It's Alive!

The adventures of Ilan Stavans, radical lexicographer and Spanglish champion

The purist argument is easy to hear, as thinkers from Thomas Paine and Johnson back to Cicero were enchanted by the eloquence with which their predecessors from hundreds of years prior had spoken. But most of the time, according to Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher's forthcoming The Unfolding of Language (Random House), it's exactly the forces of destruction such purists fear that create new words. Anyone who's ever used "gonna" contributes. And Stavans is fascinated.

His latest academic spar is one to watch: He's translating Don Quijote de la Mancha into Spanglish, to the dismay of all those orthographic purists. But why cast an entire text into a piecemeal dialect? Ironically, for the same reason Johnson, Webster, and even encyclopedists like Flaubert made lexicons: to preserve and promote.

For Stavans, lover of mixed-up Portuñol and Franglais words, deviant curses and hip-hop graffiti (an insider language of sorts), his work conflicts with his ideology. Some say by codifying street speak into a dictionary, one is stealing it from the people and turning it into something that can be studied.

Sleeping with the OED: Amherst prof Stavans
photo: Eric Poppenpohl
Sleeping with the OED: Amherst prof Stavans

"True," Stavans said. "But every intellectual pursuit is a theft, is it not?"

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