• David

Spanish Is Just "Street Latin"

In graduate school, I took a course on discourse analysis. We had a guest professor one day who asked the class, “¿Qué es el español?” One by one, we shouted out completely valid answers, but none of them was what he was looking for. Finally, we relented, and he indulged us. “El español,” he said, “es el latín mal hablado.” Throughout my bachelor’s and master’s programs, there wasn’t a single utterance more impactful on the way I approached the Spanish language—or language in general—than that one. Language is living, ever changing, pitting each generation against all previous ones.

In 1492, Spanish was officially declared a language as the regional kingdoms were unified into one single Spanish kingdom. For centuries prior, there was the educated class, which spoke Latin, and the uneducated class, which spoke a progressively more bastardized form of Latin (street Latin, if you will). This street Latin, no longer intelligible by citizens of other countries that supposedly also spoke Latin, was, by virtue of its unintelligibility, a new language. Thus, Español—or Castellano, as it is known in some Spanish-speaking countries—was born. From El cantar del mío Cid to El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha to the Spanish taught in schools across the globe today, the Spanish language has evolved and will continue to evolve until it is no longer spoken by anyone on the planet.

One of the stated goals of the Real Academia Española is the preservation of the Spanish language. While this is commendable, it is inherently a losing fight. The reality is that even the prestigious RAE is aware that the Spanish language is evolving, and they continually update their dictionaries to reflect modern linguistic trends. In the same discourse analysis class I mentioned earlier, we went on to discuss “prescriptive” vs. “descriptive” grammar. Prescriptive grammar is that which attempts to teach people the correct way to speak (write, etc.), whereas descriptive grammar attempts to identify and document the way people speak. Both are completely valid points of view. The more fluidly you can move from one to the other, the better communicator you’ll be.

If the point of language is to communicate, then the most effective form of communication is to speak the other person’s language, literally and figuratively. Sometimes asking “How are things, my brother?” will resonate with someone on a deeply human level, and other times it will draw laughs and mockery. In contrast, “Sup, brah?” may make the connection you are looking for, and other times it may get you uninvited to the next academic conference.

If you are like me, your curiosity is insatiable and you want to know every detail of the Spanish language. I encourage you to indulge that passion, keeping in mind that not everyone shares our passion for detail and that there are factors beyond the academic side of language that play into effective communication. I’ve had to learn to relax and go with the flow when I hear native Spanish speakers make grammatical errors. Even when my interest is just to understand why they chose to say what they said, I’ve had to bite my tongue for the sake of the interaction. If you are talking to your college professor or your local Spanish tutor, ask away. If you are talking to a client or trying to navigate your way through a foreign country, take it in stride and focus on the connection with the person in front of you, not on their word choices. If you are not like me, and you don’t get caught up in the “why” of everything, well, then, disregard this paragraph.

Every language has its idiosyncrasies and oddities; some people label them as errors and some label them as regionalisms. The beauty of it all is that, whether you are a native speaker of the language or not, you get to decide how you interpret them.

Copyright © 2015-2021 David Faulkner. All Rights Reserved.