Hispanic or Latino? A Sociolinguistic Perspective

We recently published Speaking Spanish in the US by Janet M. Fuller and Jennifer Leeman. In this post Jennifer writes about the difference between the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’.

Recent growth in the share of the US population that identifies as Hispanic or Latino (as well as feminine Latina and the gender-neutral and non-binary Latinx) has been accompanied by increased attention to the labels themselves. There are ongoing debates about whether these pan-ethnic labels correspond to an ‘authentic’ identity, or people’s own sense of themselves as well as their lived experience or if, conversely, they are an ‘artificial’ creation of the US government. Nor is there consensus among scholars, advocates or anyone else whether that identity, assuming it actually exists, should be considered ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial.’ While we explore both of these issues in our new book, the focus of this post is on a third point of contention: the labels themselves. Specifically, is there a difference between Hispanic and Latino/a/x, and if so, what is it? The meaning of these labels is a perennial topic of lively discussion. It is especially timely this year, given that 2020 is a census year and the US census includes a question on Hispanic or Latino origin. Sociolinguistic perspectives on language, and on the relationship of language to identity, can offer insights into the meaning of the terms as well as into why such discussions are important and never seem to reach resolution.

On one hand, many dictionaries present Hispanic and Latinx/o/a as synonyms, as does the US Office of Management and Budget (the federal agency that mandates the race and ethnicity categories to be used on the census), and many speakers use the two terms interchangeably. One the other hand, numerous scholarly essays, news articles, and social media posts insist that they are not in fact the same. Although there is some variation in popular and scholarly explanations of the purported differences, etymology typically figures prominently. Specifically, most authors trace the origins of the word Hispanic to Hispania, the region of the Roman empire that comprised the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal today); some accounts also describe Hispanic as an Anglicized shortening of hispanoamericano, an inhabitant of Spain’s former American colonies. For its part, Latino is described as a deriving from latinoamericano, and many authors note that Latin America is a 19th century construction differentiating the areas in the Americas colonized by France, Portugal and Spain from those colonized by England. Thus, many claim that Hispanic refers to people with a connection to former Spanish colonies (but not Brazil) while Latina/x/o includes all Latin Americans and their descendants (but not people from Europe). Ethnoracial and linguistic diversity within Latin America and Spain is often glossed over in such discussions.

For the most part, etymologically-based accounts of the difference between Hispanic and Latinx/a/o assume a straightforward and enduring one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings, as well as a similarly rigid understanding of identities and their relationship to labels. In this view, once we know the origin of a word, we know its meaning. However, one of the basics of human language is that it is always undergoing change; not only do pronunciations and sentence structures change over time, so do the semantic and social meanings of words. Thus, while etymology is interesting, and it can tell us something about how words have been used historically, it doesn’t reveal their complete meaning. For sociolinguists, the meaning of words is not contained within the words themselves but in the way they are used and understood in a given context. In the case of ethnoracial labels, this often goes hand-in-hand with varied social constructions of ethnoracial categories, which can vary from place to place as well as over time.

In addition to characterizing identities as socially constructed, sociolinguist approaches also stress that language plays a central role in the creation and performance of identities. Indexicality, or the way that particular linguistic forms or practices ‘point to’ particular attitudes, stances or identities, is key to this process. Specifically, when speakers speak in a particular way, or use one particular word, they rely on socially shared associations between linguistic forms and social meanings to signal something about themselves. Symbolic and indexical meanings play an especially important role in shaping people’s preferences for either Hispanic or Latino/x/a. For many people, the term Hispanic is seen as elevating European heritage and erasing Native and African cultures, peoples and languages. Despite the equally Eurocentric etymology of Latino/x/a, this term for many people indexes a more inclusive recognition of diversity.  In some contexts, using Latino/x/a (and especially when pronounced with Spanish, rather than English, phonology) is a way of enacting a particular kind of ethnoracial pride and/or sociopolitical awareness. In addition, the use of Latinx can signal one’s support for gender inclusivity. In sum, the choice between Hispanic and Latino/x/a (as well as other identity labels) depends not only on the specific ethnoracial identity of the person it refers to, but also on the sociopolitical stance and identity of the speaker. Importantly, indexical meanings are also variable and contextually dependent, rather than fixed within the words themselves. As such, it’s not surprising that the precise meanings of these labels, as well as which one is ‘better’, is highly contested, as are debates about just what it means to be either one.

Jennifer Leeman

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom by Kimberly Adilia Helmer.

Exciting New Multilingual Matters Titles for 2020

We can’t believe the first month of 2020 is almost over! It seems like only yesterday we were decorating the office and singing along to our Christmas playlist. However, if January has seemed like a very long month to you, we have plenty of exciting new titles coming up to fend off the winter blues. Here’s a selection of what we’ve got in store for you this spring…

Global TESOL for the 21st Century by Heath Rose, Mona Syrbe, Anuchaya Montakantiwong and Natsuno Funada

This book explores the impact of the spread of English on language teaching and learning. It provides a framework for change in the way English is taught to better reflect global realities and to embrace current research. The book is essential reading for postgraduate researchers, teachers and teacher trainers in TESOL.

Speaking Spanish in the US by Janet M. Fuller and Jennifer Leeman

This book introduces readers to basic concepts of sociolinguistics with a focus on Spanish in the US. The coverage goes beyond linguistics to examine the history and politics of Spanish in the US, the relationship of language to Latinx identities, and how language ideologies and policies reflect and shape societal views of Spanish and its speakers.

Teaching Adult Immigrants with Limited Formal Education edited by Joy Kreeft Peyton and Martha Young-Scholten

This book aims to empower teachers working with adult migrants who have had little or no prior formal schooling, and give them the information and skills that they need to reach the highest possible levels of literacy in their new languages.

Essays on Conference Interpreting by James Nolan

This book, drawing on the author’s 30-year career, seeks to define what constitutes good interpreting and how to develop the skills and abilities that are conducive to it. It places interpretation in its historical context and examines the uses and limitations of modern technology for interpreting.

 

The Dynamics of Language and Inequality in Education edited by Joel Austin Windle, Dánie de Jesus and Lesley Bartlett

This book contributes new perspectives from the Global South on the ways in which linguistic and discursive boundaries shape inequalities in educational contexts, ranging from Amazonian missions to Mongolian universities, using critical ethnographic and sociolinguistic analyses.

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Language Teaching edited by Christina Gkonou, Jean-Marc Dewaele and Jim King

This book focuses on the emotional complexity of language teaching and how the diverse emotions that teachers experience are shaped and function. The book covers a range of emotion-related topics on both positive and negative emotions, including emotional labour, burnout, emotion regulation, resilience, emotional intelligence and wellbeing.

 

Seen something you like? All these titles are available to pre-order on our website and you can get 50% off this month when you enter the code JANSALE at the checkout!