Hey! Get your own words

16 July 2007
8:00 AM

Cambia tu look en Buenos Aires
An ad suggests you change your “look” in Buenos Aires.

In 20 years, I swear Chile will be speaking English. To be honest, I’m not sure that they have that far to go. Already people amend their requests with please and excuse themselves with sorry. You go shopping with your gay friend if you want to buy some new blue jeans or shorts to change your look (perhaps to be more sexy?). If you need some tape, either scotch or masking, you can get it at Easy or Homecenter, the two home improvement stores. When you go out to dinner your restaurant may have a happy hour when you can buy a cheap pitcher.

This is just scraping the surface. In the business realm, the Anglo-infiltration is even more profound. After some feedback about the new outsourcing proposal—no one within the company has the know-how—you take a coffee break. There you snack on sandwiches, sip light soda, and talk about Chile’s economic boom. Back at the computer, you send a mail to your boss. On the Internet you click with your mouse. You save your files to your disk, or a pendrive, or a CD, or even a DVD if you upgrade your software and hardware.

Coffee Break sweetener
A package of Coffee Break sweetener, named for the coffee breaks that Chileans take at work.

Are you still with me? Once on my way home from work I bought the Friday paper which includes the magazine Wikén. That’s not a witchcraft publication—which would be Wicca—but the Spanish rendering of “weekend.” On the subway one day I bumped into another passenger. I excused myself, and to my relief he told me it was, “No problem.” Another occasion I overheard one high schooler explaining her woes to a companion, “Money, money, money! No tengo money!” It’s a bit overwhelming, isn’t it?

When I was studying Spanish in Bolivia, where English penetration isn’t nearly as prevalent as in Chile, there was a time that I found English words in Spanish infuriating. Why was I exerting such effort to learn a language that was abandoning its own words in favor of ones I already knew? Here’s a typical (and real) conversation with my Bolivian host mother from this period. Keep in mind that this takes places in Spanish.

JUANA. What are you doing tonight?
ME. I’m going to a party for a woman who is pregnant.
JUANA. What for?
ME. Well, we’re going to give her gifts. I don’t know what you call it…we call it a “ducha de bebé” because the people kind of “shower” the mother with gifts.
JUANA. Oh, I know! You don’t know the word for that. It’s a baby shower.
ME. Aaaaaaahhhh!

Zona picnic
At the campgrounds Los Manantiales in Manquehue there are picnic zones and camping zones.

Worse, people often mess up the English. Sometimes the words are English, but not actually ones we would use. Mistaking “heavy” for the broader Spanish-equivalent “pesado,” people say things like, “Don’t be so heavy,” which isn’t common English (unless you lived in the 60’s when he wasn’t heavy, he was your brother). People use the wrong part of English words. A sleeping is a sleeping bag, masking is masking tape, and a power is a PowerPoint presentation. Words get mispronounced. I had no idea what coal-gah-tay was until I saw it written: Colgate. And because English is taught in schools here, just about everybody has six or seven words to throw around in nonsensical expressions when they find out you’re a gringo. If you’re a good-looking woman (though merely being female will suffice), you’re sure to hear, “I love you thank you please,” as you walk through the streets of Santiago. It’s enough to make you scream, “This is a Spanish-speaking country. Let’s speak Spanish. Aaaaahhh!”

Most of my fury arose because I was in that certain point in cultural transition when everything is infuriating. People in this phase are insufferable and I recommend you avoid them. Looking back, my struggles with Spanish were the real cause of my frustration. Borrowed English words were just the outlet for my rage. Despite the smattering of English you hear, you need to speak Spanish to live in Chile or Bolivia happily.

I’ve managed my anger; these days I’m amused by English here instead of enraged. Now more mature in cultural and language experience, I also notice the irony of my frustration. When it comes to word stealing, English is absolutely shameless. From French we have fiancé, naive, coup d’etat, crème brulée, RSVP, petite, genre, chic, and an estimated 10,000 others. From German: hamburger, dachshund, blitz, kindergarten, aspirin, lager, and strudel. Japanese gives us bonsai, sushi, teriyaki, karate, ramen, and futon, indicating that college students in particular owe a special debt to Japan. We also borrow reciprocally from Spanish, which gives us rodeo, guitar, cilantro, and marijuana, not to mention the obvious tortilla, taco, burrito, enchilada, margarita, and piña colada. Browsing lists of borrowed words is a fascinating trip through the history of English. But we certainly don’t get the meaning right all the time. In English, for example, salsa is a specific sauce of Mexican origin; in Spanish, salsa just means sauce. When you ask for it, people will offer ketchup, mustard, and any others they have on hand.

I never seriously thought that English would replace Spanish in Chile, just as I don’t think Spanish will replace English in the U.S. In 20 years—in 50 years—Chileans will speak Spanish, though not the same Spanish they speak today. There will be more crossover English words, especially given the infiltration of U.S. culture worldwide. But as languages interact, one cannot completely dominate the other. They mix, fuse, and combine. Words weave together to form a fabric where it’s not clear which threads came from where. Language change is as old as civilization itself. It has been fun to witness some modern-day changes in Spanish. Gracias, Chile.

If you have other examples of English words borrowed by Spanish, whether in Chile or elsewhere, feel free to add them in the comments.