 and 1945, immigration came from Southern Italy. (Approximately 40 percent of all Argentines have Italian ancestry.) In turn, they were followed by Jews from Russia, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, whose influx lasted until the Second World War. Additionally, Argentina always had a population of English speakers, particularly from Britain and Ireland. As a result of this influx, the slang of the lower-class, Lunfardo, which ended up defining Argentine Spanish, originated among Italian immigrants. It was at first the parlance of prostitutes and criminals. Jorge Luis Borges, always fascinated with linguistic changes, explored it in parts of his oeuvre.

Andrés Bello: The Philologist’s Task

From the philological perspectives, arguably the most important figure in the development of Spanish in Latin America at the time of independence is the Venezuelan essayist, linguist, and diplomat Andrés Bello, who established an agenda that helped define the cultural parameters of the young republics in terms of grammar, syntax, lexicography, and morphology. It is difficult to overestimate Bello’s impact. Keeping in mind fundamental cultural differences, he is a figure of the type of Samuel Johnson, the 17th-century English lexicographer and man of letters, author of a magisterial dictionary of the English language. Bello’s task was straightforward: in the quest to identify a culture that was authentically American, he wanted to make Spanish suitable for Americans, simplifying its grammar and recognizing its lexicographic variants.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, he was a man of diverse talents who entered the diplomatic service early on in his life, living in London, where he befriended Simón Bolívar, known as El Libertador, the leader in the fight to create a republic in South America (one that included portions of what are today Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, and Argentina) that matched, in scope and strength, the United States. Bello caught the bug, hoping to translate the political dreams into the cultural realm through essays, articles, and philological investigations about what made the region unique. In the realm of linguistics, he published an assortment of in-depth studies that include Principios de la ortografía y métrica de la lengua castellana (Principles of Castilian orthography and prosody 1835), Análisis ideológica de los tiempos de la conjugación castellana (Ideological analysis of Castilian conjugation, 1841), and his monumental Gramática de la lengua castellana destinada para el uso de los Americanos (Grammar of the Castilian language destined for American usage, 1847).

This last work is an attempt to adapt the language to regional usage. His target audience was “mis hermanos, los habitantes de Hispanoamérica” (my siblings, the inhabitants of Hispanic America). Organized in a methodical way that looks at the syntactical structure of the Spanish language, his book seeks to offer a way for speakers in the Americas to use the language according to their own needs and not in deference to Iberian attitudes. He wants his readers to adapt “los significados y usos de cada forma como si no hubiese en el mundo otra lengua que la castellana” (the meanings and uses to each form as if the world didn’t know any other language than Castilian). Convinced that what would give coherence and stability to the new republics would be their culture and, consequently, their language, Bello looked for ways to standardize the written form. He wanted the language of the Americas to be unified: “Juzgo importante la conservación de la lengua de nuestros padres en su posible … como un medio providencial de comunicación y un vínculo de fraternidad entre las varias naciones de origen español derramadas sobre los dos continentes” (I deem important the conservation of our ancestors’ language as much as possible, as a providential means of communication and a fraternal tie among the various nations of Spanish origin spread out across the two continents). Bello stressed, time and again, that the Spanish used in Spain is a different form than the one in the Americas, and that this difference should be embraced. He believed that Iberian grammarians were too conservative, rejecting as malapropisms anything that came from the New World.

At the same time, Bello admonished his fellow Americans to use the language properly and according to basic rules. He was appalled by the way Chileans (the Gramática was written in Santiago) deformed the language and were disdainful of formal structures. He proposed simplifying spelling, adapting regional use, and in general recognizing the creativity on this side of the Atlantic. His effort, then, is a balancing act between giving the newly independent republics a sense of worth by recognizing varieties within the language and the drive to keep Spanish across countries as a unified entity. Yet by the end of the independence period, it was obvious that Spanish in the vast geography of the Americas had evolved in peculiar ways, fostering varieties dependent on regional factors. The result is that rather than a single, homogenized language, each national sphere developed its own characteristics. These differences are most tangible in terms of accent—that is, at the oral level. And within those theaters, there are multiple subdivisions. Colombian Spanish tends to be fuller in terms of pronunciation whereas Caribbean varieties (in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic) abbreviate the last syllable of words. Vocabulary tends to be shaped by local needs and acquires unique characteristics in connection with food, flora and fauna, and sexual references. There are myriad comparative dictionaries where the varieties of Latin American Spanish are represented.

One of the philologists in Latin America influenced by Bello was Colombian Rufino José Cuervo. An avid reader of Bello, he sought to improve on an aspect he found lacking in his predecessor: the historical content. For Cuervo language is an organism in constant mutation. He studied closely the parlance of Bogotá, producing an insightful compendium of linguistic behavior called Apuntaciones críticas sobre el lenguaje bogotano (Critical notes on Bogotá’s language, 1872). His magnum opus is the unfinished two-volume Diccionario de construcción y régimen de la lengua castellana (Dictionary of structure of the Spanish Language, 1893), in which he attempted to produce a historical lexicon in the scope of The Oxford English Dictionary, with a focus on Latin America, accounting for variants.

Toward a Modern Tongue

At the end of the 19th century, as the wars of independence were bearing fruit, the Spanish Empire faced its collapse. This became evident during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Spain faced the loss of some of its last remaining territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and the United States, a nascent global force, become the conquering force in the Caribbean Basin, the Pacific, and beyond. A referendum of Spanish culture in the Americas took place. The former mother country was perceived as intrusive, imperialistic. The citizens of the new republics were eager to look elsewhere for inspiration, especially to France.

It is during this period that an aesthetic movement, involving music, painting, and architecture but especially writing, known as modernismo, swept through the Americas (spanning roughly from 1885 to 1915). Its general objective was to encourage the region to embrace modernity in order to become a partner with the rest of the industrial world. At the level of language and literature, it imitated French symbolism, Parnassianism, and other trends, and it looked to Paris as the capital of culture. Its promoters were Nicaraguan Rubén Darío and Cuban José Martí, considered the two major leaders, followed by figures like José Asunción Silva of Colombia, Amado Nervo and Enrique González Martínez of Mexico, Leopoldo Lugones of Argentina, and Delmira Agustini and José Enrique Rodó of Uruguay, among others. It was the first time that intellectuals from various parts of Latin America were seen as belonging to the same artistic movement.

Darío and Martí fashioned a verbal style that was free, as much as possible, of Iberian mannerisms. Their dream was to make American Spanish fluid, harmonious, and transnational. Whenever they included localisms in their poems, stories, essays, and reportage, it was to emphasize the particular in the context of the universal. Yet the majority of them generally avoided sounding too regional. Their quest was to show that the Spanish they used, four hundred years after the conquest, was free, autonomous, and democratic. Such was their impact, first in Spain and decades later in other parts of Europe, that their work began to be regularly translated to French, German, Italian, and Portuguese.

Indeed, translation for the modernistas was an essential component to success. Just as they read broadly in the spirit of cosmopolitanism, they wanted their needs to be understood beyond their immediate circumstances. Modernity, for them, was a type of urban angst felt wherever culture mattered in the world, regardless of language. This prompted them to look attentively at their own language, Spanish, as a ticket to humanism. Thus, Darío, Martí, and other members of the generation often include references to idiosyncratic elements in their tongue, or to write about exotic terms, immigrant modalities, and philological trends.

Distribution of books was difficult, though. Volumes released in Managua or Caracas seldom traveled beyond the immediate region. The capitals of publishing at the time where Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Havana. Whatever appeared there was noticed by newspapers. Yet it was through word of mouth, to a large extent, that the modernista fever jumped national borders. There was another component that also helped. The members of this generation understood travel differently from their predecessors. Modernity, in and of itself, implied constant motion, whether within one’s own urban milieu or across cultural landscapes. To be educated was to travel, and to travel as to be exposed to different kinds of stimulation. The extent to which the modernistas were frequent collaborators in international periodicals, then, makes sense.

That cross-fertilization, again, was an invaluable resource not only in the spread of a modern sensibility but in the effort to standardize Spanish as a language that spoke to millions across nations. In that sense it is important to stress the role the modernistas had as public intellectuals in exploring the worth of Spanish throughout Latin America. While they didn’t conceive of themselves as teachers per se, their active—indeed, almost frantic—didactic tone enabled audiences from Colombia to Argentina, from Cuba to Chile, to feel like contemporaries.

One of the most liberating manifestoes to emerge from the modernista generation was José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel (1900). Using the characters of Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as steppingstones, Rodó argues succinctly that Spain’s influence on Latin America is all but eclipsed. The new paradigm is the United States, which at the dawn of the 20th century was still establishing itself as a global empire. Latin Americans, in Rodó’s opinion, must choose between a spirituality connected with the indigenous civilizations of the pre-Columbian past as well as with a genuine desire for freedom on the one hand and the brutish materialism of the United States on the other. In his view, the language of spirituality is Spanish.

The Embattled Real Academia Española: The Question of Regionalisms

Perhaps the best way to understand the new emerging consciousness is through the consolidation of the Real Academia Española de la Lengua (Spanish Royal Academy; RAE). While the matrix was founded in 1713, its role from the outset was to vigorously safeguard the language as it changes internally and reacts to outside influences—the Academia’s motto is “Limpia, fija y da splendor” (Clean, define, and give splendor)—the institution remained captive to its Iberian origins for some 150 years, its activities generating only marginal interest in the Americas. One must remember that Spain in the 18th century was in a period of political, military, economic, and cultural decline. This climate led to a self-imposed ostracism. In truth, it might be better described as collective depression, a syndrome often acknowledged by diplomats and artists. At any rate, what was happening in the colonies, now that they were increasingly independent, seemed in Spanish eyes like a punch in the face. Those colonies, their language and culture, were perceived as awkward, primitive, unworthy of legitimate interest.

The modernistas changed that attitude, pushing for openness. With time that spilled into the RAE activities. The academy progressively added branches in countries across the Atlantic, with a total of twenty-two, starting with Colombia (1871), Ecuador (1874), and Mexico (1875), and ending with Honduras (1949), Puerto Rico (1955), and the United States (1973). The inauguration of each of them was a carefully orchestrated event in which Spain was careful not to be perceived as imposing its own linguistic mandate, although avoiding such ideological effort was seldom successful. In the end, the structure was centralized, with the Madrid matrix functioning as headquarters. Among the most important projects of the institution, if not the central one, is the ongoing publication of the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (DLE), a prescriptive lexicon encompassing the breadth and complexity of the language in Hispanic civilization. Inevitably, the making of the DLE was always seen as an endeavor concerned with the surge, development, and health of Iberian Spanish. The connection to the Americas was tenuous at first. As the 20th century approached, an invitation was sent to those academies already established to contribute with “regionalismos.” With bureaucratic disarray reigning in their realm, a few of them—the Colombian and Mexican ones, for instance—proceeded to submit their contribution. It often took them longer than anticipated. Only after submitting it did they realize that DLE was selective in what it was ready to include in the Diccionario. The negotiations of what to include and what to exclude were often lengthy. They allowed for the various branches to come to terms with their own condition as colonial entities and to gather resources to create their own lexicons, rejecting the concept of “regionalism” as paternalistic. Thus started an age of linguistic self-confidence that within decades led to the publication of dictionaries of various Spanish varieties in their respective countries of origin.

In 1951, an added institution came to the fore: Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, known as ASALE (Association of Spanish Language Academies) is in charge of regulating the Spanish language. Both the academy and its dictionary, and to a much lesser extent the ASALE, regularly come under attack for their outmoded understanding of the language and their colonial attitude toward the Americas. Yet even that attack is seldom representative because the population at large in Latin America appears unaffected by its activities. The disassociation between these institutions and the people is an example of the limitations of linguistic legislation. The Spanish language is a living organism, built as a series of interrelated structures. No single power is capable of controlling its development. In that sense, scholarship, including lexicography, is by definition descriptive rather than prescriptive. Its duty is to account for the changes, not to tinker with them.

The Power of Variety

A look at the growth of Spanish in the 20th century is uncontestable proof of the plentiful nature of the language. After the Spanish-American War of 1898 deflated Spain’s dreams across the Atlantic and Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines severed their ties with the former empire, each of these countries proceeded to cultivate its national identity according to internal needs and conditions. With the exception of the Philippines after 1902, Spanish became one of the tools. Such were the dictates of nationalism that as the local verbal traits were recognized and studied, they became paradigmatic of what made Cubans, for instance, a distinctly singular people.

Consequently, there is an abundance of books, published from the 1920s onward, on what makes Cuban parlance unique. Ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociolinguists set out to research the local flavor, including linguistic idiosyncrasies. An example is Fernando Ortíz’s Catauro de cubanismos (Corpus of Cubanisms, 1923), in which the language of former slaves is scrutinized, then catalogued, and (Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, 1940), a study of the place of tobacco and sugar in the Cuban psyche and language. To a considerable extent, although keeping individual objectives in mind, this has been the mandate of philologists such as Venezuelan Ángel Rosenblat and Henríquez-Ureña. Indeed, just as tourism was starting to become a source of national pride as well as income, the relationship between the Spanish language and regional and national folklore became a way to showcase difference.

Concurrently, each nation established an educational program that subscribed to some linguistic patterns recognized as linked to an approved norm. In Mexico, for instance, José Vasconcelos, a philosopher, author of The Cosmic Race (1925), minister of education, and the rector of the national university UNAM, articulated in the 1930s a series of principles whereby Mexican children in schools would become acquainted with their collective heritage, which he related to mestizaje, ethnic cross-breeding, starting with the Spanish conquest that defined Mexico as a nation. Mestizaje quickly became more than a buzzword: it was turned into an ideology. Mexican Spanish, as well as some Central American Spanish, is characterized by a distinctive use of affricates and fricatives that were inherited from Nahuatl and other pre-Columbian languages (Tlanepantla and Xochimilco, for instance), the reduction of unstressed vowels, the abundance of suffixes (amiguito, casucha), and a distinct lexicon. What made Mexicans distinct, according to Vasconcelos and his followers, was their hybrid character, part European, part aboriginal. Similar endeavors were accomplished in Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Peru.

Another crucial facet of the growth of nationalism in Latin America in the 20th century is the surge of a media (print, radio, and TV) that responds to the particular needs of each of the Latin American countries. It is well known that media is a force that simultaneously incorporates a plethora of voices that are part of the national conversation and standardizes the language in which that conversation takes. The study of particular cases is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that in each nation Spanish in the media is articulated in different ways. Depending on the circumstances (who is in control of power, what the ideological agenda is, etc.), those ways incorporate, to various degrees, age, class, gender, and racial differences, as well as the parlance of specific groups like indigenous tribes, tourists, and ethnic minorities.

The result of these programmatic strategies suggests a tension, in terms of linguistic expansion, between the universal and the particular. That tension is visible in the literary movement known as “el Boom,” which came about in the sixties, represented by writers like Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Chile’s José Donoso, and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. Like the modernistas less than a century before them, these authors came to be recognized as a force in world literature. Their novels, infused with magical realism (a mix of dreamlike images and politically charged plots), were turned, though translation, into desirable global artifacts. The images they offered together was of a continent suspended in time, deeply rooted in its ancestral legacy, and struggling to incorporate influences from a variety of sources. Perhaps the most notable example is García Márquez’s genealogical narrative One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), about a fictional coastal town, Macondo, and its rowdy, multilayered family, the Buendías. Such is the influence the book still exerts that an entire creed, known as Macondismo, has evolved out of it. The premise behind it is simple: Latin America never became fully modern.

Significantly, the language the writers of “el Boom” employed in their work, including García Márquez, is perhaps their most lasting contribution. International readers approach it with reverence. Each author stresses national elements (Peruvianisms, Colombianisms, and so on) while finding a neutral vehicle of communication understood beyond borders. Here, in a nutshell, is what the diversity of the Spanish language in Latin America is capable of accomplishing.

The Growth of Spanglish

More than five centuries after the encounter between European and aboriginal peoples in the Americas, language contact and, specifically, bilingualism and multilingualism remain a reality in many places in Latin America. This is evident in the way that in this richly diverse region, indigenous languages (such as Quechua, Guaraní, Aymara, Mapuche, Toltec, and so on—there are close to 450) exist in contact with Spanish, often influencing it and vice versa. Likewise, in immigrant communities European languages other than Spanish (German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, French, etc.) are used for instruction and frequently for other activities as well, from business to the arts.

Yet unquestionably the most important phenomenon in Latin America in this regard pertains English. Through second-language instruction, research, banking, entertainment, travel, and the constant flux of migration, the coexistence of Spanish and English is a distinct feature of the region, as it is, of course, in other parts of the globe as well.

Not surprisingly, a crucial aspect of Hispanic civilization at the beginning of the 21st century was the astronomical growth of the Latino minority in the United States, which by the end of the first decade numbered around fifty-five million. Its roots dating back to the age of colonization, Latinos lived in areas such as California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida where Spanish was once a lingua franca. As time went by, bilingualism became a feature. Portions of the community remained loyal to Spanish, while other segments, through assimilation, embraced English.

In fact, bilingualism is really a three-way path, since another vehicle of communication among Latinos is Spanglish, the hybrid that combines Spanish and English into a mix with its own idiosyncratic rules. Spanglish showcases three characteristics: code-switching, simultaneous translation, and the constant creation of neologisms.

The exact number of people using Spanglish is difficult to ascertain, but estimates oscillate between thirty and forty million. They might be immigrants, second-generation Americans, or people whose labor or social situation places them in a context where Spanglish predominates. Also, there isn’t a single mainstream Spanglish but varieties that include Mexican American (aka Chicano, a category subdivided into Tex-Mex, Californio, Nevadean, etc.), Cuban American, Dominicanish, Nuyorican, and other types defined by national and geographic background.

Particular Spanglish terms are varied. They range from manipulated cognates to adaptive conjugations to loose translations. In general, while Spanglish remains highly spontaneous, it is in the process of standardization. As a result it is extremely controversial. Purists look at it as a barbaric manifestation by an uncultured population. But a growing number of scholars are approaching it as a genuine phenomenon worthy of sustained study. Comparisons between Spanglish and Yiddish, Chinglish, Franglais, Portuñol, and other hybrid tongues abound.

Spanglish exercises substantial influence through media. It is ubiquitous on TV, radio, newspapers, music, film, literature, and the internet. Some of these manifestations easily cross borders. This means that the pressure it exerts on Spanish, not only within the United States but in Latin America, is enormous, especially in urban centers. Consequently, there is little doubt it will be a major player in the way the Spanish language is understood in the future.

"El Líttle Príncipe," por Antoine de Saint Exupéry, transladado al Spanglish por Ilan Stavans (Edition Tintenfass, 2016):

Capítulo II.

And entonces yo viví alone, con nadie con quien pudiera hablar, hasta seis años atrás cuando mi avión se descompuso en el Desierto del Sahara. Y yo no tenía un mechanic conmigo, o ningún pasajero, por lo que yo tenía que hacer un complicated arreglo de engine por mi cuenta. Mi vida depended de esto, since yo apenas tenía suficiente agua que would last me una semana.

La first noche, me acosté en el ground and me quedé asleep, millas y millas lejos de cualquier livin alma. Yo estaba más cut off que un barco adrifteando en el middle del océano. So seguramente podrás imaginarte mi astonishment cuando yo fui awekeado en el daybreak por una funny little voz que decía: ‘Please, puedes dibujarme un little cordero!’


‘Dibújame un little cordero…’

"David Copperfield," por Charles Dickens, transladado al espanglish by Ilan Stavans (BBC Radio, 2014).

Capítulo I.

Sea que I shall convertirme en un hero de mi propia vida, or sea que that condición will be tomada by alguien distinto, estas páginas must demonstrarlo. Pa’ empezar mi vida desde el beginning de mi vida, I establezco que I nací (as I have been informado and I creo) en un Viernes, a las doce of the noche. Se ha remarcado que el reloj began to estrike y que yo began to llorar simultaneously.

En consideración del día y hour of my nacimiento, it was declarado by la nurse, y por some mujeres sabias del hood que had taken un lively interés en mí several meses antes que there was alguna possibility de conocernos personally, primero, que estaba destinado a ser unlucky en la vida; y segundo, que yo era privilegiado de ver ghosts y espírtus; estos dos regalos eran attacheados, ellos believed, a los unlucky infantes de los dos genders, born hacia las pequeñas horas del Viernes in the noche.

No necesito decir nothin’ aquí, pa’ empezar, porque nothin’ puede demostrar better en mi own historia si that predicción era verified o falsificada by the resultado. On la segunda rama de la cuestión, yo solo voy a remarcar que unless yo gasté parte de mi inheritance while yo todavía era un baby, yo aún no recibo nada yet. Pero I do not me quejo pa’ nada de haber sido dejado afuera de mi property; y si anybody else tiene ese trabajo ahora, esa persona is welcome to keep it de to’ corazón.

Discussion of the Literature

Exploring the relationship between the Spanish language and the societies in Latin American that foster it is a daunting task. As fields of study, lexicography and sociolinguistics in the Hispanic world lag behind when compared to similar efforts in other major languages, including English, German, and French. The Diccionario de la Lengua Española is broadly available on the western side of the Atlantic. It supposedly contains terms from all countries in the region. Yet a persistent complaint is that the Iberian creators of the DLE consistently downplay the importance of Latin Americanisms. Likewise, comparative studies of dictionaries of Spanish published in Latin America are infrequent and often ineffectual. The result is a literature that suffers from its lack of comprehensiveness. Most histories of the Spanish language in Latin America focus on verbal patterns (seseo, leísmo, voseo, etc.) rather than scrutinizing the relationship between language and society.

Primary Sources

There are a number of histories of the Spanish language. The majority are written by Iberian scholars with limited exposure to the linguistic traits of Latin America. And even those histories produced in the region, such as Antonio Alatorre’s Los 1,000 años de la lengua Española (1979), offer a disappointingly nearsighted view of the developments of Spanish on the western side of the Atlantic, from the age of independence to the present.

Perhaps the most used history of the Spanish language is Rafael Lapesa’s Historia de la lengua española (1981). It feels rigid and outmoded by today’s standards. In the United States, David A. Pharies is the author of A Brief History of the Spanish Language (second edition, 2015), equally dissatisfying. There is also Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language (second edition, 2002).

The significant linguists whose focus has been the varieties of Spanish in the Americas include Antonio Alatorre, Damaso Alonso, Manuel Alvar, Américo Castro, Fernando Ortiz, and Ángel Rosenblat.

Linguists tend to focus on morphology, syntax, grammar, and lexicography. The connection between language and sociopolitical events, which ought to be the purview of sociolinguists, seldom offers a window to how language responds to ideological revolutions, religious upheaval, and economic transformations. Hence, there is an urgent need to train a new generation of field researchers and scholars of language in this regard.

The oeuvre of Andrés Bello is seminal in countless ways, including the understanding of Latin American Spanish. Bello has received sustained attention from scholars. Some of the best scholarship on him is by Chilean historian Iván Jaksić, who is also the editor of Bello’s unpublished work.

Rufino José Cuervo’s legacy has not been studied as extensively. Colombian novelist Fernando Vallejo penned a biography of Cuervo, El cuervo blanco (2012).

Work on Spanglish in particular, and on the varieties of Spanish in the United States, has advanced to a considerable extent since the 1980s. Ilan Stavans’s Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003) includes a translation into Spanglish of the first chapter of Don Quixote. John M. Lipski’s Varieties of Spanish in the United States (2008) accounts for the plurality of linguistic heritages.

Further Reading

  • Alatorre, Antonio. Los 1,001 años de la lengua española. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1979.
  • Alonso, Amado. El problema de la lengua en América. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1935.
  • Alonso, Amado. Castellano, español, idioma nacional: Historia espiritual de tres nombres. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1938.
  • Alonso, Amado. Argentina y la nivelación del idioma. Buenos Aires: Institución Cultural Española, 1943.
  • Alvar, Manuel, ed. Manuel de dialectología hispánica: El español de América. Barcelona: Ariel, 1996.
  • Bellini, Giuseppe, ed. Andrés Bello: Antología. Madrid: Castalia, 2009.
  • Bello, Andrés. Gramática de la lengua castellana destinada al uso de los americanos. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1981.
  • Castro, Américo. La peculiaridad lingüística rioplatense y su sentido histórico. Madrid: Taurus, 1961.
  • Cotton, Eleanor Greet, and John Sharp. Spanish in the Americas. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1988.
  • Cuervo, Rufino José. Diccionario de construcción y régimen de la lengua castellana. Bogotá, Colombia: Ministerio de Educación, 1943.
  • Cuervo, Rufino José. Apuntaciones críticas sobre el lenguaje bogotano. Bogotá, Colombia: Ministerio de Educación, 1943.
  • Gutiérrez-Rexach, Javier, ed. Enciclopedia de lingüística hispánica. 2 vols. Milton Park, U.K.: Routledge, 2015.
  • Henríquez-Ureña, Pedro. Literary Currents in Hispanic America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945.
  • Jaksić, Iván. Scholarship and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Lapesa, Rafael. Historia de la lengua española. Madrid: Gredos, 1981.
  • Lapesa, Rafael. El español moderno y contemporáneo. Barcelona: Crítica Grijalbo Mondadori, 1996.
  • Lipski, John M. Varieties of Spanish in the United States. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008.
  • Lozano, Carmen, ed. Antonio de Nebrija: Gramática sobre la lengua castellana. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg/Círculo de Lectores, 2011.
  • Nadeau, Jean-Benoit, and Julie Barlow. The Story of Spanish. New York: St. Martin’s, 2013.
  • Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Translated by Harriet de Onís. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Penny, Ralph. A History of the Spanish Language. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Pharies, David A. A Brief History of the Spanish Language. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Rodó, José Enrique. Ariel. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.
  • Rosenblat, Ángel. El criterio de corrección lingüística: Unidad o pluralidad de normas en el castellano de España y América. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1967.
  • Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. Translated by Mary Mann. Introduction by Ilan Stavans. New York: Penguin, 1998.
  • Stavans, Ilan. “Translation and Identity.” In The Essential Ilan Stavans. By Ilan Stavans, 231–240. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Stavans, Ilan. Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language. New York: Harper, 2003.
  • Stavans, Ilan. “Language and Colonization.” In A Critic’s Journey. By Ilan Stavans, 122–134. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
  • Vallejo, Fernando. El cuervo blanco. Barcelona: Alfaguara, 2012.
  • Vasconcelos, José. “Mestizaje.” Translated by John H. R. Polt. In José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race. By Ilan Stavans, 56–108. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.