Posted on January 29, 2018


Do you know how to “chatear?”

And that some Peruvian politicians have recently been accused of “colusión?”

Never mind the press. One day a few summers ago I was chatting (hint, hint) with my friend and gardener, Domingo from Guatemala. I told him we need to “podar los arbustos,” in my kind of formal Spanish.

“Eh?” Domingo came back at me.

“Los arbustos Domingo, tenemos que cortarlos un poco,” I tried rephrasing my request. “The shrubs Domingo, we need to prune them back a bit.”

“Oh, trimearlos,” he said, now knowing what I was asking.
“Trimearlos?” I thought. “Trimearlos?”

I was in fact getting another lesson in how languages spill over from one to the other. Domingo has been in the U. S. for seven or eight years and he speaks what is commonly known in the trade as “Spanglish,” a mixture of English and Spanish.

Trimming the shrubs is to “trimear.” You won’t find “trimear” in any dictionary, English or Spanish.

I got another lesson in Spanglish one day while reading the online version of a Peruvian newspaper, El comercio, to keep up with what’s happening in Peru.
Someone was getting a lot of “estress” from whatever was plaguing them. “Estress?” Again, I thought, well one of many words in Spanish I don’t know.

No, to “estress” is to have—you guessed it—stress.

Since I speak Spanish and am registered as an intepreter with the judicial system here in Alabama, I get called in occasionally to interpret.

“Can you come in for a few minutes today?,” the sheriff’s deputy working in the Tuscaloosa County Jail asked me. “We have three Mexicans and they need to make some phone calls and we’d like for someone to listen,” he said. I thought it was a reasonable request in case they weren’t simply calling their a buddy to pay their bond.

I went down and did some chatear with them and told them why I was there. “Sure,” they said, very deferentially.

The first picked up the phone and made his call and started to chatear, but it was clearly nothing I knew—English, Spanish, Spanglish, or anything else.
“Whoa, stop, stop,” I said, in Spanish. “Are you chatting in “Quiche?” It is an Indian dialect spoken by over a million Guatemalans. All Hispanics in this neighborhood of west central Alabama are usually referred to as “Mexicans,” and while majority are, there are Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Colombians and others all over the place.

He looked at me quizzically for a moment, but understood quickly, and switched to Spanish.

He might as well have been speaking in Greek to me when he spoke in Quiche. I had learned a few Quechua words, spoken by the indigenous peoples of Peru down in the South America where I grew up, and some of the maids spoke Quechua, the language of the Incas.

Language, I have learned over the years, is not only the key to a particular culture or country, but one that both unites and divides. It not only unites the Quiche or Quechua speakers, but it also separates them from the larger culture, speaking Spanish in Guatemala or Peru for example.

Even “dead” languages, like Latin, are important windows into culture. While the Bible was originally composed in ancient Hebrew and Greek—the Old and New Testaments respectively—it has been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects over the centuries.

The early Christian church translated it into the language of the Roman Empire—Latin—and St. Jerome’s translation became the standard account of the Bible in western Christendom until the sixteenth century. But who speaks or reads Latin these days? Maybe a few priests and scholars, but it is a dead language.

Yet, while hundreds of translations of the Bible exist, the Wycliffe Bible Translators say there are still 1600 languages—and people–without a translation.

In modern Israel, the differences between the Jewish state and the Palestinian people are as much about language and history as religion. Jews and Arabs can get along, but they “see” the world through different languages that colors their perspectives.

The deaf and the blind have access to the world through languages delivered as signs or braille. We can edify and build up people with language, or, conversely, tear them down. It is through the language of Scripture that we learn of our relationship to our God.

So, shalom y’all, to throw a little Hebrew and Alabama together as we begin the New Year.

Published as “Language influences how we see the world,” in

Posted in: language