Chillaxin’ in California

by Denise Minor

When people learn that I teach Spanish linguistics, there is often an automatic assumption that I am a strict grammarian. They picture me drilling students on the correct verb conjugations and becoming exasperated with their lack of comprehension of the difference between subject pronouns and indirect object pronouns. Sometimes, just to make conversation and show their commiseration, they complain about the way kids these days talk and their declining knowledge about proper language use.

In that moment I often have to weigh whether or not to reveal the truth. I have to decide whether it is worth telling them that I actually love to listen to the way kids these days talk and that I care very little about proper language use in conversation. I DO care about teaching them “proper” language for academic writing and classroom presentations. Without mastery in those formal writing and speaking skills, many professions will be closed to them.

But when it comes to informal talk, to the dynamic and free-flowing language of conversation, I am fascinated by the rule-breaking, the invention of new words and the jumping back and forth between languages that constantly goes on in the banter of young people. They are playing with language, the same way that they toy around with a soccer ball during recess or mix up tunes with their garage rock band.

That impulse is, to my thinking, an expression of the human instinct to keep language in motion. Languages (as my first phonology professor told us back in another century) are like rivers: they keep changing and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Many of us have been raised to believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to use language and that right ways can be found in grammar books. We absorb some kind of notion of “good” English or Spanish, an unchanging version that is upheld through good education both at home and school.

But if that were the truth, then what are French, Spanish and Italian? Really bad Latin? And what about English? A wild step child of Germanic and Latin languages? All languages are the product of people (mostly the young) playing around with words and pronunciation and imitating others who have done the same.

Grammar books should not be thought of as sacred. They simply capture the variety of any given language that is deemed the highest in prestige at any given period of history. Meanwhile, the children and young adults are busy with the very important work of pushing our languages forward into a new era. They are busy turning adjectives into proper nouns (“my bad”) and evolving fillers into adverbs (“hecka cool”). I heard a new word from my 16-year-old son Nathan last week. His father asked him what he had been doing and he replied, “Just chillaxing.”

I stood blinking for a moment as I processed this creation. I have long known that the word “chill,” which has been a noun (“I’ve caught a bit of a chill.”) and a transitive verb (“We will chill the wine.”) has become an intransitive verb: “I’m chillin’, you’re chillin’, she’s chillin’.” But I had never heard this combination.

“Could you repeat that?” I asked.

“I’ve been chillin’. You know, relaxing. Just chillaxin’.”

“Did you make that word up or do other people use it?”

Nathan thought for a moment. “Other people use it.”

Eureka! Another item for Teenage Lexicon Dictionary!

Another youthful tendency is the universal urge of bilingual young people to jump back and forth between their two languages at the intersections where the syntax of the languages match up. (“Abuelita, I’m going to the mall con mis amigas.“). This mixing – “code-switching” as linguists call it – is a behavior that irritates many of their elders. But wherever languages and cultures have lived in contact throughout history, there has been code-switching. When I hear bilingual rap music, I often think about the bilingual poetry that was popular during the ninth through the twelfth centuries in what is now southern Spain. There, Arabic, Jewish and Hispanic people lived together in a region controlled by Arabs.

On the streets and in the courts, the youth recited the hugely popular muwasshshaha poetry with lyrics in Arabic or Hebrew, but with refrains in proto-Spanish. It may seem irreverent to medieval scholars, but when I see the boys with their baseball caps riding low over the eyes pull up to an intersection in their cars and hear the “Spanglish” reggaetón pumping out of their open windows, I like to imagine Arabic boys of the 10th century strutting down the cobblestone streets of Granada, repeating over and over their bi-and trilingual raps.

The northern part of the peninsula during those centuries was populated mostly by people who spoke the languages that were evolving from the language imposed by their Roman conquerors. Sometimes I like to picture the Castilian aristocracy or the clerics of that time sitting in castles and monasteries and speaking a high-class tongue that they believed to be a rightful descendent of classical Latin. I picture them listening with some disdain to the speech of the “la chusma,” the working class people on the streets. What became of that vulgar language of the working people  – the sermo cotidianus?

It became Spanish and it is the third most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world.  How different were the upper class and lower class versions of the emerging Spanish? I don’t know, but I do know that there was tremendous difference in attitudes about the two varieties. The lesson that I hope my students take away from this story: Never look down on the way people talk.

At Chico State where I teach, the majority of our Spanish majors are of Mexican descent. Almost all of our majors come from the small and medium towns of Northern California where Spanish and English mix freely on the playgrounds, on the streets, in stores, at church and in restaurants. For some, such as our Chicano students, the constant back-and-forth between the two languages became second nature. For others, English was dominant in most spheres, but Spanish was always there as the talk of neighbors and friends.

We are, here in California, living in a linguistically dynamic place where many languages are thriving. But the two main rivers, the two enormous bodies of water that converge here, are Spanish and English.

I imagine this language convergence as two enormous waves hitting each other, such as the tumultuous seas at the point where the Sea of Cortez joins the Pacific Ocean. On these waves, I imagine my students from the Spanish program at Chico State, riding surfboards on top of white crests. Their rubber-soled tennis shoes cling to the boards’ surfaces. On their shoulders hang the heavy loads of their backpacks stuffed to the bulging point. In these waves, words are colliding. English verbs are becoming Spanish through changes in morphology to create things like, “Estoy jangeando.” (“I’m hanging out.”) Spanish phrases invade English, but their mid-vowels (“a”) spread out, relax into the decidedly American English schwa (“ə”). (“Hasta la vista, dude.”)

On the beach, the grandparents of the Chicano students are pacing and wringing their hands. “Así no se habla español.” The junior high school Spanish teachers of the students from English-speaking homes are shaking their heads in frustration. “That’s not how you conjugate your verbs.”  But the students simply smile and wave, “No se preocupe, abuela,” some say. “Don’t worry, maestro,” say others. “It’s hecka divertido.”

For these young people, this is the time of life to be caught up in the exciting groundswell of language change. This is the time to have fun with words. But, this too, will end. They will soon hang up their surfboards, adapt a profession, take on a mortgage (with some luck) and begin to raise children. Their phonemes and their vocabulary will stabilize and change very little after they turn 25. Forty years from now, sociolinguists will be able to study the way they talk and learn much about the English and Spanish of California in 2009.

In the meantime, I will delight in their creations. For those of you equally interested in language and the way young people talk, please look to these pages over the upcoming months. Students from our region will write in both English and Spanish about the way they use and perceive language and about the trends they hear happening in their worlds. If you have insight as well, not only about Spanish and English but about any other language that is changing in dynamic ways on the lips of children and young adults, feel free to submit your stories. We are also very interested in both scholarly and personal writings about languages other than Spanish or English.


Denise Minor is an assistant professor of Spanish linguistics at Chico State and adviser to ChicoSol in Spanish.

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