In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Spanish in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Encyclopedias and Histories
  • Dictionaries and Lexicography
  • Databases
  • Bilingualism
  • Code Switching
  • Comparative Studies
  • Historical Studies
  • Loanwords
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Spanglish
  • Spanish in Contact
  • Spanish as a Heritage Language
  • Media
  • Aesthetics

Latino Studies Spanish in the United States
Ilan Stavans
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0006


The Spanish language has been a fixture of the United States for centuries. Florida and the southwestern states were first colonized by Iberian soldiers and missionaries, who brought the Spanish language with them from the Iberian Peninsula. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, came as a result of the Mexican-American War, establishing the geographical boundaries that (for the most part) still prevail, and resulting in English being the dominant language throughout the country. This means that the Spanish language has gone through historical epochs in which it was a daily language (colonial period in Florida and the Southwest), to transitioning into a background role in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th, only to return to a significant position after World War II. In the first decades of the 21st century, varieties of Spanish are spoken in different parts of the country. Spanish Loanwords have been absorbed into English; its constant contact with the dominant English has made Spanish a porous language, giving rise to Spanglish, which in the opinion of some represents the emergence of an alternative way of communication. Nowhere in the US Constitution is English ratified as the official language, although some states have indeed moved to consolidate such status. Nevertheless, as a result of immigration and the demographic growth of the Latino minority, the presence of Spanish remains strong to the extent that it is considered the country’s unofficial second code of communication, with other minority tongues also frequently used (Mandarin, Creole, Korean, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, etc.). Spanish in the United States exists in multiple realms: the domestic sphere; the classroom; in literature; in political forums; in churches; as well as on radio, TV, and in printed media. Studies on bilingualism and Code Switching have opened new academic paths (see also the Oxford Bibliographies article on Child Language Acquisition). Studies of the vicissitudes of Spanish in the United States address various dimensions: the historical, by focusing on its development over time in specific regions or populations; the aesthetic, in exploring its use in poetry, novels, theater, and music; and the national, distinguishing among the different forms used by people from individual countries of origin (Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Colombia, etc.). Within these dimensions, there are generational differences in Spanish-language speakers, which become apparent as one considers the distance from the time of original arrival to the United States by the individual or the ancestry. And there are also syntactical differences defined by geographical location. These generational and syntactical characteristics are not given separate sections in this bibliography.

Encyclopedias and Histories

No comprehensive history on the Spanish language in the United States is available. Instead, the topic is featured in surveys of the history of Spanish in the world, from the Roman period to the present. Each of the surveys provided here includes a chapter on the challenges faced by the more than fifty million Spanish-speaking people in the United States, many of whom are immigrants or come from an immigrant background and whose roots are in Latin America and the Caribbean Basin. However, there are some encyclopedias that focus more thoroughly on this theme. Alatorre 1989 offers a panoramic view of the development of Spanish, since its origins to the present, and includes a chapter exploring its reality in the United States. Hualde 2010 is an introduction to the study and development of Hispanic linguistics. Lapesa 1981, although structurally a labyrinth, remains the most widely read history of Spanish. Lipski 1994 and Lipski 2008 focus on the varieties of Spanish in the former Spanish colonies across the Atlantic, analyzing in detail the most significant examples (Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, etc.). López-Morales 2009 is an encyclopedic survey of Spanish in the United States in which multiple scholars collaborated. Pharies 2007 offers another history of the language that unfortunately ignores its realities north of the Rio Grande.

  • Alatorre, Antonio. Los 1001 años de la lengua española. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989.

    A standard history of the Spanish language delivered by an erudite Mexican philologist. Contains a brief section on Spanish in the United States, toward the end of the volume.

  • Hualde, José Ignacio, Antxon Olarrea, Anna María Escobar, and Catherine E. Travis. Introducción a la lingüística hispánica. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    A standard approach to Hispanic linguistics; it is useful for understanding the Spanish-speaking world, although it ignores the United States.

  • Lapesa, Rafael. Historia de la lengua española. 9th ed. Madrid: Gredos, 1981.

    The late Rafael Lapesa was considered the most authoritative historian of the Spanish language. Although this history underwent numerous revisions, the development of Spanish in the United States never received its due in the volume. Includes a prologue by Ramón Menéndez Pidal.

  • Lipski, John M. Latin American Spanish. London: Longman, 1994.

    A broad picture of the development of Spanish in Hispanic America. The United States plays a small role in it.

  • Lipski, John M. Varieties of Spanish in the United States. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008.

    A comprehensive study of linguistic variety, the volume expands on Lipski 1994 survey by focusing on Spanish outside of Latin America—what some scholars call “the diaspora within the United States,” others perceive as a new Hispanic nation.

  • López-Morales, Humberto, ed. Enciclopedia del español en los Estados Unidos. Madrid: Instituto Cervantes, 2009.

    An accumulative survey of Spanish in the United States, edited by a Spanish scholar known for his purist views of the topic.

  • Pharies, David A. A Brief History of the Spanish Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    Although written in the United States, this history of the Spanish language almost ignores the volume’s country of publication.

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