Chico State Spanish Major Examines Language in Music Musical Linguistics


by Alfredo Oropeza

Since I was a small child I have loved music. It didn’t matter what kind of music it was or where it came from; if it was something that sounded interesting to me and had good rhythm, I would play it. Thanks to the Spanish linguistics class that I took at Chico State, I have learned new things about the music I love.

For instance, now that I have studied the varieties of Spanish spoken throughout the world, I can differentiate between a Caribbean and an Argentinean singer. It fascinates me how I have been able to combine something that I’ve learned in a linguistics class with the pastime that I love so much: listening to music.

We started our linguistics class by studying what would be considered the typical pronunciation of an educated speaker from Mexico City. With that as a foundation, we moved on to compare other ” Spanishes” with that standard variety. For my final project, I decided to do something with music. I chose three of my favorite bands from three different countries, and I compared pronunciation and other characteristics with the Spanish of one of my favorite groups from Mexico City.

Another phenomenon I learned about in class is called ” code-switching,” the tendency of bilingual people to jump back and forth between two languages. It’s something that I have always done but had never paid much attention to. Since two of the groups that I chose use code-switching, I investigated the differences in the way they do it and the things they have in common.

The singers that I chose to use in this investigation are Los Enanitos Verdes (The Green Dwarves) from Argentina, Calle 13 (Street 13) from Puerto Rico and Manu Chao, who was born in France of Spanish parents. The group that I chose for comparison with these three groups is Zoé, a rock band formed in the Federal District of Mexico. You can listen to Zoé here.

Los Enanitos Verdes is an Argentinean band formed in 1979 in the city of Mendoza, which is in the eastern region of the country near Chile. The original trio is Marciano Cantero, Felipe Taití and Daniel Piccolo. Five years after coming together, they decided to add musicians Sergio Embroni and Tito Dávila. This group would become not only one of the most popular in the history of Argentina, but in all of Latin America.

One notable characteristic of the Spanish spoken in Argentina and Uruguay is known as “sheismo” — the pronunciation of ” y” and ” ll” like the “sh” of English. One example would be pronunciation of the name Yolanda as “Sholanda.” Another would be the pronunciation of the word for “rain” as “shuvia” instead of “lluvia.” Another characteristic of Spanish from this region is the use of “vos” for the informal second person singular (in English “you” ) instead of “tú.”

In the music of Los Enanitos Verdes, you rarely hear the word “vos,” but that is probably because the second person singular is something heard more often in a conversation between two people. Something that is noticeable in their music is the “sheismo.” One song that has many examples is “La muralla verde.” One of the lines of the song in which you hear this variation goes like this: “Estoy parado en la murasha que divide….” (“I’m standing on the wall that divides….” ).

In this same song there is another example: “Pero como el amor de asher…..” (“But like yesterday’s love…” ). Listen to Los Enanitos Verdes here.

The next region that I will examine is the Caribbean; Puerto Rico to be exact. One impression that I have always had of Caribbean people is that they speak so quickly that it seems as if they’ve got somewhere else to be. But I like their Spanish very much because it is so distinct from the other varieties of Latin America.

Calle 13 is a Puerto Rican duo formed by two brothers, René Joglar (or “Residente” ) who is the principal singer and composer, and his brother Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (or “Visitante”) who produces the music. This band is from the country’s capital, San Juan.

One of the main characteristics of the Caribbean is something known as “lenition,” or weakening of some phonemes (sounds). There is often lenition of the fricative phonemes /d/, /g/ and /b/ when they are found between vowels. For instance, it might sound like a speaker is saying “to’a” instead of “toda” (all). In many dialects, including in the Caribbean, there is also a tendency to aspirate or eliminate “s”, especially if it comes at the end of a syllable.

Another characteristic common to Puerto Rico is something known as lambdaization, which is when a speaker replaces the sound of “r” with an “l.” For instance, he or she might say, “Puelto Lico” instead of “Puerto Rico.”

Calle 13 is a band that seems to sing about whatever it wants, including controversial themes, and it has been popular. In its most popular song, “Atrévete te te”, there is a clear example of lenition when they sing, “Aquí to’a las Boricuas saben karate…” (“Here all the Puerto Ricans know karate….” ). In the word “todas,” both the “d” and the “s” have disappeared.

In another line, the band sings, “No hay más na para na que yo te vo’a mentil…” (“There’s nothing more at all that I’m going to lie about to you….” ) The word “nada” (“nothing” ) is cut in half twice. Also, in the word “voy” (“I’m going”), the final sound has been eliminated. Finally, there is a clear example of lambdaization when they sing the word “mentir” as “mentil.”

In the same song there is another example of lambdaization when they sing, “El area abdominal va’ explotal…” (“The abdominal area is going to explode…” ) They are clearly replacing the final “r” with an “l” and saying “explotal” instead of “explotar.” Listen to Calle 13 here.

The final singer studied is Manu Chao. During his childhood growing up on the outskirts of Paris, he was surrounded by many singers and musicians. He dreamt of becoming a performer. Manu Chao sings in a number of languages including French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Arabic. In the late 1980s, together with his brother and cousin, he formed the band Mano Negra, which went on to become world-famous. Now, he performs as a solo artist.

One of the notable characteristics of the Spanish from much of Spain is pronounciation of the letter “j” and the letter “g” when it comes before “i” or “e.” In Latin America, those two letters would be pronounced similarly to the English “h,” although with slightly more aspiration. In Spain, they sound much harsher and come from deeper in the throat. They remind me of a phoneme that I hear repeated often when I listen to a speaker of Arabic.

In his song entitled El Clandestino, this Castilian phoneme is heard in many places. For instance, he sings, “Yo me fui a trabajar. Mi vida la dejé, entre Ceuta y Gibraltar..” (“I went off to work. I left my life somewhere between Ceuta and Gibraltar…” ). In the words ” trabajar,” “dejé” and “Gibraltar,” you can clearly hear the strong “h” sound.

As I listen to these lines and his pronunciation, so unique in comparison to everything else I’ve heard, I can’t help but wonder if having learned so many languages hasn’t impacted his pronunciation of Spanish. You can hear an example of Manu Chao here.

In my linguistics class last year, I also learned about something that I have been doing my entire life without thinking about it, and that is code-switching. Many people employ code-switching, not only in conversations but in songs, as well. Two of the groups that I studied, Calle 13 and Manu Chao, use code-switching but in different ways.

Calle 13 is a reggaeton group and much of its music is heard in the United States. Possibly for that reason, or because so many people in Puerto Rico are bilingual, it uses plenty of code-switching. Some of the examples I’ve heard are “intrasentential,” that is they come in the middle of a sentence.

In one song they sing, “Levántate, ponte hyper. Préndete. Sácale chispas al starter. Préndete en fuego como un lighter. Sacúdete el sudor como si fueras un wiper…” (“Get up, get hyper. Turn yourself on. Ignite the sparks of the starter. Set yourself on fire as if you were a lighter. Shake off the sweat as if you were a wiper…” ). Just in these few lyrics you can hear “hyper,” “lighter,” “wiper.” They also use a loan word “starter” modified to better fit the Spanish sound system, “starter.”

Manu Chao also uses code-switching, but he does it by mixing Spanish and French. In his song, “Me gustas tú,” there are numerous intersentential switches, which means he only makes the language “leap” in between sentences. “¿Qué voy a hacer? Je ne sais pas. ¿Qué voy a hacer? Je ne sais plus. ¿Qué voy a hacer? Je suis perdu..” (What will I do? I don’t know. What will I do? I don’t know any more. What will I do? I am lost.” ) I very much liked hearing this example of code-switching because it showed that this is not only something that we Spanish speakers in the United States and the Caribbean do, but it is something common to other regions of the world as well.

These singers use code-switching in two different ways. Calle 13 jumps back and forth, grabbing English words and mixing them into a Spanish sentence. On the other hand, Manu Chao seems to prefer to stay in the same language for the entire sentence. He is mixing his message by using one language like a refrain.

But I believe that both singers employ code-switching in an intelligent way. They know their fans, where they live and how they speak. Since Calle 13 has a huge following in the United States, it will, of course, use English. Manu Chao is better known globally, but the majority of his fans are French. Still, they border Spain and most of them understand some Spanish. By mixing the two languages he is not only communicating to the young people in a way they understand, but he is also singing in a way that demonstrates his French and Spanish identity.

Some of this is conjecture on my part, but there is one thing I am certain of: code-switching in songs, and singing in two languages, is a wonderful way to unite people, especially people who consider themselves bicultural. I also know that it’s enjoyable to study something in a class that opens your eyes to something you enjoy in your life.

Alfredo Oropeza is a senior at Chico State University majoring in Spanish and Latin American studies. He can be reached at

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