a {text-decoration: none; } En la punta de la lengua: A linguistic overview of Ciudad Juárez

15 jun 2016

A linguistic overview of Ciudad Juárez

Formerly known as Paso del Norte, Ciudad Juárez is the sixth largest municipality, and the eight biggest city in Mexico with a population of 1.3 million people (INEGI, 2015). It lies south of the Rio Grande, and together with El Paso, Texas; it compromises the largest adjacent binational metropolitan area in the world (c. 2 million inhabitants), as well as the largest bilingual workforce in the Western Hemisphere (Chamberlain, 2007).

Unlike El Paso, which is a highly diglossic community, where English and Spanish are spoken by three quarters of the overall population (US Census Bureau, 2014) to different extents and under different circumstances; Juarez inhabitants are mostly monolingual in Spanish, although knowledgeable enough to communicate in Pidgin English (Teschner, 1995), if they are ever faced with the need to address an English monolingual or English dominant bilingual on either side of the border.

Oppositely to the commonplace language alternation of bilingual El Pasoans, Juarenses severely reject code-switching, and even those bilingual prefer to keep both languages detached as much as possible, using English for instrumental purposes. The cause of such rejection is the rooted belief that Mexican Americans are displaced Mexicans who deny their ancestral roots, and who outright refuse to speak Spanish. (Esquinca Moreno, 1999, p.107). Nonetheless, the recent immigration trend from Juárez upper and upper-middle classes to El Paso due to the Mexican Drug War, and the on-going revitalization of Juárez, appears to be shifting the attitudes and mitigating the prejudices of fronchis (Derogatory demonym coined by El Pasoans to refer to Juárez inhabitants. The word comes from former Chihuahua license plates with the legend “Fronterizo Chihuahua) towards pochos (Derogatory pseudonym used by Mexican nationals to refer to Mexican Americans who code-switch between English and Spanish) and vice versa. After all, “ El Paso is part Mexican, and Juárez is more American than it sometimes likes to admit” (Sonnichsen, 1968, p.9)

Besides English and Spanish, other minority languages that contribute to the borderland’s linguistic heterogeneity are: Tarahumara and Tepehuano predominantly spoken by the Tarahumara community in Ciudad Juárez. Tigua, spoken by the Native American Tigua descendants in the Ysleta section of El Paso, and Plautdietsch or Mennonite Low German, spoken by the Swiss ancestry Mennonites primarily settled in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua; who frequently travel to the border for commerce purposes (Hedges, 1996).

The vernacular lexicon of Juárez has four main influences that diverge from the other regions of Mexico. The first one is the inclusion of a myriad of loanwords, adaptations and calques from English (baica ‘bike’, birria ‘beer’, pichar ‘to pitch’, puchar ‘to push’ etc.) due to the immediate contact between the two languages, and “the need for a term of a new object, prestige, the need for new synonyms, and the avoidance of homonyms” (Weinreich & Bloomfield as cited in Sobin, 1976, p. 15) The second one is what is known as jerga del hampa, an argot originally used by the narco and the organized crime in general, which has already spread across the community and it now belongs to the local lingo (levantón ‘kidnap’, café ‘marihuana’, plomear ‘to shoot’). A third source is a set of words from the first half of the 20th century that are considered out-dated in other parts of the country (fantoche ‘wannabe’, cantón ‘house’, cócono ‘turkey’, etc.)(Arzate Soltero, 2016), and lastly, some lexical items borrowed from Nahuatl that are paradoxically not commonly used or even understood in other regions of Mexico (e.g. asquel, ‘ant’, zacate ‘grass’, moyote ‘mosquito’, zoquete ‘mud’) (Méndez, 2013)

On the semantic side, some peculiarities that come to mind are the tendency to describe entities with noun phrases that have a designated monolexical items in other Mexican dialects (e.g. pantalón de mezclilla instead of jeans or elote en vaso instead of esquites ‘corn in a cup’) as well as words with different meaning, such as pantalonera in Chihuahua (‘sweat pans’) and pantalonera in Central Mexico (‘traditional pants worn by mariachis’) or zacate in Chihuahua (‘grass’) and zacate in Southern Mexico (‘sponge’).

A distinguishable morphological feature of the Spanish of this region is the use of the suffix -illo instead of the standard –ito as diminutive marker (chiquillo instead of chiquito ‘small’).

Although there has not been substantial research on the syntactical influence of English on border Spanish, Scarborough (1979) presents the study of selected syntactic structures, which demonstrate that in fact, Juárez Spanish varies from Standard Mexican Spanish to certain extent. (e.g. tomar un paseo instead of dar un paseo ‘to take a walk’. María le enseñó a Carlos cómo bailar instead of María le enseñó a Carlos a bailar ‘ María taught Carlos how to dance. Alberto tiene dos años de edad instead of Alberto tiene dos años ‘Alberto is two years old’).

As far as pragmatics is concerned, the corpus for this research shows a tendency for dequeismo among young speakers. Moreno de Alba (2003, p.237) defines dequeismo as the unnecessary presence of the preposition de frequently placed before the relative pronoun que. Though this is not a recent phenomenon, it continues to develop across the Spanish-speaking world, including Mexico. Instances of this can even be seen in traditonal music such as the song Si quieres by Alberto Aguilera Valadez “Juan Gabriel” (1982) where dequeismo is portrayed in the chorus, “de que me gustas es verdad, de que te quiero es verdad.” In prescriptive Spanish grammar, the preposition de would not be necessary in dependent clauses such as que te quiero ‘that I love you.’ However, beyond the traditional definition, young Juárez speakers seem to be using de que as a filler. In other words, in addition to the locutions to signal the interlocutor, a pause to think without giving the impression of having finished speaking (Juan, 2006) such as o sea, este or pues; de que appears to be an innovation in formulaic language. The next two transcriptions display the pragmatic usage of de que in spoken discourse.


¿Qué es lo que más extrañas de Juárez? (‘What do you miss the most from Juárez?’)

Speaker LMAUZZ

“Pues, como es universidad de que la familia, la comida, los amigos de que las salidas aquí, vamos a salir pero qué hago, además soy menor.” (‘Since is college, I miss family, food, friends, going out here is not the same because I’m underage.)


¿Cómo ha cambiado la ciudad desde que eras niña? (‘How has the city changed since you were a kid?’)

Speaker fFMUYN:

“Pues, de que antes los niños podían salir al parque y no pasaba nada y ahora ya no los ves jugando solos afuera sin sus papas.” (Back then, the kids went out to the park and nothing happened, and now you don’t see them playing alone without adult supervision.)


Aguilera, A. (1982). Si quieres [Recorded by Juan Gabriel]. On Cosas de enamorados [Compact cassette]. California: Ariola Records.

Arzate Soltero, C. (2005). Léxico popular de Ciudad Juárez. Unpublished manuscript, Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. Retrieved from: http://www.mundoalfal.org/cdcongreso/cd/dialectologia_sociolinguistica/arzate.html

Anzaldúa, G. (2007). Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books: California.

Chamberlain, L. (2007, March 28). 2 Cities and 4 Bridges Where Commerce Flows. The New York Times. Retrieved April 15, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/28/realestate/commercial/28juarez.html?pagewanted=2&_r=3&sq=Where

Esquinca Moreno, A. (1999). Evidence of Language Attitude Shift in Juárez, Mexico. (Master’s Thesis). The University of Texas at El Paso.

Hedges, K. L. (1996). Plautdietsch and Huuchdietsch in Chihuahua: Language, literacy and identity among the Old Colony Mennonites in Northern Mexico. Ann Arbor: Michigan.

Juan, S. (2006, May 06). Why do we say 'um', 'er', or 'ah' when we hesitate in speaking? The Register. Retrieved October 16, 2016, from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/06/the_odd_body_language_fillers/

Moreno de Alba, J.G. (2003). La lengua española en México. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica. 

Tescher, R. (1995). Beachheads, islands, and conduits: Spanish monolingualism and bilingualism in El Paso, Texas. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 114(1), 93-106. doi: 10.1515/ijsl.1995.114.93

Sobin, N. (1976). Texas Spanish and lexical borrowing. Paper in Linguistics, 9(1-2), 15-47. doi:10.1080/08351817609370412

Sonnichsen, C. (1968). Pass of the North: Four centuries on the Rio Grande. El Paso: Texas Western Press.

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