How to Tame a Wild Tongue

by Gloria Anzaldúa

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Dynamic and Creative Dimensions of Language

The “wild tongue” Gloria Anzaldúa writes of is a rich metaphor for the living, breathing, evolving qualities of language. While the author primarily discusses Spanish and English, she contextualizes them with observations about language in general. Anzaldúa explores the power relations between English, the dominant language of the United States, and other languages that have minority status in the country. In doing so, she emphasizes the ongoing negotiation between dominant and subordinate languages. Against this backdrop, she attends to the ways in which people invest their creativity into their ever-changing tongue.

Noting that Spanish has been spoken in what is now US territory for centuries, Anzaldúa provides numerous examples of the ways that Chicano (Mexican American) Spanish has been adapted. Evolution, enrichment, invention, and adoption—terms she provides in Spanish—are among the methods in which change has occurred in the “living language.” In contrast, academic rules that limit change likewise limit the creative potential of the language’s speakers.

A negative aspect of that constant creativity, however, is that it arises from necessity. If language did not change, it would die out. Anzaldúa notes the pressure placed on subordinate languages, including the numerous efforts, including enforced use in schools, that have been applied to inhibit foreign languages—but usually with limited success. Although Anzaldúa speaks harshly about such attacks on language, using the term “linguistic terrorism,” she also expresses optimism about the human resilience that will enable languages to grow and change along with their speakers.

The Varieties of Spanish

There are many variants of Spanish, Anzaldúa notes, because the language was spread through the Americas so long ago. Anzaldúa explores specific characteristics of formal Castilian Spanish (from Castile, in central Spain) that separate it from the different kinds of Spanish found in North America. While occasionally using the term “dialect,” she prefers to consider them distinct languages. The plurality of Spanish reflects both the longevity of language use since Spaniards first arrived in the Americas and the vast geographical distribution of speakers, which is constantly increasing.

Along with emphasizing the formality of Castilian Spanish, Anzaldúa presents Mexican American, or Chicano, Spanish as very widespread. She addresses similarities and differences between it and other dialects of Spanish, including Cuban and Puerto Rican dialects. She also highlights the variations within Chicano Spanish, tracing the differences between the Mexican Spanish of those recently arrived in the United States and those who have been in the country for generations or even centuries.

The Relationship Between Language and Identity

Anzaldúa writes here, as she has in other works, about the central aspects of her identity aside from her ethnicity or nationalism—namely, her identities as a lesbian and a woman. She offers insights into how those aspects of her personhood led her into writing, especially poetry. She explains that core aspects of one’s identity cannot be separated from language: speaking Chicano Spanish is where she feels at home—not just comfortable, but genuine. At the same time, however, she is straightforward about the limits of language when it restricts rather than enables expression.

Characterizing authentic expression as a “serpent’s tongue” or “forked tongue,” Anzaldúa emphasizes the multiple ways that language use has been attacked as a way to silence people in certain categories. For her, along with her being Chicana, her gender and sexual identities are paramount. She has fought against avoidance and for connection when encountering other Chicanas who were hesitant to commune with other Spanish-speaking women. She uses the metaphor of a mirror to convey both self-reflexive contemplation as well as communication. Anzaldúa asserts that becoming close to other women who resemble her, not in their looks but in their speech, is comparable to looking in a mirror.

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