Colonial Lag, Social Change, and Ethnolinguistic Identity in South Texas, 1791-1910

By Martinez, Glenn A. | Southwest Journal of Linguistics, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Colonial Lag, Social Change, and Ethnolinguistic Identity in South Texas, 1791-1910

Martinez, Glenn A., Southwest Journal of Linguistics

ABSTRACT. South Texas Spanish is one of the most archaic varieties spoken in the United States Southwest; however, the socio-historic motivation of this archaic flavor is elusive. While social isolation is an important factor in the maintenance of archaic forms in other regions of the Southwest such as Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, the same reasoning does not hold true in South Texas for two reasons: First, Spanish was brought to the region comparatively late (1749) and, second, the region was a magnet for southern immigration beginning as early 1860. The present paper argues that the archaic flavor of South Texas Spanish is directly tied to abrupt and intense social change in the region incited by both Anglo immigration from the north and Mexican immigration from the south. I analyze the archaic conditional use of the -ra verb form and argue that it retained force in the dialect because it came to be a symbol of ethnolinguistic identity in a linguistically heterogeneous society.


Language reinforced Tejano individuality and reaffirmed membership in the Spanish speaking community. It acted as a cultural form of bringing together those sharing the same experiences and served to sustain community confidence and drive.

Arnoldo De Leon

The Tejano Community, 1836-1900

INTRODUCTION. Studies in New World language history have traditionally pointed out that settlements on this side of the Atlantic tend to be more linguistically conservative than their Old World counterparts. In other words, linguistic innovations in vogue in the Old World for some reason fail to make their way into the New World speech community. This situation, oftentimes referred to as COLONIAL LAG, is commonly associated with the geographic, social, and political isolation engendered by the colonial way of life. For instance, in 1789 Noah Webster suggested that `the New England common people ... have been sequestered in some measure from the world and their language has not suffered material changes from their first settlements to the present time' (cited in Dillard 1992:32-3). The same linguistic backwardness has been ascribed to Spanish settlements in what is now the United States Southwest. For example, Cotton and Sharp contend that `the relative isolation of the [New Mexico and Southern Colorado] area accounts for ... the archaic character of many lexical items' (1988:284). The notion of colonial lag as expressed by these observers evokes a static world where linguistic forms are somehow frozen in time. But colonial life was far from static; indeed, social change permeated the very fabric of colonial existence in numerous ways. Intense and sustained social change arose from both intra- and intercolonial disputes throughout the formative years of European presence in the New World. It seems to me, therefore, that isolation and linguistic conservatism need not be viewed as inextricable bedfellows; instead, social change itself might be seen as a motivation for linguistic conservatism. In short, while I perceive colonial lag to be a useful concept in New World language history, I believe that it might be more properly posed as first and foremost a question of local loyalty emerging in response to both intra- and intercolonial conflict.

The Spanish spoken in South Texas has often been regarded as an extremely conservative dialect. The casual observer might find any one of a number of archaic forms in the colloquial speech of the region. Phonological archaisms such as the pronunciation of the word-initial glottal fricative [h] in words such as hallar `to find' and hablar `to speak', morphological archaisms such as traiba for traia `to bring (3SG IMPERFECT)' and caiba for caia `to fall (3SG IMPERFECT)', and lexical archaisms such as ansina for asi `like' and mesmo for mismo `same' are all frequently encountered in South Texas Spanish. But even though archaic variants are commonplace in the language of the region, the motivation for such conservatism is elusive.

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Colonial Lag, Social Change, and Ethnolinguistic Identity in South Texas, 1791-1910


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