Let’s Learn Llanito

In Yiddish, there is a saying ‘a shprakh is a dialect mit en army un flot’, or ‘a language is a dialect with an army and a navy’. That means that it has acquired a degree of power and influence as well as status and prestige, having a standardised grammar as well as orthography or writing system. Conversely, a dialect is a language with few or any of those things at all. 

I was reminded of this when, by accident, I came across the website llanitollanito.com, dedicated to the Llanito language. Yes, language, as opposed to being ‘Spanglish’ or ‘code-switching’ between Spanish and English, complete with its own orthography, hence Gibraltar being transcribed as ‘Hivertà’, reflecting its pronunciation, albeit following English spelling rules.

This was similar to Tagalog in the Philippines, in which Spanish loanwords with a ‘j’ or soft ‘g’ are transliterated with an ‘h’, so ‘hueves’ becomes ‘Huwebes’ and ‘generación’ becomes ‘henerasyon’. Similarly, Maltese, a Semitic language full of Italian loanwords, especially Sicilian ones, spells them with the letter ‘k’, not used in Romance languages, hence ‘comunità’ becomes ‘komunità’.


As an aside, I know that some people prefer the spelling ‘Yanito’ or ‘Janito’ on the grounds that ‘Llanito’ looks too Spanish, but I stick with the most commonly used one. Elsewhere in the world, attempts at linguistic separatism or revivalism have often foundered on petty disagreements over whether to spell a word using one letter or letter combination instead of another.

Of course, there will be those in Gibraltar who look down on Llanito, much as those in my childhood home of Singapore look down on Singlish, especially in the government. However, while the ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ was successful in stamping out Chinese dialects, the ‘Speak Good English Movement’ fared less well trying to discourage the use of Singlish.

Singapore was once called ‘the Gibraltar of the East’, and not just because of its strategic military importance. Like the Rock, it became a hub for entrepot trade, attracting people from surrounding countries, making it ethnically distinct from its hinterland, and also linguistically, with Singlish, like Manglish in Malaysia, resembling an Asian language with English words.

Like Chinese or Malay, Singlish works on the premise that less is more. It doesn’t call a spade ‘a terrestrially extractive horticultural contrivance’, as might Sir Peter Caruana, it calls it ‘a spade’, as might Sir Joe Bossano, if not ‘a bloody shovel’. Who needs personal pronouns when you’ve got ‘don’t have!’ or ‘cannot!’ or the verb ‘to be’ when you’ve got ‘your mother not in’?

When, horror of horrors, the MRT, the city state’s ultra-modern metro broke down, there was an uproar in the press. However, while the London Evening Standard might have led a front page story about yet another breakdown on the Underground with a verbose headline like ‘HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED?’, Singapore’s New Paper just asked ‘HOW CAN?’


Like Llanito, Singlish has been disadvantaged by being spoken in a small, densely populated urban area, constantly coming up against the language of administration, education and the press, and compared unfavourably to it. African-American Vernacular English in the US faces a similar problem, with a racial element to it, though even some black Americans look down on it.

By contrast, Tok Pisin (from ‘talk pidgin’) in Papua New Guinea and Krio (from ‘creole’) in Sierra Leone have become languages in their own right. This is because they both have the advantage of being spoken in large, sparsely populated rural areas, and used as the lingua franca, so can ‘dance like nobody’s watching’, in other words, not feel they’re constantly being judged.

As a result, both are also written languages, with their own orthographies, based on phonetic rules, which is actually more dignified than if they had preserved the original English spelling. For example, while the Tok Pisin words ‘bagarap’ and ‘bagarapim’ are derived from ‘bugger up’ and ‘bugger up him’ respectively, each has a distinct meaning.

The word ‘bagarap’ is an intransitive verb, meaning ‘to mess up’, so while the GSD may say ‘Fabian Picardo bin bagarap’, the GSLP may warn voters at the next election that ‘Keith Azopardi bai bagarap’ if ever he wins. By contrast, ‘bagarapim’, meaning ‘to harm’, is transitive, and people have known only too well for decades how much Spain has tried to ‘bagarapim’ Gibraltar.

Closer to home, GBC presenters say how a programme ‘will repeat’ tomorrow, instead of ‘will be repeated’, influenced by the Spanish ‘repetir’, and use ‘protest’ instead of ‘protest against’. Sorry, GBC, Gibraltar may ‘protest’ its loyalty to the Crown, in the sense of ‘proclaim’, but the Foreign Office does not ‘protest’ Spanish actions, even if it doesn’t always ‘protest against’ them either.

Oh well, never mind. Ironically, Krio, once scorned as ‘broken English’ or ‘baby talk’, has been so successful as a standardised language that some in Sierra Leone now complain about ‘corruption’ by African languages, with the use of ‘a de pan kam’ (‘I the upon come’) to mean ‘I am coming’ being denounced as a barbarism by those insistent that it should be ‘a de kam’.

Were things different, there might now be fierce debates in Gibraltar about what constituted ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ Llanito, with prescriptivists looking down on those not fluent in their ‘Inns of Court’ register of the national language. However, while the concept of a language authority is alien to native English speakers, there might be a ‘Real Akademia del Llanito Làngwij’ today.