Chicano English?

East LA

East LA (Wikimedia)

It’s not often that an American newspaper devotes a 1000-word article to a single dialect of English. So I was delighted to read an in-depth profile of Chicano English in this week’s LA times. Author Hector Becerra highlights one of the more remarkable aspects of this ethnolect, its adoption by non-Hispanics.

Chicano English, which refers to the dialect(s) spoken by Mexican Americans, is here termed ‘The East LA accent.’ This is a slight misnomer; as the article mentions, the dialect itself has a unique lexicon.  (The author makes the common mistake of confusing ‘accent’ and ‘dialect,’ but it’s a forgiveable error.) The piece mentions such pronunciation features as:

*The unstressed first syllable in words like ‘together’ becomes an ‘oo’ sound (i.e. an [u] sound).

*Before velar nasals, lax ‘i’ becomes an ‘ee’ (i.e. [i] sound), hence ‘going’ sounds like ‘go-ween.’

*The /ou/ in ‘go’ and such words is apparently a monophthong, so that ‘goat’ would be ‘goht’ (i.e. [go:t]).

(With some of these, I’m making educated guesses–journalistic descriptions of pronunciation are sometimes tricky to parse.)

All this being said, the words themselves are what makes the dialect unique. Becerra cites the ubiquitous tag ‘eh’ (as in ‘I’m going to the store, eh’); the use of ‘barely’ to refer to the recent past (as in ‘She barely left the store’); and the interjection ‘watcha!’ (comparable to ‘look!’).

As I mentioned, Chicano English is not confined to Mexican Americans. And although the article relates this language spread to East L.A. specifically, my impression is that Spanish-influenced dialects spoken by non-hispanics can be found in many areas of the Southwest. I once had a coworker of Irish descent who grew up in Long Beach (in South L.A. county) whose speech was clearly influenced by the Chicano dialect. I’ve also heard working-class caucasians from New Mexico who speak with accents indistinguishable from their hispanic counterparts.

None of this should be surprising. Over the past decades, divisions between ethnolects have broken down considerably. It’s no secret that African American Vernacular English is not only native to African Americans, nor that Multicultural British English is confined to Anglo-Carribeans. One might presume Chicano English to be different because of its Spanish-language origins, but the principle remains the same.

It remains to be seen how Chicano English will impact ‘mainstream’ dialects. Ethnolects have already exerted a profound influence on the American voice. Will the rapidly growing Hispanic population continue this process?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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28 Responses to Chicano English?

  1. Andrew C. says:

    I’ve also heard white people from Oklahoma and elsewhere pronounce the “i” in “going” like [i], but with a velar nasal at the end rather than an alveolar nasal. I don’t think these people hung out with Hispanics too much. I think raising before the velar nasal is something that happens in American accents even without Hispanic influence. I also think that many native English speakers who haven’t ever been around Hispanics have [u] in the first syllable of “together” at least occasionally, particularly if they’re talking slowly, carefully and/or reading something aloud. English unstressed vowels aren’t categorically reduced to schwa, despite what I’ve read in some books. But as you said, the words are what make the dialect unique.

  2. Erin says:

    Exemplars of this accent often appear in Beck (“Que Onda Guero”) and Sublime’s (“Santeria”) music. “Que Onda Guero” in particular is good because it has some spoken words (that sort of sound like they were recorded on the street) included.

  3. Sooryan FM says:

    I’m afraid than king/keen semi-merger is not restricted to Chicano English:

    • dw says:

      I wouldn’t call it even a semi-merger: there is no contrast in English between FLEECE and KIT before the velar nasal. “Redistribution” might be a more felicitous term.

      • IVV says:

        This Californian does see a difference between FLEECE and KIT before the velar nasal. We just don’t use the KIT vowel there, but we could.

        We are speakeeng Eenglish theengs. We hear that as the FLEECE vowel, and not the KIT vowel. When people claim the vowel used there is the KIT vowel, we tell them they’re wrong.

        When I hear /i/ as spoken in New Jersey, I more often hear the diphthong [ɪi]. That might be why -ing is seen as /-ɪŋ/, although I would most definitely say [-iŋ].

        (Similarly, the long-i diphthong is [ai], and long-a is [ei].)

        • dw says:

          When I hear /i/ as spoken in New Jersey, I more often hear the diphthong [ɪi]. That might be why -ing is seen as /-ɪŋ/, although I would most definitely say [-iŋ].

          Perhaps. In my own accent, length is an important criterion in distinguishing between KIT and FLEECE. If I force myself to say “keeng”, the result is no only tenser but about twice as long as my “king”.

        • IVV says:

          That might explain it. KIT and FLEECE have the same length for me, but FLEECE is tenser than KIT.

  4. Ellen K. says:

    *Before velar nasals, lax ‘i’ becomes an ‘ee’ (i.e. [i] sound), hence ‘going’ sounds like ‘go-ween.’

    I disagree. That would be go-weeng, seems to me. The n, rather than, ng, I think signifies a regular n, like in seen, rather than sing.

    Note, I’ve no familiarity with that dialect. I’m just commenting on what the “GO-ween” spelling suggests to me.

    The article, though, reads like it’s using that to talk about “drawn-out vowels in the first syllables of…words”, rather than something about the second syllable.

    • trawicks says:

      That passage is, frankly, a little confusing. The only thing unusual about the spelling of ‘GO-ween’ is the ‘ween,’ which I’m assuming indicates the Western habit of raising the KIT vowel before nasals. The ‘GO-‘, I’m guessing, indicates monophthongization. I’m comparing these spellings with my own impressions of Chicano English here, because I’m not sure what the author intends!

      • Ellen K. says:

        I’m referring to you specifying it as a velar nasal.

        • trawicks says:

          Oh, I see. It’s possible that the rule remains the same even if the velar is fronted (much as Canadian raising still occurs even in the case of the ‘tapped’ t in ‘router.’)

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Re Santa Fe and surroundings; the area was settled by Spaniards in the early 16th century. The indigent hispanics speak a Spanish dialect which descends from that time. I refer you to “A dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish,” by Ruben Cobos, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, if you are interested. The locals are quite proud of the foregoing distinction, and will good-humoredly tell you that they are of SPANISH descent, and live in NEW Mexico. If there is an element of the Chicano dialect in NM, it probably comes from recent immigrants to the area from across the border.

  6. adam cohen says:

    trawicks:”I’ve also heard working-class caucasians ”

    A minor complaint, but I noticed that both your discussion and the article in the LA TIMES (e.g., the reference to thinking a man was “White” until he spoke) tended to racialize Hispanics. Hispanics/Latinos are an ethnic/linguistic category; they are not a racial group. There are White Hispanics (Andy Garcia, Joanna Garcia, Raquel Welch, Eddie Cibrian), Black Hispanics (Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson, Rosie Perez), etc.

    • trawicks says:

      I’m not by default racializing the term ‘hispanic.’ I admit that the term ‘caucasian’ is limited, but I’m not sure how else to term non-hispanics (I realize I may be solving my own problem there!) It’s just that, to me, ‘euro-American’ and the even more problematic ‘anglo-American’ are semantically confusing.

      • Adam Cohen says:

        Well, as you pointed out, “non-Hispanic” is pretty serviceable as a neutral marker. As for Anglo, I’m not sure why that term would be problematic. If we can call English and Spanish speaking people of diverse ethnic backgrounds (Salma Hayek is of Lebanese descent,
        Edward James Olmos is part Hungarian, Linda Ronstadt’s Mexican great grandfather was a German immigrant to Mexico) “Hispanic,” I’m not sure why we can’t call non-Hispanics in the USA Anglos.Both words involve a certain degree of elision.

        Re Caucasian: Using that word as a synonym for White/Caucasoid/West Eurasian (Razib Khan’s favored term) has always annoyed me. The real Caucasians are people from the Caucasus, i.e., Georgians, Chechens, the Ingush, etc.

        • dw says:

          In reference to confusion about “Caucasian”, take a look at the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which would be funny if it were not so sad and ridiculous.

          Thind, an immigrant from India to the USA, had successfully naturalized on the grounds that he was a “Caucasian”, and, therefore, a “white person” (at that time, “white person”s were allowed to naturalize while “Asians” were not).

          The US government appealed against this, and the supreme court ended up revoking Thind’s citizenship on the ground that the historical “Aryan” invaders had intermarried, “destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the Aryan blood.”

        • Ellen K. says:

          If we can call English and Spanish speaking people of diverse ethnic backgrounds “Hispanic,” I’m not sure why we can’t call non-Hispanics in the USA Anglos.

          Simple. Some of us have no English ancestry. So the term anglo doesn’t really fit.

        • dw says:

          Ellen K:

          Try reading the question again 🙂

        • Ellen K. says:

          @DW. I don’t see a question in the post I was responding to (Adam Cohen’s). If you are referring to the post as a whole, or more specifically to the last sentence that I didn’t quote, yes, I saw that. But I stand by what I said. Don’t call us anglos because many of us aren’t anglos.

          The term “non-Hispanic” works find. If we are defining a group based on what they aren’t, they use a label that fits that, instead of making a false group.

  7. Adam Cohen says:

    RE Caucasian Confusion,

    Once, while chatting with a guy about languages, I made reference to the great diversity of Caucasian languages. The guy looked puzzled for a moment, then remarked that yes, White people did speak a great variety of different languages. I had to explain to him that by Caucasian I meant people from the Caucasus, not White people in general.

  8. m.m. says:

    The pre-velar nasal raising refers to [ɪŋ] changing to [iŋ]
    “GO-ween” is a doozey, as it involves many changes: the vowel monophthongization, pre-velar raising, AND the reduction of the velar nasal to an alveolar one
    so: [‘goʊ.ɪŋ] => [‘], which is different to the more common/non-hispanic reduction to [‘goʊ.ɪn] (as in “he was goin’ to eat”)

    The raising to [iŋ] opposed to [ɪŋ] has been generally contained within chicano english speakers, but has been spreading in places like california where non-hispanic speakers also raise to [iŋ], leading to [‘goʊ.iŋ] – “he was go-eeng to eat”, which when reduced becomes [‘goʊ.in] – “he was go-een to eat” (compare traditional “he was goin’ to eat”)

    surprised theres no mention on the bit about a celery-salary merger tho xD

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  10. mopat says:

    I was born and raised in Riverside Ca. Near the barrio of Casa Blanca, and Sherman Indian High. I have many friends who are Chicano. I personally believe that Chicano English is inferior to Standard English. The slang terms that are used such as “for reals?” etc, project a feeling of intellectual emptiness. The accent itself makes it very difficult to take seriously on an intellectual level. I find it very annoying.