Spanish Roots: Why American English Is American, Part Two

In an earlier article about the Native American roots of American English, we asked the question: Why is American English so different from British English? One reason was the influence of Native American languages. This week we look at another cause: interaction between American English and Spanish. Spanish, like English, went through many changes as it developed in the New World. Like English, it was influenced by native languages and ways of speaking – it also acted as a pathway by which many native words eventually made their way into American English. This week’s Talk the Talk will take a look at some American vocabulary that derives – directly or indirectly – from various New World dialects of Spanish. Later columns will look at contributions from other languages.

It is helpful to get used to the basics of Spanish pronunciation (See the end of this article for help). You might want to try to see how each new word in this article should be pronounced, and then try it a few times until you get used to the new sounds and sound combinations. Hopefully, this will at least help you recognize the words when you hear them used.

It is well-known that South and Central America were colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese (among other groups). But it seems that people often forget that much of the Southwestern United States was once ruled by the Spanish, as part of Mexico. Only much later, after a long and tragic history, was this vast region made a part of the U.S. Although Native American groups in this area often adopted the Spanish language, some elements of native languages and cultures survive, sometimes in combination with elements of Spanish colonial culture, notably Catholicism. All of this stands behind the ongoing exchange of words between American English and various New World flavors of Spanish, notably Mexican Spanish. Remember that these “borrowings” may be changed dramaticaly from their original form – Talk the Talk is here to show you how to speak “Spanish in English”, which has very little connection with speaking Spanish itself!

Place names in this region are often Spanish in origin, and you can get a rough idea of the area that was formerly subject to Spain by looking for these place names. For example: California (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Mendocino, the Sierra Nevada mountains, or “Sierras”); Arizona; Nevada (Reno, Las Vegas); Colorado (which means “colorful” in Spanish); New Mexico (Albuquerque, Santa Fe); Florida (Boca Raton); Puerto Rico; and Texas (Amarillo, San Antonio, El Paso, and the Alamo, a famous landmark).

One area where new words were needed, and so were borrowed from Spanish, is geography. The vast deserts and plains of the western U.S., with their many distinctive features, were unheard-of in England. And so, in order to speak about the land around them, English-speaking Americans enriched their language with borrowings like these:

  • arroyo – The course of a stream or other small waterway, which runs through a dry area, and which may itself be dry.
  • canyon – (was cañon in Spanish) A narrow valley, usually with steep sides.
  • mesa – A raised area of land, usually with steep sides leading up to a large, flat area. This resembles a table, and in fact mesa literally means “table.”
  • playa – This can mean “beach” in Spanish, but in English more often refers to a peculiar kind of large, flat, desert area, possibly a dry lake bed.

Similarly, distinctive forms of regional weather have their own names, like the southeastern tornado – a very powerful storm, built around a whirlwind. Think of the movie Twister, but throw in a lot of tropical rain. New arrivals to Southern California will meet a wind named the Santa Ana. This is a forceful, very dry, usually hot, wind that blows west from the inland deserts.

Many of the peculiar words that we associate with the cowboys of the Old West are derived from Spanish. For example, Spanish vaca – cow – gives us Spanish vaccaro – someone who works with cows, or, in other words, a cowboy – which became, in frontier English, buckaroo, a word which English-speaking cowboys used to address each other. Spanish vamos (“let’s go”) became, in cowboy usage, vamoose, meaning, roughly, “let’s go”, or just “go.” Spanish salon (meaning, roughly, a respectable gathering place) became American English saloon, meaning a bar – and perhaps not the most respectable kind of bar! Desperado is an interesting and vivid word; it means someone desperate, and probably dangerous – a criminal or drifter, but one being chased by a hostile fate. It probably did not come directly from Spanish, but the form of the word shows a very clear Spanish influence. A caballero is a horseman – you can see the similarity to English words with related meanings, like cavalier, cavalry, and chivalry, which was the moral code of medieval European knights, who were military horsemen. And of course, what’s a cowboy without a rodeo to go to? These frontier sporting contests – featuring calf-roping, horse-riding, and bull-riding contests (among others) – are still popular with today’s cowfolk.

Spanish has given us a number of useful words concerning politics:

  • Armada – A fleet. For historical reasons, this word is also well-known in British English.
  • “Si, se puede!” – You may have heard this saying used in recent political campaigns. It means “Yes you can!”, and was a slogan used by César Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers. Another UFW slogan which is still seen is Basta!, which means “Enough!” (as in, “We’ve had enough; this must stop.”)
  • Junta – A corrupt, elite group which has seized political power. A political “machine.”
  • Guerillas – From Spanish guero, war. Armies or militias who fight in a particular style, known as guerilla warfare. What’s distinctive here is adaptability, use of the environment, rapid movement, and brilliance on a tight budget. The American Revolution was won with an early form of these tactics, and the Cuban Revolution was won a with more modern form. This is still the favorite style of rebels, peasants, and other underfunded groups.
  • Embargo – A governmental ban on trade, often directed at a rival government.
  • Campesino – A rural peasant.
  • La Lucha – “The struggle.”
  • La Migra – The INS. Not a complimentary term.

Many forms of music, usually with an associated dance, each unique, have Spanish names. These include the tango, salsa, merengue, and many others. A conga can be a dance, the musical style associated with the dance, or a type of drum. The word is probably derived from the African Congo. The bongo is another type of drum. Some popular styles from México are norteño, and banda music.

In some parts of the country, you may find it easier to remember addresses if you know that all of the following words refer to various types of streets: via (“way”), avenida, camino, caminito, and calle. Why so many? We could ask the same thing about the many English words for street – like way, avenue, road, boulevard, et cetera.

Here are a few more Spanish and Spanish-derived words that you may run into:

  • Plants and Animals: An armadillo is a smallish, armored animal, something like a pangolin; a saguaro is a very tall variety of cactus; a burro is a type of donkey, commonly used as a pack animal; marijuana is a tall resinous weed used to make rope, and sometimes smoked for pleasure (though this is illegal, and often frowned upon); the agave, or “Century Plant” is called this because of the belief that it blooms only once in a hundred years – though this is not true, it is true that if you drink enough tequila and mescal, you won’t make it to 100 years yourself. What’s the connection? Certain sorts of agave are used in preparing these liquors. Mescal, by the way, is a word of Nahuatl (Aztec) origin, while maguey, a name for the agave it is made from, is a Taino (West Indian) word.
  • Pleasantries: Hola means “Hi.” Gracias means “thank you” – a possible reply is de nada, meaning “it’s nothing, really”; the saying “Mi casa es su casa” is a saying meaning “My house is your house” – meaning that a guest in your home should feel welcome and comfortable; adios means “goodbye,” as do the various expressions that begin with hasta – literally “until” – such as hasta mañana (“until tomorrow”) and hasta la vista (“until we see each other again”).
  • Other Words: A poncho can either be a sort of blanket with a hole to put your head through, or a similar garment – usually waterproof – with a hood. A machete is a large-bladed knife used in cutting through plants. Cargo is goods transported by ship or plane. Machismo is a style of super-masculinity; if you have machismo, you are macho. An open area attached to a house is a patio. An open public place (like a square) is a plaza. The traditional clay-and-straw building material used by some Native American groups is called adobe.

When using Spanish-derived words in English, most consonants can be pronounced as in English. There are a few exceptions: ‘j’ is pronounced as a very soft ‘h’; ‘g’ is pronounced as in English ‘gas’ if it is at the start of a word, but otherwise is pronounced as a harder ‘h’, with more air exhaled; similarly, ‘x’ is also pronounced like a hard ‘h’, unless it begins a word or precedes a consonant, in which case it is pronounced as ‘s’; ‘d’ is pronounced softly, like English ‘th’ in ‘this’; ‘ñ’ is pronounced like ‘ny’ in ‘canyon’ (which is cañon in Spanish); and ‘s’ is never pronounced as ‘z’ – for that matter, neither is ‘z’: they are both pronounced like the ‘s’ in ‘see’.

The vowels may generally be pronouced as follows: ‘a’ as in ‘father’; ‘e’ as in ‘they’; ‘i’ as ‘ee’ in ‘queen’; ‘o’ as in ‘hope’; ‘u’ as ‘oo’ in ‘goofy’. Unlike English, ‘e’ is never silent, not even at the end of a word.

Some groups of letters have their own pronounciations: ‘ui’ is pronounced like ‘ee’; ‘gue’ is pronounced something like it is in English ‘guess’; ‘qu’ is pronounced as ‘k’; and ‘ll’ is pronounced as ‘y’.

So: Don Quixote is pronounced ‘dohn key-hoe-tay’, and La Jolla is pronounced ‘lah hoy-ya’. A special case worth mentioning, which shows a native influence, is the popular travel destination Oaxaca, which is usually pronounced (by English speakers) as ‘wah-hah-kah’. Also keep in mind that in Spanish-derived words, the second-to-last syllable is usually stressed (so desperado is des-pe-RA-do, not des-PE-ra-do; campesino is cahm-pe-SI-no, not cahm-PE-si-no, etc.), unless indicated by an accent mark (as in México – MEH-hee-koh).

Often, Spanish words are pronounced a little flatly by English speakers who do not know Spanish. This sometimes follows a consistent pattern, and there is a sort of unofficial, “correct” system of “incorrect” pronounciation. You could think of this as a “cowboy accent.” For example, Los Angeles should be pronounced ‘lohss ahn-heh-layss’ but is often pronounced ‘lawss ann-jell-us’ by people who lack Spanish, and similarly, Albuquerque, which should be pronounced ‘ahl-boo-kayr-kay’, is usually said ‘al-buh-kirr-key’. English speakers also often mispronounce ‘ll’ as an English ‘l’.

(Remember: These guidelines are only for American English pronunciation of Spanish-derived words, and do not necessarily apply to “real” Spanish pronunciation.)