Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva
But just say the word

I command you guys to have a good time


As discussed in other entries in this blog (e.g. this one), grammar is what human beings live by. Therefore a language, and the minds of those who speak it, cannot really be changed through lexical borrowings, even if the latter have traditionally constituted the main target of prescriptivists and defenders of the purity of language. The adoption of foreign words is a routine practice that only comes to show how deeply infused a culture is with that of a more powerful civilization that constantly feeds it new devices, freetime habits and fashion trends. In turn, it is grammatical structure that conditions how we understand the world that surrounds us. The imitation of some syntactic construction from a related language can be so subtle that most speakers will not even notice they are saying something that, just a few years ago, would have sounded unnatural. However, at some cognitive level beneath conscience, they will probably experience the social and stylistic values associated with the language and culture they are imitating without really noticing it; for example, precision, modernity, coolness, even beauty. It should be quite obvious that, if I were to seek a language that could provide me with all such values at the same time, I would most likely choose English – the language I’m actually using to write this entry, even if that does not seem to have made me more handsome so far.

As is well known, present-day Spanish owes much to English; even phonetics and prosody start to resemble what we can hear in songs and original-version TV series. Someday it will be necessary to write the complete illustrated grammar of Newspanish, but, for the time being, it will suffice to pay attention to a very simple detail that has seemingly become widespread – the reinterpretation of good wishes addressed to others as commands. In the grammatical domain, this is quite systematically reflected in the replacement of subjunctive constructions with imperative ones, closely mirroring the natural tendency of English. Not so long ago, in Spanish it was usual to say something like Que lo paséis bien, lit. ‘That you guys may have a good time’, expressing a desire through a hypothetical construction. We can assume there is an omitted verb that should govern the embedded subjunctive clause, i.e. Espero que… ‘I hope that…’ But such a construction is starting to feel outdated – it is probably also hard to process, with all its syntactic complexity, for the fairly uncomplicated minds of most 21st-century Spanish speakers. Similarly, if someone is going through a disease, we will no longer say Que te mejores ‘May you get better’, but Mejórate ‘Get better’, as if the patient had the power to decide when and how he/she wants to recover.

CommandThe process may also have been fueled by the strong preference of advertising for imperatives that, in such contexts, are obviously not interpreted as detrimental to the relationship between the participants (or as face-threatening acts, in terms of the politeness approach). In other words, it is acceptable and even preferable to use the imperative whenever the command is seen as beneficial to others. As in most cases of syntactic transfer proper, we haven’t introduced any new constructions into the target language; we have just given new contextual uses to some that were already there. For pro users of Newspanish, there is also the possibility to straightforwardly translate Hallmark card texts, i.e. Have a great day > Pasa un día estupendo > ‘Spend a day great’. The translation of the translation is just intended to help English speakers realize what their language would look like if their civilization was culturally colonized by the Hispanic empire.

Language contact and transfer can be very enriching, but they should not be carried out in a careless, acritical way. It is evident that Spanglish exists and that it is much more than an uneducated, agrammatical dialect of some Mexican immigrants to the USA, as many took for granted it should be. Rather, it entails a whole new conception of the contexts where each syntactic construction and its inherent meaning are adequate. At least we need to be aware of what we are saying, and of the reasons why we are saying it, in order to evaluate its pertinence. Transfers should also not be unidirectional. Now that I think of it – is you guys, i.e. the current tendency of English to grammaticalize a specifically plural form of the second-person pronoun, a transfer from Spanish or some other language (French, bien sûr) with an analogous number distinction? Knowing that we have been able to pollute English with anything else than mosquito and guerrilla might at least offer some sad consolation.




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