Do You Sprechen Spanglish?


Joseph Conrad, who spoke Polish and French long before turning to the language he mastered for fiction, was a connoisseur of weird English. The dense, sometimes unintelligible accent in which he spoke to his monolingual wife, Jessie, was a palimpsest of three tongues. “There is a weird power in a spoken word,†wrote Conrad, in Lord Jim. “And why the devil not?â€

But the weirdness and the diabolical power of words are magnified when they are amalgams of different languages. After Babel, no language is static, and all are composites. The tongue of the Anglos and Saxons was weird even before the Norman Invasion added French to the mix. Migration and globalization have accelerated the process by which English absorbs the sounds, the senses, and the syntax of other languages in the world.

Yet there is nothing otherworldly about the ordinary phenomenon of linguistic mingling, though the root meaning of “weird†is supernatural or eerie. Call the accented English of Conrad, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edwidge Danticat, Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart, and Derek Walcott strange, unsettling, or transgressive, but it is not weird in the sense of being controlled by an uncanny fate rather than a cunning author.

Nevertheless, Weird English is the title that Evelyn Nien-ming Ch’ien gives her study of hybridization in literary language, perhaps because other adjectives were already claimed. Richard Lederer has published three books whose names might have defined Chien’s subject—Crazy English (1998), Fractured English (1996), and Anguished English (1989). “Rotten English,†the term that Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa used in its subtitle to describe his novel Sozaboy (1985), might also have worked as well as “weird.â€

What Ch’ien means by weird English is the ostentatious distortion of standard English by injecting into it elements of another language. It is most apparent in Spanglish, Chinglish, Franglais, Japglish, Yinglish, Arablish, Russglish, and other common creoles formed by the interaction of English with a foreign tongue. But the phenomenon is not unique to English; purists and academicians decry the weirding of French, Japanese, Hindu, and other national languages. When Dutch was weirded by Bantu dialects, English, French, and Malay, it became Afrikaans, less than two centuries ago.

Weird English is derived from nonnative users, from diasporic cultures unable or unwilling to express themselves in conventional English. According to Ch’ien, who teaches at the University of Hartford and, though born in the United States, grew up in a Chinese-speaking household, weird English “deprives English of its dominance and allows other languages to enjoy the same status.†She also notes that it “expresses aesthetic adventurousness at the price of sacrificing rules.†Ch’ien rejoices in weird English as an instrument of emancipation and cultural authenticity. Just as gays and lesbians have appropriated the derogatory adjective “queer†and, turning it into a benign verb, put a positive spin on “queering†the culture, Ch’ien embraces weirdness and praises works that “weird†the language. She writes of “weirding English†as a liberating guerrilla action against the tyranny of linguistic orthodoxy. “Weird English,†she proclaims, “revives the aesthetic experiential potential of English; we see through the eyes of foreign speakers and hear through their transcriptions of English a different way of reproducing meaning.â€

Of all the thousands of authors who have weirded English, Ch’ien concentrates on five: Vladimir Nabokov, Maxine Hong Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Junot Díaz, and Salman Rushdie. Her study proceeds in roughly chronological order and from authors whose weirding is primarily metaphorical to those whose weirding is primarily literal. What she means by metaphorical weirding is the attempt to simulate another language using the resources peculiar to English, the kind of calque created when, for example, a Spanish-speaker responds to a question about his age by saying: “I have thirty years.†Literal weirding is the interjection of actual fragments of another language into English prose, as when a Spanish-speaker states: I am treinte años old. Intent on studying and celebrating the weirding of English narrative, Ch’ien ignores the ways in which translinguals such as Jessica Hagedorn, Li-Young Lee, Lisel Mueller, Charles Simic, and Virgil Suárez have reshaped lyric poetry in English.

Ch’ien acknowledges that: “The weirding of English has been an ongoing phenomenon throughout history.†Yet Weird English limits itself to writers of the past fifty years. John Milton was weirding English when he scattered traces of Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and other languages throughout Paradise Lost, as was Robert Burns when he mixed Scots into his English verse. Ch’ien is silent on the auld lang syne of hybridizing English. For all the current buzz over bilingualism, the snatches of English, Spanish, French, German, and other tongues that echoed through the Alamo in 1836 were likely just as weird as anything heard in San Antonio today. Ch’ien credits Irvine Welsh for the radical strategy of using Scots-inflected dialect throughout his 1996 novel Trainspotting, but she might have noted how such weirding was anticipated by Mark Twain, who revolutionized the American novel by composing Huckleberry Finn (1884) in a boy’s vernacular, one indebted to African American speech. Though she champions Chinglish, Spanglish, and other challenges to standard English, Ch’ien has nothing to say about Ebonics and efforts by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, and Tupac Shakur to deploy black English as a literary medium. Increased ease of travel and communication has surely multiplied the incidence of weirding in recent times, but Ch’ien takes for granted a qualitative not merely quantitative change in the use of weird English in contemporary literature.

Though Nabokov, Kingston, Roy, Díaz, and Rushdie represent a wide geographic and cultural range of English weirdings, Ch’ien ignores one of the most active laboratories of linguistic fusion: Africa, where collisions with Zulu, Ibo, Kikuyu, Yoruba, Somali, and other languages have dramatically transformed English literature. Nabokov, who was forced to abandon his homeland while still an adolescent and wrote exquisite prose in Russian, French, and English, is appropriately treated as a major practitioner of weird English. Throughout his life, he translated among all three of his languages and delighted in interlingual word-play. Ch’ien analyzes how Pnin (1953) evokes the pathos of its title character through his inability to master standard English and how Lolita (1955) functions as what Nabokov called “a record of my love affair with the English language.†She ignores Pale Fire (1962), whose narrator, Charles Kinbote, mixes his imaginary native language, Zemblan, with erudite English. Yet Nabokov is an exception to Ch’ien’s generalization that weirding is “an ethnically driven phenomenon†and that “weird-English writers become conscious of language as a practice of their ethnicity.†No one but a census clerk would try to pigeonhole the nonpareil Nabokov, who disdained both Tsarist émigrés and Soviet apologists, within a community of Russian immigrants.

Though born in California, Kingston spoke the Say Yup dialect until age eight; at one point, Ch’ien casually, erroneously refers to her as an immigrant, like Nabokov and Díaz. She champions Kingston’s three novels, The Woman Warrior (1975), China Men (1977), and Tripmaster Monkey (1987), as well as Chinglish as a record of Chinese adaptation to America. Ch’ien claims that, under the dubious influence of fashionable linguistic theories, Kingston’s earliest fiction attempts to mimic the ideographic features of written Chinese but that her later work more closely approximates qualities of the spoken tongue. Ch’ien herself often privileges the oral over the written, the auditory over the visual, presenting weird English as an echo of actual, heterogeneous speech rather than as words crafted for the printed page.

Roy grew up in Kerala, southern India, speaking three languages, and Ch’ien reads her sole novel, The God of Small Things (1998), as “a combinative anarchy of the linguistic, literary, and political. It is, she claims, a work that transgresses the norms of English in order to subvert hierarchy and hegemony, to provide an “antidote to the dominance of bigness.†Díaz, another young writer whose literary contribution thus far consists of a single book, Drown (1996), also uses hybrid language as a weapon of resistance. A native of the Dominican Republic, he calls his attempt to retrieve elements of Spanish, the language that was all but eradicated from him, “my revenge on English.†In her pioneering analyses of Roy and Díaz, Ch’ien reads both as postcolonials who enact violence against standard English as a strategy of political and cultural insurgency.

Born in Bombay to a multilingual family, Rushdie is probably the most prominent contemporary practitioner of weird English. Examining The Moor’s Last Sigh (1996) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (2000), though not, surprisingly, Midnight’s Children (1981), Ch’ien argues that Rushdie’s position between cultures and languages leads him to “a kind of semantic relativism where no meaning seems to hold more value than another.†Describing his verbose prose as “endless, mostly unintelligible chatter,†she nevertheless claims that he succeeds “in creating an open, semantically experimental and democratic universe with inevitable meaningfulness.†It is hard to understand how she can reconcile unintelligibility with “inevitable meaningfulness,†unless by this point in her book Ch’ien has herself attempted to weird English, and to defy its canons of clarity and cogency.

E. E. Cummings weirded English by omitting punctuation, Walt Whitman by expanding his breath. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), a river of a dozen tongues or more, is only the most striking illustration of the truth that every original book creates its own language. Using the expected rhetoric of academic discourse, Weird English adds to a long and clamorous conversation. Ch’ien rediscovers that literature is language made strange.

Steven G. Kellman, who teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is author of The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska).