How to Tame a Wild Tongue
Gloria AnzaldÃºa was born in 1942 in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. At age eleven she began working in the fields as a migrant worker; after her fatherâ€™s death, she worked on her familyâ€™s land. Working her way through school, she eventually became a schoolteacher and then an academic, speaking and writing about feminist, lesbian, and Chicana issues and about autobiography. She is best known for This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), which she edited with CherrÃe Moraga, and Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). AnzaldÃºa died in 2004.
â€œHow to Tame a Wild Tongueâ€ is from Borderlands/La Frontera. In it, AnzaldÃºa is concerned with many kinds of borders â€” between nations, cultures, classes, genders, languages. When she writes, â€œSo, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my languageâ€ (par. 27), AnzaldÃºa is arguing for the ways in which identity is intertwined with the way we speak and for the ways in which people can be made to feel ashamed of their own tongues. Keeping hers wild â€” ignoring the closing of linguistic borders â€” is AnzaldÃºaâ€™s way of asserting her identity. Pay close attention to the way she writes here, too; her style could be seen as another way in which she keeps her tongue wild.
â€œWeâ€™re going to have to control your tongue,â€ the dentist says, pulling out all the metal from my mouth. Silver bits plop and tinkle into the basin. My mouth is a motherlode.
The dentist is cleaning out my roots. I get a whiff of the stench when I gasp. â€œI canâ€™t cap that tooth yet, youâ€™re still draining,â€ he says.
â€œWeâ€™re going to have to do something about your tongue,â€ I hear the anger rising in his voice. My tongue keeps pushing out the wads of cotton, pushing back the drills, the long thin needles. â€œIâ€™ve never seen anything as strong or as stubborn,â€ he says. And I think, how do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you make it lie down?
â€œWho is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?â€
â€” RAY GWYN SMITH1
I remember being caught speaking Spanish at recess â€” that was good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I remember being sent to the corner of the classroom for â€œtalking backâ€ to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to do was tell her how to pronounce my name. â€œIf you want to be American, speak â€˜American.â€™ If you donâ€™t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong.â€
â€œI want you to speak English. Paâ€™ hallar buen trabajo tienes que saber hablar el inglÃ©s bien. QuÃ© vale toda tu educaciÃ³n si todavÃa hablas inglÃ©s con un â€˜accent,â€™ â€ my mother would say, mortified that I spoke English like a Mexican. At Pan American University, I and all Chicano students were required to take two speech classes. Their purpose: to get rid of our accents.
Attacks on oneâ€™s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de inocente nos arrancÃ³ la lengua. Wild tongues canâ€™t be tamed, they can only be cut out.
OVERCOMING THE TRADITION OF SILENCE
Ahogadas, escupimos el oscuro.
Peleando con nuestra propia sombra
el silencio nos sepulta.
En boca cerrada no entran moscas. â€œFlies donâ€™t enter a closed mouthâ€ is a saying I kept hearing when I was a child. Ser habladora was to be a gossip and a liar, to talk too much. Muchachitas bien criadas, well-bred girls donâ€™t answer back. Es una falta de respeto to talk back to oneâ€™s mother or father. I remember one of the sins Iâ€™d recite to the priest in the confession box the few times I went to confession: talking back to my mother, hablar paâ€™ â€™tras, repelar. Hocicona, repelona, chismosa, having a big mouth, questioning, carrying tales are all signs of being mal criada. In my culture they are all words that are derogatory if applied to women â€” Iâ€™ve never heard them applied to men.
* * *
The first time I heard two women, a Puerto Rican and a Cuban, say the word â€œnosotras,â€ I was shocked. I had not known the word existed. Chicanas use nosotros whether weâ€™re male or female. We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse. And our tongues have become dryÂ the wilderness has dried out our tongues and we have forgotten speech.
â€” IRENA KLEPFISZ2
Even our own people, other Spanish speakers nos quieren poner candados en la boca. They would hold us back with their bag of reglas de academia.
OyÃ© como ladra: el lenguaje de la frontera
Quien tiene boca se equivoca.
â€” MEXICAN SAYING
â€œPocho, cultural traitor, youâ€™re speaking the oppressorâ€™s language by speaking English, youâ€™re ruining the Spanish language,â€ I have been accused by various Latinos and Latinas. Chicano Spanish is considered by the purist and by most Latinos deficient, a mutilation of Spanish.
But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally. Change, evoluciÃ³n, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por invenciÃ³n o adopciÃ³n have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un neuvo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.
For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castillian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves â€” a language with terms that are neither espaÃ±ol ni inglÃ©s, but both. We speak a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages.
Chicano Spanish sprang out of the Chicanosâ€™ need to identify ourselves as a distinct people. We needed a language with which we could communicate with ourselves, a secret language. For some of us, language is a homeland closer than the Southwest â€” for many Chicanos today live in the Midwest and the East. And because we are a complex, heterogeneous people, we speak many languages. Some of the languages we speak are:
Working class and slang English
Standard Mexican Spanish
North Mexican Spanish dialect
Chicano Spanish (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California have regional variations)
Pachuco (called calÃ³)
My â€œhomeâ€ tongues are the languages I speak with my sister and brothers, with my friends. They are the last five listed, with 6 and 7 being closest to my heart. From school, the media, and job situations, Iâ€™ve picked up standard and working class English. From Mamagrande Locha and from reading Spanish and Mexican literature, Iâ€™ve picked up Standard Spanish and Standard Mexican Spanish. From los reciÃ©n llegados, Mexican immigrants, and braceros, I learned the North Mexican dialect. With Mexicans Iâ€™ll try to speak either Standard Mexican Spanish or the North Mexican dialect. From my parents and Chicanos living in the Valley, I picked up Chicano Texas Spanish, and I speak it with my mom, younger brother (who married a Mexican and who rarely mixes Spanish with English), aunts, and older relatives.
With Chicanas from Nuevo MÃ©xico or Arizona I will speak Chicano Spanish a little, but often they donâ€™t understand what Iâ€™m saying. With most California Chicanas I speak entirely in English (unless I forget). When I first moved to San Francisco, Iâ€™d rattle off something in Spanish, unintentionally embarrassing them. Often it is only with another Chicana tejana that I can talk freely.
Words distorted by English are known as anglicisms or pochismos. The pocho is an anglicized Mexican or American of Mexican origin who speaks Spanish with an accent characteristic of North Americans and who distorts and reconstructs the language according to the influence of English.3 Tex-Mex, or Spanglish, comes most naturally to me. I may switch back and forth from English to Spanish in the same sentence or in the same word. With my sister and my brother Nune and with Chicano tejano contemporaries I speak in Tex-Mex.
From kids and people my own age I picked up Pachuco. Pachuco (the language of the zoot suiters) is a language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English. It is a secret language. Adults of the culture and outsiders cannot understand it. It is made up of slang words from both English and Spanish. Ruca means girl or woman, vato means guy or dude, chale means no, simÃ³n means yes, churro is sure, talk is periquiar, pigionear means petting, que gacho means how nerdy, ponte Ã¡guila means watch out, death is called la pelona. Through lack of practice and not having others who can speak it, Iâ€™ve lost most of the Pachuco tongue.
Chicanos, after 250 years of Spanish/Anglo colonization, have developed significant differences in the Spanish we speak. We collapse two adjacent vowels into a single syllable and sometimes shift the stress in certain words such as maÃz/maiz, cohete/cuete. We leave out certain consonants when they appear between vowels: lado/lao, mojado/mojao. Chicanos from South Texas pronounce f as j as in jue (fue). Chicanos use â€œarchaisms,â€ words that are no longer in the Spanish language, words that have been evolved out. We say semos, truje, haiga, ansina, and naiden. We retain the â€œarchaicâ€ j, as in jalar, that derives from an earlier h (the French halar or the Germanic halon which was lost to standard Spanish in the 16th century), but which is still found in several regional dialects such as the one spoken in South Texas. (Due to geography, Chicanos from the Valley of South Texas were cut off linguistically from other Spanish speakers. We tend to use words that the Spaniards brought over from Medieval Spain. The majority of the Spanish colonizers in Mexico and the Southwest came from Extremadura â€” HernÃ¡n CortÃ©s was one of them â€” and AndalucÃa. Andalucians pronounce ll like a y, and their dâ€™s tend to be absorbed by adjacent vowels: tirado becomes tirao. They brought el lenguaje popular, dialectos y regionalismos.4)
Chicanos and other Spanish speakers also shift ll to y and z to s.5 We leave out initial syllables, saying tar for estar, toy for estoy, hora for ahora (atinas and puertorriqueÃ±os also leave out initial letters of some words). We also leave out the final syllable such as pa for para. The intervocalic y, the ll as in tortilla, ella, botella, gets replaced by tortia or tortiya, ea, botea. We add an additional syllable at the beginning of certain words: atocar for tocar, agastar for gastar. Sometimes weâ€™ll say lavaste las vacijas, other times lavates (substituting the ates verb endings for the aste).
We use anglicisms, words borrowed from English: bola from ball, carpeta from carpet, mÃ¡china de lavar (instead of lavadora) from washing machine. Tex-Mex argot, created by adding a Spanish sound at the beginning or end of an English word such as cookiar for cook, watchar for watch, parkiar for park, and rapiar for rape, is the result of the pressures on Spanish speakers to adapt to English.
We donâ€™t use the word vosotros/as or its accompanying verb form. We donâ€™t say claro (to mean yes), imagÃnate, or me emociona, unless we picked up Spanish from Latinas, out of a book, or in a classroom. Other Spanish-speaking groups are going through the same, or similar, development in their Spanish.
Deslenguadas. Somos los del espaÃ±ol deficiente. We are your linguistic nightmare, your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestisaje, the subject of your burla. Because we speak with tongues of fire we are culturally crucified. Racially, culturally, and linguistically somos huÃ©rfanos â€” we speak an orphan tongue.
Chicanas who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have internalized the belief that we speak poor Spanish. It is illegitimate, a bastard language. And because we internalize how our language has been used against us by the dominant culture, we use our language differences against each other.
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