The myth of linguistic purity

Language can not be legislated; it is the freest, most democratic form of expression of the human spirit.  Sociolinguist Ilan Stavans, in Spanglish: tickling the tongue

A translator being outraged at the evidence of the evolution of our language is as absurd as a botanist chastising a plant for changing its colour. If the change offends us, we should reflect on the ideological presuppositions underlying our reaction. Nataly Kelly, a marketing executive and co-author of Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World


In a recent interview in English PEN, Turkish writer Elif Shafak talked about her creative process:

I write my novels in English first. Then they are translated into Turkish by professional translators, whose works I admire and respect. Next I take the Turkish translations and rewrite them, giving them my rhythm, my energy, my vocabulary, which is full of old Ottoman words. Many of those words came from Arabic and Persian, and they have been plucked out of the Turkish language by modernist nationalists in the name of purity. Critical of this linguistic racism, I use both old and new words while writing in Turkish.

What really interests me are her comments about linguistic racism. The idea that languages are pure is surely one of the most ridiculous pieces of nonsense that you will ever hear. I love the title of John McWhorter’s short engaging history of English, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. McWhorter is celebrating the opposite of the Turkish obsession with purity. He seems to be arguing that English is a Creole, with no pejorative meaning intended in the word. You can see my review of the book here.

One linguistic phenomenon that has attracted the opprobrium of Spanish and English purists is Spanglish. The Oxford Dictionaries online define it as “a hybrid language combining words and idioms from both Spanish and English, Both the English Only movement and the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language seem to frown on it. However, I have just checked the definition in the Academy dictionary and it is pleasantly neutral. According to Wikipedia, it was the Puerto Rican poet Salvador Tió who brought the term into English. He originally called it Espanglish or Inglañol. But Spanglish has become the term we use in English, but Spanish has maintained the initial e. The late Octavio Paz argued that that Spanglish was neither good nor bad, but abominable. Paz may not have liked it, but Spanglish is not unique, but rather a typical example whenever two or more languages come into contact.

According to the 2010 census, there are over fifty million Hispanics living in the United States. This number represents 12.5% of the overall population, which means that the Latino community is the largest minority in the United States. Latinos have not followed the same pattern as those 19/20th century German, Jewish or Italian immigrants with respect to the English language. By the second or third generation, their grandchildren already spoke English, and German Yiddish or Italian tended to be a topic of nostalgia. Latinos are a very different. This may be because many of them have come from just across the border, as is the case with the Mexicans. A Mexican living in Arizona or Texas will have a different attitude to their linguistic heritage than a Scandinavian living in Minnesota in the 19th century would have had.

Now I want to look at Spanglish in greater depth. I found a fascinating PowerPoint presentation on the internet by Gerald F. Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist. Murray argues that Spanglish is not a mish-mash of English and Spanish.  It is neither English nor Spanish, but a dialect of Spanish. In terms of basic phonology, morphology, and syntax it is Spanish, but it uses borrowed words from English. These words have to fit into the Spanish structures. He shows three ways in which this happens:

1) Code switching between Spanish and English in the same sentence or conversation.

In linguistics, code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. Here is an example used by Murray

 “Hi, Marta.  This is Pablo.  ¿Cómo va todo? Oye, te quería preguntar,  are you free this evening a eso de las ocho?  There’s a movie on campus que me parece que va a ser muy interesante. If you can join me, me das una llamadita.  Call me mejor on my cell phone, que voy a estar afuera.  Hope to hear from you. No me dejes de llamar.”

Unlike Pidgins and Creoles, this is usually done by fully bilingual people when talking to other bilinguals. It creates a sense of solidarity in the speakers and has come to define a sense of unique identity. A linguistic analysis of Spanglish: relating language to identity by Jason Rothman and Amy Beth Rell is another invaluable resource. They cite one Hispano, Miguel, who describes his feelings towards Spanglish:

Spanglish is a cultural symbol, which represents la mezcla which Is California culture … I enjoy speaking it because it shows my diverse identity. I’m not just a Hispanic and I’m not just an Anglo-American – I’m mixed and Spanglish represents that identity.

But he knows when not to use it:

Sometimes, if I attempt to speak Spanglish to non-Hispanics, even if they speak a high level of Spanish, they either react in confusion or they mock me, acting as if I didn’t know the word whereas I switched only because it made more sense to me [and so in general I don’t]. I also avoid Spanglish with non-Spanglish speaking Hispanics, a.k.a. Hispanics who despise the ‘improper use’ of Spanish.

2)  Importation (and adaptation) of English vocabulary items into Spanish.

Here are a couple of ways in which Spanglish words are typically created:

A) A gender marking vowel – a or o is added when the English word is short, and ends in a consonant or cluster that cannot end a word in Spanish.


brekas  brakes

carpeta  carpet

marketa  market

rufo  roof

troca truck.

yarda, yard, garden,

B) You can add ar or ear to form verbs. Examples:

chequear to check

cuitear to quit a job

lunchear to have  lunch

molear  to shop in the mall

parquear to park

rentar  to rent

taypear  to type

3) Calques:  literal translation of English terms using existing Spanish terms but giving them a meaning they do not have in Spanish

llamar para atrás   to call back

está para arriba de ti  It’s up to you.

correr para gobernador  to run for governor

vea tu paso  watch your step

The idea that imported words contaminate” a language is preposterous, something that Donald Trump might come out with. Murray does a fascinating comparison of two paragraphs:

  1. My uncle, aunt, and cousins are really my favourite relatives.  They constantly invite me to elegant and expensive restaurants. They encourage me to inspect the entire menu before deciding on a selection. I generally order beef or poultry but occasionally I prefer a vegetarian plate.
  2. My father’s brother, his wife, and their children are great folks.  I love the places where they always take me to eat.  They tell me to take my time, find out from the waiter  being cooked, and ask for whatever I want.  I almost always ask for a hamburger or fried chicken but sometimes I ask for a meal that doesn’t have any meat in it.

What is the difference between them? As you may well have guessed, every single noun and verb in the first passage has been imported into English from French.        In the second passage, however, every word is of Germanic origin, with no borrowings. Is their something wrong with the first passage because its words are not sufficiently pure? Should we, like the Turks have done rid ourselves of these infidel French words?

When it comes to linguistic protectionism, the Académie Francaise is in a class of its own. This council, which was set up in 1635, is entrusted with preserving the French language and writing an official dictionary. The 40 writers and artists are known as the immortals, although dinosaurs would be a better term for this bunch of ageing linguistic reactionaries.

As someone who believes that language is a bottom-up emergent phenomenon I have very little time for academies. But the French Académie, with its futile ongoing crusade against English linguistic contamination, is one of my bête noires. It is the antithesis of the glory of Spanglish or Ebonics. They may have adopted the internet, but their ideas have definitely not evolved. On the academies website you can find a section called Dire, Ne pas dire” (To say, Not to Say”). You can find it here. They have a part dedicated to Anglicisms.


Vous trouverez le document en pièce jointe


Vous trouverez le document en attachement


 Le professeur est absent. – Quelle bonne nouvelle ! 


Le professeur est absent. – Cool, trop cool !


Chercher des parrains, des mécènes


Chercher des sponsors


Une voiture d’époque


Une voiture vintage

I don’t necessarily approve of all linguistic innovations, but we don’t need organisations like the Academie to protect language- Luckily, French is a wonderful language and it can survive, despite having these guardians. Well into the second decade of the 21st century isn’t it time that we stopped fearing language contact and accepted that change is inevitable. Words such as contamination, invasion and purity should have no place in a debate about language.


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