Thursday, June 11, 2009


"English as she is spoke": A notable change in English grammar

I've been meaning to write about this for years, but with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, I can wait no longer.

The influx of Spanish speakers to the U.S. is having an interesting effect on English that goes beyond the introduction of "chipotle" and "gringo" into our vocabulary. It is a change that bucks two historical trends in the development of modern English.

The first of these is the abandonment of adjective declensions. In Old English an adjective changed form depending upon (1) the use of the noun it was modifying in the sentence, (2) the gender of the noun it was modifying, and (3) the number—singular or plural—of the noun modified.1 So the adjective 'god' ("good") might have the forms godne, godes, godum, godre, gode, goda, godra, godan, godra and godena. By the time of Middle English (1200 C.E. or so) these forms were mostly lost and by the end of the Middle English period (1600) they had completely died out.

In modern English we are left with only two adjectives that decline—'this' and 'that,' which of course become 'these' and 'those' when modifying a plural noun. Adjective forms that depended upon gender have been completely lost.

The second trend, which is quite modern, is the abandonment of noun forms that distinguish gender. We have been in the process of adopting the masculine form for both genders. We once had 'shepherd' and 'shepherdess,' 'comedian' and 'comedienne,' 'actor' and 'actress.' But it's rare nowadays to hear a woman say that she's an actress, and I don't know when I last heard 'comedienne.' Adding to this trend, which may be the natural result of the movement toward greater equality for women, is the conscious, political effort on the part of feminists to remove gender distinctions from the language, which has brought us words such as 'spokesperson' and a host of stylistic problems.

Now comes Spanish. Like French, Italian and Portuguese it has descended from Latin, and Latin—like Old English—had many forms for the adjective. But unlike modern English the Romance languages have retained a number of those forms. So in Spanish for the word 'good,' for instance, we may encounter the forms 'bueno,' 'buena,' 'buenos' and 'buenas' depending upon whether the noun it modifies is masculine or feminine, singular or plural.

Another feature of these languages is the use of adjectives as nouns, which occurs in English only in rather high-minded phrases such as "the good, the bad, and the ugly." Thus it is common to distinguish gender in the form of Spanish adjective-nouns, which doesn't occur at all in English.

Suddenly—after half a millennium—a gender distinction is being reintroduced into English adjectives through the adjective 'Latino,' of which the feminine form is 'Latina.' The first time I heard this usage was over a decade ago. I was listening to a news item from reportress Maria Hinojosa of National Public Radio, who spoke of someone as "Latina." It shook me to my Anglo-Saxon roots.

Since then this usage has only grown. Today I type into Google "Sotomayor is Latina" and get 164 hits. The first of them: "Let the Democrats remind everyone at every turn that Sotomayor is Latina."

Correspondingly we now have two gender-distinguishing nouns 'Latino' and 'Latina.' Type in "Sotomayor is a Latina" and you'll get 1,050 hits or more.2

I suspect this linguistic novelty has grown from the fact that more and more English newscasters are native Spanish speakers. It may be difficult for them to abandon the distinctions they are accustomed to use in Spanish and say, as would be standard English, "Sotomayor is Latino" or "Sotomayor is a Latino." In any case, the usage is now being adopted by native English speakers, and judging from who is using what, it appears that the distinction has become "politically correct."3

As the two languages now exist side by side in the U.S., U.S. Spanish is slowly becoming distinct from Latin-American Spanish—most notably in its vocabulary—to produce "Spanglish." Will we also move toward "Engspañol"? Check back in a century.

In the meanwhile, so far as I'm concerned Sonia Sotomayor is Hispanic.



1Actually there was a fourth distinction—weak-strong—which is a feature only of the Germanic languages. [back]

2For "Sotomayor is Latino" there were 27 hits, and for "Sotomayor is a Latino" there were only 14. In the latter case 'Latino' was almost always used as an adjective, as in "Sotomayor is a Latino racist pig" or "Sotomayor is a Latino KKK." [back]

3It will be interesting to see the outcome if it dawns upon the gender-police that a gender distinction is being reintroduced via Spanish. [back]

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