Authentic Codeswitching and Bilingual Represenation

*Replaced the Skippyjon Jones link. Should be working now*

Last semester, I took a sociolinguistics class called Spanish in America. It was the most tangibly applicable of any classes I’ve taken at Geneseo so far, and it was sincerely enjoyable. One of the concepts that it introduced was Mock Spanish. Mock Spanish was first coined by linguistic anthropologist Jane H. Hill (thanks, wikipedia), and it’s characterized by loan words or phrases from a minority language (Spanish) by monolingual speakers of the majority language (English), often used in a disparaging way. In just a few short weeks, Cinco de Mayo is happening. Just keep your eyes peeled for all the appropriation and Mock Spanish going on up to and during the holiday. For example, Cinco de Drinko. Don’t do it.

Mock Spanish is often seen in advertising, or on fun (content warning: image contains profanity) mustache-themed signs, or even in children’s books (Skippyjon Jones gets roasted here). Unfortunately, it also shows up in our lexicon. This is a wonderful resource from SUNY Binghamton about Mock Spanish if you’re interested in learning about the different types. Even the outline spells out pretty well other kinds if you don’t have a lot of time.

After learning about Mock Spanish, I had to take a serious look at my speech and codeswitching (changing between languages or varieties in conversation) as a white, non-hispanic, bilingual person. I perpetuate(d) this. I certainly wasn’t an “adios b**tchachos”-er, but the ways in which casual racism erupted in my speech was/is unacceptable and not conducive to the bilingual identity I wanted to have.

What I do want to touch on though, is how *wonderfully* bilingualism has been represented in Parable of the Sower and A Mercy. Children’s books, like the Skippyjon Jones, American Girl books (I’m specifically thinking of Josefina and Kaya, the Mexican and Nez Pierce American Girl dolls, respectively) that had characters speaking other languages, even academic papers I’ve seen, and things I’ve written on this blog have contained words from different languages italicized. It’s a simple way of othering that I see now, but before it just seemed like a way to effectively codify what was new to a reader that needed definition. I think it can be both, but using it is a slippery slope.

In A Mercy, there were some loaner words. Minha mãe and senhor, the two most used were never differentiated from the rest that Morrison used. I believe the Portuguese loanwords serve two purposes. First, there’s a certain intimacy in Florens referring to her mother as minha mãe. Portuguese is her first language, and even though she speaks another, codeswitching, in this sense, is endearing. It’s almost like she harkens back to the linguistic self she was the last time she was with her mother. For me at least, senhor functioned as a reminder of the Brazilian and Portuguese prevalence in the slave trade, a narrative we Americans are not typically aware of. It struck me nearly every time I read the word.

*Some folks wrote their doctoral thesis on A Mercy, retranslating the book because they felt that the previous Peninsular Spanish translation didn’t communicate Morrison’s literary elements well enough  to readers who didn’t know the text in English. Their Mexican Spanish version strives to preserve more of the linguistic patterns of A Mercy, among other aspects. They also kept the Portuguese loanwords and didn’t differentiate them stylistically from the Spanish text.* ~fangirl~

Parable of the Sower doesn’t actually contain any Spanish words, but the craft with which Butler includes it struck me. At the beginning, Lauren speaks with Cory, and comments on the affective aspects of switching from English to Spanish with her stepmother: “I speak in Spanish too, as she’s taught me. It’s an intimacy somehow” (5) It would have been incredibly easy to throw in the words for stars or city lights in the dialogue to add some ‘authenticity’ to their speech. Butler didn’t, though. I looked it up, and as far as I know, Butler isn’t afrolatinx. Nor is she bilingual. She simply carved out some space in her readers’ minds for the banality of bilingualism. It wasn’t othered or sensationalized, it just was. She let it be the same, only telling readers that an exchange happened in Spanish after it happened. That was something that I had never seen (or heard, ’cause I was listening to the audio book) before.

These two books are examples of monolingual English speakers doing it right. It was refreshing to see this, and even inspired some introspection about my language use. This is really such a small aspect of each novel, but responsible minority language representation is crucial in a society that gives strict language norms to minority language speakers, while speakers of the majority languages are allowed  traipse through language appropriation.

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