etymology of chicano

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sun Apr 28 17:10:03 UTC 2013

i'm posting this for Michael Newman, who's been unable to get a plain-text version of it on the list.

first, from Charlie Doyle:

On Apr 28, 2013, at 10:59 AM, Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at UGA.EDU>

Regarding the etymology of "Chicano," from "Mexicano"--and that troublesome "x" (or "j") that shows up in the spelling of Spanish words (cf. "Quixote"/"Quijote"):  I recall from my childhood in Texas(/"Tejas") in the 1950s that a common Gringo pronunciation of "Mexican"--often deemed offensive--was [mEs at k@n].


Michael's response (with orthography in angle brackets):

There's no trouble in the <X> <J> variation in the sense of understanding the whys and wherefores.

In the early 16th century Spanish <X> represented the voiceless postpalatal fricative, (the initial sound in sugar and shoot in English) whereas <J> represented  the initial sound in French Jacques.  The name Mexico was pronounced meshiko in phonetic respelling a derivation of Spanish approximation of the Aztec names for themselves, their language, and I think related peoples. Similarly, other place names with that sound were written with <X> such as Xalapa, Ixtapalapa, Oaxaca, and Texas, were written with that letter. But not just in Mexico, plenty of Spanish words and names were written were pronounced with that same sound and written with an <X> such as Xavier and Quixote.

Later the two sounds merged as the voiceless sh sound. Later developments led the current pronunciations of the voiceless velar approximant which doesn't exist in English but is similar to the sound in chutzpah and /h/, as in the familiar pronunciations of Jose, which vary dialectally. This later development is not really relevant to the spelling issue, but the merge is. As a result of that merger, at some point the Spanish Academy decided on a spelling reform. They eliminated the <X> in these cases preserving it only in a few learned words that are pronounced /ks/ as in English. (They also eliminated the <ç> in favor of <z> and the <ss> in favor of <s>.both of which had experienced parallel changes).

However, the Mexicans were not about to go along with some change dictated from Madrid that altered the spelling of their country, although they accepted the other simplifications. Thus Mexico pronounced as Mejico, which is still found sometimes in Spain and the alternations in Xalapa/Jalapa. The /ks/ in Texas is a spelling pronunciation. Mexicans say it with the same sound as Mexico.

By the way, the original pronunciations of all these <X> words are conserved in Catalan and often Portuguese because these languages did not have the drastic simplification of their fricative systems.

The American Dialect Society -

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