Chicano English

I wrote this .doc for an American English class Spring 2003 at Stockholm University. There is no theoretical grid to pit this against something.

Someone who did do a more thorough research on the matter and probably stands as the foremost authority on ChE on the net, and for free, is Dawn Duchnowski. Check it out, its full of goodies that will delight your little corazoncito: Chicano English: Language Issues and their Relationship to Culture grab it, save it and spread it.

Julio César Martínez
American English VK46
Mr. Minugh VT03

Chicano English: is it?


Chicanos have always had the difficult task of trying to define themselves as an ethnic group. In the United States there are several ways to address this group of people whose ethnic origins stem from the Mexican culture. There are Mexican Americans, Chicanos, Mexicans, and a more recent ethnic name that seems to be gaining ground within the Chicano community, Xicanos. Studies in Chicano English have not escaped this issue either. Those studies done by linguistic researchers to address and place a name to the group they research range from Mexican American English, Chicano English and English of people of Mexican origin. Along these ethnic names, other ones pertaining to the culture also abound so that in articles investigating linguistic issues concerning Chicano English, one might also find ethnic names such as Hispanic and Latino to refer back to Chicanos in various contexts. In studies done regarding issues of Chicano English these terms are interchangeable and refer back to the same ethnic group. A recent example of this issue can be read in Timothy C. Frazer’s study, Chicano English and Spanish Interference in the Midwestern United States, where the researcher refers to all the subjects as “eleven Hispanic people” (Frazer 1999: 74). Another aspect that seems inescapable for Chicanos is their bilingual nature. Studies conducted on Chicano English inevitably cover the topic of bilingualism since the dual cultural background of this ethnic group is understood as a vital element in their every day life. Moreover, current research continues to research this trait that characterizes Chicano English, undermining thereby the very status of Chicano English as a proper dialect of American English.

Background Discussion

Chicano English was first thought to be English at an imperfect state (Sawyer 1957) However, further research proved otherwise as those assertions were later refuted by Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia who declared Chicano English to be an “ethnic, border dialect” (Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 16). Currently, discussions centering on Chicano English revolve around its bilingual nature with many researchers still having to indicate in their investigations whether what they studied had any traces of bilingualism in it or not; it has become a prominent feature in studies concerning Chicano English that characteristics having to do with traces of Spanish are dispelled from said investigations. This is a feature that has not been bypassed by school textbooks either, and is readily pointed out, for example American English by Wolfram and Schilling-Estes remark that “ A variety such as Chicano English in the Southwest, on the other hand, is often linked to bilingualism even though some features of this language variety may now be maintained by speakers who are not bilingual.” (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 2002: 165) [my italics]. One is baffled as to why researchers who claim to study Chicano English insist on mistaking the one with the other. Nevertheless there are some features of Chicano English that do not present traces of bilingualism at all, these characteristics can be found most prominent in phonology:

Alternation of [c] and [s], where words such as “show” are uttered as chow and “check” is pronounced like shek. Penfield observes as well that unlike Standard English, which has a separate phonemes for [s] and [c], Chicano English natives utter “a phonetic variant somewhere between the ch of monolingual Standard Spanish speakers and the sh of monolingual Standard English speakers” (Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 40).

Devoicing of [z] in all positions; the devoicing of [v] in word-final position; the realization of [v] as [B] or [b]; of [D] as [d] and [O] as [t]; and of [y] for [j] in word-initial position.

Defricativization: words that begin with “th”. Penfield suggest that “Defricativization is most prominent among lower socio-economic class Chicano English speakers – be they monolingual or bilingual” (Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 43).

Although some vowel sounds simulate “interference” English, some minor differences do exist in the Chicano English vowel repertoire that set apart Chicano English pronunciation not just from recent English learners, but also from Standard English pronunciation. For example, Chicano English speakers tend to lax three tense vowels: [I], [e], [u], particularly before the consonant [l]. Penfield explains further that: “The recent learner of English tenses all six vowels, creating a different set of homophones from those found in Chicano English” (Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 44). Other phonological features, which are cited in the literature regarding Chicano English, include suprasegmentals or stress patterns, and intonation. Dawn Duchnowsky (1999) says, “Despite the slight differences between Chicano and Standard English syntax and morphology, other more apparent differences exist in lexicon and semantics. Just as phonology strongly distinguishes Chicano speakers, so does the vocabulary.” Syntactic patterns can also be inferred as well when it comes to Chicano English although researchers have indicated that these features are nearly absent in Chicano English due to its likeness to Standard English, however some characteristics can be discerned, for example Penfield observes that their studies “ suggest the following syntactic patterns: (1) a different use of the comparative; (2) a different expression of emphasis; and (3) multiple negation. The comparative was consistently used with more for “more often” (Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia 1985: 452).

The persistent issue of bilingualism

Notwithstanding, there is a discrepancy in Chicano English and that is the bilingual issues that seem to pervade its studies. While one should take into consideration those issues when investigating Chicano English, one is wont to ask how pertinent are they to the end result? It is as if investigators are more intent in proving that there is Chicano English than investigating Chicano English. Such is the case presented by Timothy C. Frazer who went out to a community of Mexican Americans in Sterling and Rock Falls, Illinois, which presented, according to him, a potential to study Chicano English that was extricated from the more general and Spanish influenced population of t he southwest. (Frazer 1996:72) Cautions are also very much part of the repertoire investigators have in their stock when researching Chicano English, “ it should be noted that distinguishing between the interlanguage varieties spoken by Mexican Americans who are acquiring English and the ethnic variety of bilingual and English dominant or English monolingual speakers does not exclude the possibility of substrate influence on the speech of English-dominant Chicanos.” (Bayley 1999:120) Chicano English cannot be Chicano English when bilingual issues are discussed. The question then is: why do researchers persist in including their observations that have more to do with bilingualism than with the particular sorts of English that Chicanos speak? Data has been well documented where cases of a unique form of Chicano English is being spoken yet what should be guidelines to distinguish English from bilingual issues is being passed off as Chicano English. Bilingual issues tend to bog down the investigator investigating Chicano English and other more pertinent factors tend to get over looked.

Factors that should also be taken into account when researching Chicano English

Another question that seems to confound researchers is the “nativeness” of the subjects being studied. In a study conducted by Timothy C. Frazer the results are short of clear. He reports to have investigated a community in Sterling, Illinois which is “ almost entirely of Mexican birth or ancestry …” and that had been “somewhat isolated from the Anglo majority by de facto residential segregation and taboos against dating and intermarriage across ethnic lines…” (Frazer 1996:72) and concluded by stating, “The question of whether or not this community has its own viable Chicano English dialect, one with ‘continuity’ (Wald 1984, 19) is harder to answer.” The discrepancy here is quite obvious; the subjects who are mostly Mexican natives are being investigated for a sorts of English that has more to do with bilingual issues than Chicano English at all yet the title of the article bears the legend “Chicano English”. Who should be tested is understandingly baffling, however, it is clear that those who are either born in the USA or have been raised since childbirth or childhood in the United States would most likely be reliable candidates for studies of Chicano English. In the case above mentioned, the study does no indicate whether the subjects were raised in the United States or not.

Factors of a sociolinguistic nature also tend to be grossly over looked by researchers out in the field. For example, Timothy C. Frazer above mentioned study mentions that several of his helpers were of a different ethnic background than the subjects, one of them was “ a middle-class, female, Anglo resident of Sterling” (Frazer 1999: 74) What this study fails to address and take into account is the influence the female interviewer might of have had on the elder subjects and maybe all of the subjects in general. The question then, which arises most, is if the researcher took into account the influence the female interviewer might of have had on the English of the subjects? Relationships with Anglos and Chicanos, as Timothy C. Frazer noted well (Frazer 1996:72), is a rocky one at best, in other words, could it have been a case where the subject felt pressure to perform with a better English than he or she would have otherwise used? Unfortunately the study does not present us with a thorough answer to this question.

Another feature that seems completely absent from studies regarding Chicano English is its indigenous elements. There is an almost blind belief that all Chicanos have Spanish as a second language or that they are at the very least influenced by it. The Chicano community is composed of a culture that is distinguished by its multicultural roots. The constant flow of Mexicans to the United States also comprises of Mexicans that stem from autochthonous people from ancient regions of Mexico. Chicanos do not necessarily have to be people whose first language at home is Spanish; it could very well be some indigenous language. They could also be for that matter already bilingual before they come into contact with English. Many researchers seem to just take for granted that any substrate traces of another language stem from Spanish when it could just as well be a substrate from one of the indigenous languages of Mexico’s autochthonous communities.


The articles taken into consideration for this term paper to investigate the issue of Chicano English have all questions and issues regarding the topic of bilingualism used in a comparative manner to sift out whether there is a case for Chicano English or not; whether there are articles or research discussing solely Chicano English has been harder to find. The one exception has been Penfield’s and Ornstein-Galicia book on Chicano English. Current research does not indicate if a turnabout is taking place and the direction of said studies continues to focus on the many bilingual issues that arise when conducting studies of Chicano English. Based on the above-mentioned studies, Chicano English has not become a field of study on its own right, this despite groundbreaking work done by Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia. “The acceptance and recognition of Chicano English as an acceptable way of speaking or as a dialect in its own right like other dialects of English, e.g., Black English or Texas English, still does not exist within mainstream Anglo society and even Chicano society” Those words still ring as true today as they did then. It is clear that more space and time is needed to ascertain with certainty whether the conclusions reached in this term paper are true or not.


Bayley, Robert. “Relativization Strategies in Mexican-American English” American Speech,
Volume 74, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), 115-139

Duchnowski, Dawn. (1999, May version). “Chicano English: Language Issues and their
Relationship to Culture” Electronic Source [WWW document]. URL: (June 01, 2003).

Frazer, Timothy C. “Chicano English and Spanish Interference in the Midwestern United
States” American Speech Volume 71, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), 72-85

Penfield, Joyce and Ornstein-Galicia, Jacob L. “Chicano English: An Ethnic Contact Dialect”
Varieties of English Around the World. 7. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1985.