The Dangers of Code-Switching

There's this thing out there called Portunhol (or Portuñol, depending on where you come from). Portunhol is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish, but not in the sense that it's a separate dialect (although it is a dialect in some places along the borders of Brazil with Uruguay and Paraguay). Instead, Portunhol is a kind of code-switching, in which the speaker mixes the vocabulary of his primary language with the structure and rules of the second.

In communicating with a Spanish speaker, a Portuguese speaker can remember several rules that will turn his language into an approximation of the other. -ção become -cion, the nh phoneme becomes ñ, and so on. Following the several rules and patterns that the speakers of both languages begin to see as they interact with each other means that if they're not saying exactly the right word, they're probably close enough to be understood.

When I was nineteen years old, I had never studies Spanish formally. Both my parents could speak it after a fashion, and I had spent several months traveling around Chile with my grandfather when I was sixteen. I said that I was fluent in Spanish, and I wasn't wrong, really. But at that age I definitely learned a lesson about the dangers of code-switching.

I lived in north Florida, and decided to visit my aunt in Tucson, Arizona. I took a Greyhound bus along my favorite cross-country freeway, the glorious I-10, which connects Jacksonville, Florida to Santa Monica, California. We had a bit of a layover in El Paso, Texas, which is flush to the border with Mexico. I swung by the cafeteria to order dinner.

The attendant was a Mexican with poor English, and I had an urge to show off. I decided to order in Spanish. Which I did. When I got my food, I saw that I was needed a spoon. The Spanish word for spoon is cuchara. I knew this, but for whatever reason I blanked on the word. No problem. Portunhol to the rescue.

The lh phoneme in Portuguese becomes a j (a throaty English "h") sound in Spanish. For example, the Portuguese word for woman is mulher. This become mujer. Easy as pie.

So I didn't ask this cafeteria attendant, who, by the way, I was alone with late at night, for a cuchara. Instead, I took the Portuguese word for spoon, colher, and code-switched it into Spanish. The attendant looked shocked when I asked him. So I said the word in English and mimed using a spoon. The attendant looked relieved. When I asked him what I had actually requested, he looked around, then thrust his hips forward several times.

I had asked him for a f***.