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Opinion | America Has More Than One Spanglish

Take English: When the Normans ran England for a spell after 1066, French was the language of writing, government and ceremony while English was thought of as the language of the peasantry, unwritten and unobserved. During this time and afterward, French words flooded into English, such that today we use many French words as a matter of routine: “art,” “pleasant” and even “very” all came from French. To be sure, there were wonks who found this, and the similar flood of Latin words, annoying. They thought English would be purer and even clearer if it stuck to using its own roots to form new words, and thus they advised words like “endsay” instead of “conclusion” and “inwit” instead of “conscience.”

But few listened, they’re dead and here we are. Nobody now regrets that, for example, this very sentence has four French and Latin words. We think of the procession from the Old English of “Beowulf” to the Middle English of Chaucer to the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as a noble procession, handed down by official decree, perhaps as French horns coo Hollywood-kitsch medieval. But if today someone uses “structure” as a verb or tries to clear up the ambiguity between singular and plural “you” by saying “you all,” they’re often told they’re doing something wrong.

The phenomenon goes much wider than English and Spanish, of course. (And, of course, every European language spoken in America, including English, started out as an immigrant language.) The classic model of what happens to immigrant languages in America is simple but oversimplified: that immigrant generations are more comfortable with the language of their land of origin, even if they use English for utilitarian purposes; the next generation is bilingual, but perhaps a little more comfortable with the new language; and the generation after that frequently only speaks the old language in bits and pieces.

Linguists these days are looking more closely at the language of that second generation, and it is becoming clear that the mixed nature of Spanglish represents a general phenomenon. Among people born in and growing up in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach — where it’s common to hear Russian and Ukrainian spoken — lots of English words are mixed in. A term like “Russglish” wouldn’t roll off the tongue quite the way “Spanglish” does, that’s why there isn’t one. But the pattern among the second generation still fits: Because they didn’t grow up as profoundly immersed in Russian as their parents, and while they are probably fluent speakers, their rendition lets go of some of the knottiest aspects of the grammar that take the most practice to get used to. Spanglish can be like this as well. An English speaker often finds Spanish’s subjunctive mood tricky to get the hang of. Spanish speakers born in the United States and brought up in Spanish-speaking households, while knowing their way around it, sometimes use it less than their parents.

And this new Russian isn’t used just by younger folks at home with their families. Russian-speaking peer groups speak it among themselves in any number of everyday situations. Among many of them, English, too, is taking on new forms below the radar. Many have definite Russian accents despite having been born in New York City. Life in Brighton Beach is so profoundly Russian — some born there casually refer to New York beyond the neighborhood as “America” — that an outsider can forget he’s in the United States at times. Naturally, one can grow up there and hold on to the accent of one’s parents, instead of letting it go as you get older and spend most of your time with peers who speak mainstream American English.

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