Opinion | Two Languages Walk Into a Bar

I have been asked often these days about a recent study on a form of Spanish-influenced English that has emerged in Miami. It is by the linguist Phillip Carter at Florida International University, assisted by Kristen D’Alessandro Merii.

Miami is highly bilingual; in some neighborhoods, 90 percent of households use Spanish daily. But more interesting, perhaps, are the ways in which many Spanish-English bilinguals use expressions in English that are modeled on Spanish. It’s as if they are sometimes speaking English “in Spanish.” This is true not only of those whose first language was Spanish, but of second- and third-generation bilinguals, too.

In this Miami English, for instance, you say “get down from the car” rather than “get out of it,” because this is how you would put it in Spanish: bajarse del carro. You “make” a party instead of “throwing” it for the same reason. (In Spanish, it’s hacer una fiesta.) And you get married “with” instead of “to” someone because in Spanish one says “casarse con” rather than “casarse a.”

But Carter’s study is also a useful demonstration of the typical although perhaps counterintuitive way in which languages gently alter one another. Our usual sense of a language is of something “pure” and unadulterated. When other languages stage incursions into one we know, we often process them along a continuum from amusement (Louisiana’s mock-French “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” for “Let the good times roll”) through perplexity (“Why are there so many French words in English?”) to even contempt. I once knew a Romanian who found something unseemly and even louche in the fact that his language — a Romance one related to Italian — had taken in so many Slavic words.

But just as human beings might think it’s strange that animals walk on four legs when in fact it is bipedalism that is unusual, languages mixing together is the default, not a special case. Where lots of people are bilingual — such as in Miami — languages will almost always exchange words. And more than that, they will often also start to put words together in similar ways.

For example, one thing an English speaker typically has to unlearn when mastering a foreign language is the way we strand prepositions at the ends of sentences: “This is the house we went to.” Calls to avoid this practice — who among us did not learn in school to “never end a sentence with a preposition”? — have been silly and useless. (Cue here the possibly apocryphal anecdote about Winston Churchill’s verdict on the rule: “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I shall not put!”) However, in other languages the rule is a real one. To make the similarly structured statement in Spanish, “Esta es la casa que yo fui a,” could practically get you fined. No pedant needs to warn people against it, as no native speaker would ever be inclined to say it. It simply isn’t Spanish on any level.

However, things are different in, say, Copenhagen. Danish, and its sister languages Swedish and Norwegian, happily strand prepositions in the same way English does. For “This is the house we went to,” the Dane says, “Dette er huset vi gik til.” All you have to know is that “til” means “to.”

The reason that preposition stranding is happening in London, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm but not in Paris, Madrid or Moscow is that Scandinavian Vikings invaded Britain starting in the eighth century C.E. It is commonly noted that they left behind hundreds of words in the language, such as “skirt,” “ill,” “egg” and “happy.” But they also left ways of putting things, such as stranded prepositions. Before the Vikings came, no Old English speaker would have been caught dead stranding prepositions. But after the Vikings, in many ways English was spoken “in Viking.”

The Miami story, then, is a modern version of what happened to English in the Middle Ages, except this time the language is Spanish rather than Danish or Norwegian.

I encountered another variation on this theme during my annual stay at a Jewish summer bungalow colony. Why me? Long story, but it started during the pandemic and became a habit, and I am one of many non-Jews there. It’s called Rosmarins Cottages, and it is one of the last Reform Jewish colonies of a kind of which there were once dozens in the Catskills — immortalized in the film “Dirty Dancing” and, more recently, on the wondrous television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

At Rosmarins, I get an earful of what happens to English when it is spoken alongside yet another language, Yiddish. Of course, most people don’t walk around the place thinking of themselves as speaking Yiddishisms. But if you listen closely, you can hear how Yiddish infiltrated the English of earlier American Jews, such that it now seasons the speech of people a generation or more removed from actually speaking Yiddish.

For example, at Rosmarins, one says that one will be eating “by” someone’s bungalow later, not “at” it, e.g., “We’re going to be by Lenore’s. Are you coming?” This “by” is taken from the way Yiddish uses its word “bey”: “I am at grandpa and grandma’s house” is “Ikh bin bey zeyde aun bobe’s hoyz.” Just as Miami English is used by people who mostly speak English, at Rosmarins all but a sliver of the people using “by” this way do not speak Yiddish. Even the non-Jewish bungaleers (yes, that’s the term) come to use it. I and another gentile resident were using it just the other day without a second thought.

A while ago another resident and I were trying to find the light switch when leaving a big barn of a building. The resident, a lifelong English speaker who does not speak Yiddish but had relatives who did, found the switch and said, “Oh, I found where to close that light.” That was modeled on Yiddish, in which one could put it the same way and say, “makh tsi de likht.”

Or, to go back in time a little, there was — of course — a 1950s Broadway musical about a Jewish bungalow colony. It was called “Wish You Were Here” and was a minor hit. The colony’s social director introduced himself with a song, set to a klezmer-like tune, in one stanza of which he sang about how his parents and older relatives hated that he had decided to become a social director. He imitates them:

Oh, woe, woe, woe!

A social director! A social director!

Don’t tell us our boy is a social director!

Let him be a loafer, let him be a bum.

Anything is better than our boy he should become

A social director!!!

I have always liked the line “Anything is better than our boy he should become,” because this is how the sentence would be put in Yiddish as well, and the parents of this Jewish man of 1952 would most likely have been Yiddish speakers. One often reads and hears similar phrasing in literary and dramatic depictions of Jewish people of that era.

So: The house we “went to,” the light we “closed,” the person we are married “with” — all of these are examples of what happened to English as it met other languages. And of course the reverse happens to the other languages at the same time. The Spanglish phenomenon is well known, in which Spanish in America has taken on a great many English words and ways of putting things. “Llamame pa’atras” in Spanglish is “call me back,” despite the fact that in original Spanish it would mean “call me backward.” Little wonder that this evolution works in both directions. Englañol, anyone?

As Carter put it in an interview, “When you have two languages spoken by most of the population, you’re going to have a lot of interesting language contact happening.” In other words, the new Miami English is a cool example of an utterly ordinary phenomenon.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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