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Chicano English

Linguistic features
Literature on Chicano English

The word ‘Chicano’ refers to the people, culture and forms of English of those individuals in the USA who are of Latin American origin. The generic terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ are also common and there is much debate in USA society, especially in the west and south-west of the country as to which term to use. Official census figures used the term Hispanic in the 1970s but later changed to the combined label ‘Hispanic or Latino’. The label ‘Hispanic’ is slightly older in use, with ‘Latino’ increasingly in general popularity in recent years. There is no accepted distinction between ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ in terms of which ethnic subgroup they might refer to., although there is a tendency to use the term ‘Hispanic’ in the east of the USA and ‘Latino’ in the west. Many people prefer a more specific usage when referring to their ethnic background, e.g. Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Costa Rican, Guatamalan, etc.



The numbers of Spanish background people has been greatly on the increase in the USA in recent decades as the following three sets of census figures show. By now these people represent the largest non-anglo ethnic group in the United States, slightly outnumbering the African Americans.

Self-perception of the Chicanos

Here is an anonymous posting to a website dedicated to Chicano issues in the USA.

‘I have lots of Chicano friends who speak English, but do not speak Spanish. These persons are monolingual. Yet, many of my monolingual friends choose to mix in words in Spanish. Linguists have documented this as a dialect of English known as Chicano English. Originally people thought that Chicano English wasn’t even a separate dialect of English, that it was just the way that people spoke when their first language was Spanish (“making mistakes”, and with an “accent”). But while Chicano English is influenced by Spanish in a general way, we now know that it is its own separate dialect, not just a “Spanish accent” because there are monolingual English speakers who don’t know any Spanish, and yet still speak Chicano English.’

A linguist’s perspective

“Kids of color and working-class kids,” explains Otto Santa Ana, a linguist at UCLA, grow up speaking “an organic dialect, a language of their community.” Santa Ana has an appointment in the Department of Chicana/o Studies and has written extensively on Chicano English in Los Angeles. He says “there is no linguistic problem” with students who speak any of the various non-standard English variants, which are often mistaken for broken English or for English learned as a second language. It's just that “standard English is a dialect that they acquire.”

Prejudice against non-English speakers?

Linguistic features of Chicano English

Vowel variations

Chicano English speakers merge and ?, so man and men are homophonous as. ? and i mergers into [i], so ship and sheep are pronounced like the latter.Final consonant deletion

Final consonant deletion

The rules of Spanish allow only [n], [l], [s], [r], and [l] to occur at the end of words. All other single consonants in English would thus be unfamiliar to Chicano English speakers in this environment. This means that words which end in consonant cluster have this simplified, e.g. most becomes ‘mos’; felt becomes ‘fel’, start becomes ‘star’.

Consonant variations The devoicing of [z] in all environments: Examples: [isi] for easy; [wʌs/was] for was.

The devoicing of [v] in word-final position: Examples: [lʌf] for love; [hɛf/xɛf] for have; [wajfs] for wives; and [lajfs] for lives.

Chicano speakers may realize /v/ as a [b]: Examples: live [lib], invite [inbait]. They pronounce TH as a single D or T/S/F, so that that is pronounced [dɛt] and think may be pronounced [tink], [fink] or [sink].

The realization of Y for J [dʒ] and the realization of J for Y, so: joking is [joʊkin], you is [dʒu], jet is [jɛt], just is [jʌs] and, yet is [dʒɛt].

M at the end of a words becomes [n] or [ŋ], so welcome is [wɛlcʌn] or [wɛlcʌŋ]. Words with a G sounding like [dʒ] are pronounced like [ʒ], so: change is [ʃeinʒ]. /tʃ/ merges with /ʃ/, so sheep and cheap are pronounced like [ʃip].

R is pronounced as a flap, so ready is [ſɛdi]

Did you barely call me?

Speakers of Chicano English and other variants “maintain solidarity with those linguistic features” which “signal home and community,” according to Santa Anna. Their speech gives comfort and promotes camaraderie. It may also employ double negatives and other non-standard forms that are not often welcome at school.

Chicano English, for example, has some “lexical items” that are specific to the language, according to linguist Carmen Fought in her book Chicano English in Context. The words fool (“dude” or “guy”), kick it (“hang around”), and barely (“just recently”) take on altered senses in the amiable phrase, “Hey fool, don’t you wanna kick it? You barely got here.” Differences in pronunciation may be noticed, for example, in the dropping of “g” from the suffix “-ing” and in intonation, so that the second syllable of “running” sounds more like “een.”

False friends

To a native Spanish speaker the English verb “molest” is what linguists call a “false friend.” It sounds like the Spanish verb molestar ‘bother, disturb’, but doesn’t mean exactly the same thing.

Literature on Chicano English


Bayley, Robert and Santa Ana, Otto. (2004). ‘Chicano English grammar’. In B. Kortmann, E. W. Schneider, K. Burridge, R. Mesthrie, and C. Upton (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English: Morphology and syntax (Vol. 2, pp. 167-183). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Fought, Carmen. (2003). Chicano English in context. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ornstein-Galicia, J. (1988). Form and Function in Chicano English. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers.

Penfield, Joyce. (1985) Chicano English: An Ethnic Contact Dialect. Varieties of English around the world, General series; v. 7. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Santa Ana, Otto and Bayley, Robert. (2004). ‘Chicano English phonology’. In E. W. Schneider, B. Kortmann, K. Burridge, R. Mesthrie, and C. Upton (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English: Phonology (Vol. 1, pp. 407-424). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.