The decline of Llanito: Gibraltar struggles to preserve its singular linguistic identity

The use of Spanish is falling among the younger residents of the British overseas territory, and with it, a unique kind of of Spanglish that older folks have been proudly speaking all their lives

Store on Gibraltar main street
Alcohol and tobacco shops on Gibraltar's main street.Marcos Moreno
Jesús A. Cañas

The Gibraltarian writer Mark Sánchez has been living in the UK for 30 years. On a recent day, walking down Oxford Street in London, he heard an oddly familiar-sounding phrase among the mostly English murmur: “¡Qué frío hace! ¿No dijeron ayer en la television que hoy it was going to be sunny?” Upon hearing the combination of English and Spanish words spoken with a British-Andalusian accent, Sánchez knew straight away that he was in the presence of residents of his sorely missed Gibraltar, a small overseas territory located on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula.

Llanito is very important to us because it is something that defines who we are and how we recognize ourselves,” explains Sánchez. Although paradoxically everyone says they appreciate it, this local version of Spanglish with a British-Andalusian accent is gradually fading on The Rock as as young people abandon the use of Spanish. The loss of bilingualism is already being perceived as a social problem here, although the government has promised to actively promote its recovery.

In Gibraltar, everything is about history mixed with politics. After the territory was ceded to the British in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, Spanish remained “the lingua franca of the city until the middle of the 20th century,” notes Francisco Oda, who headed the Gibraltar branch of the Cervantes Institute, a global organization promoting Spanish language and culture, until former Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Margallo, a conservative, decided to unilaterally close it in 2015.

Spanish was the mother tongue of Gibraltarians (who also call themselves Llanitos) until British authorities introduced changes in the educational system after World War II giving more weight to English. The border closure decreed by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1969 did the rest. Spanish became “a heritage language and reduced its presence to the informal and family environment,” Oda adds. That is the theory he will defend at the 9th International Congress of the Spanish Language (CILE) in Cádiz, at a panel discussion scheduled for Wednesday. Although the four-day event includes several presentations about the Spanglish that is spoken in America, Oda’s will be the only one to address the singularities of an example of bilingualism that is already a hallmark of an entire territory.

Spanish workers on the Gibraltar-Spain border after Brexit signing
Workers crossing the land border of Spain-Gibraltar, in the British zone.Alejandro ruesga

What a good many of the more than 32,600 inhabitants of the Rock speak — especially the older ones — is not a language, not even a dialect, but a bilingual speech as rich and diverse as it is self-contained and adaptable to the speaker and any given context. Its singularity led a team from the Language Acquisition Laboratory of the University of Valladolid, led by the linguist Raquel Sánchez, to begin visiting the city 20 years ago to discover how the so-called code-switching occurs in the brains of Gibraltarians. “The language zone of these people is occupied by two languages. There are times when Spanish provides more information. If you add la [the] to casa [house], it gives you more information than simply the. The framework is the same, but how you fill it in depends on the grammatical richness of each language,” says this specialist.

It is what Mark Sánchez has been doing instinctively since he learned to speak English and Spanish: “Llanito is the language of emotions, of dreams and of great anger. I’ve been living in the UK for 30 years and in the middle of the night my wife says I’m still speaking Spanish in my sleep.” Despite this flexibility that is inherent to Llanito, the writer was able to draw up some rules, such as the use of English to define technological concepts — computer instead of ordenador, which would be the term used in Spain, or boiler instead of caldera. Then there are the English words adapted to sound and feel more Spanish, such as quequi which comes from cake; mebli which comes from marble. And there are expression translated literally from English, such as ir para atrás for go back.

To complicate matters even further, Gibraltar’s multicultural origins has led to the incorporation of loanwords from Maltese, Ladino [a form of old Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews], Arabic and Italian, such as marchapié, from the Italian marciapiede, to describe the sidewalk.

But all these elements of speech are conspicuously absent from the conversations of the youngest Gibraltarians, who are far less bilingual than their parents and grandparents. Despite the fact that the border reopened in the 1980s and that Spanish is no longer repudiated in the classrooms — as it was in the 1960s — the Rock is concerned about the loss of Llanito. In schools, English is the predominant language, with Spanish taught as a foreign language. But at home it’s different. “It [Llanito] has been maintained thanks to family transmission, but in the future it will die out because Spanish is in decline,” says Oda. “Young people are losing that code-switching ability and older people have already begun to see that they are facing a social problem. It’s a shame, but it’s an effort that is required from everyone, from politicians to society and families,” he adds.

parade for the ceremony of the keys, which takes place every Saturday and represents the closing of the entrance to the city passes through the Main Street of Gibraltar
Military parade in Gibraltar.Carlos Gil (Getty Images)

It also does not help that the headquarters of the Cervantes Institute has remained closed since 2015, entangled in constant promises of reopening that have not materialized. In the four years that it was open, the institution processed up to 4,500 enrollments, and 51% of its students were under 16 years of age, according to its former director. The return of this cultural organization to Gibraltar has been approved by Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — on which it depends — and by the government of Gibraltar, but it is not expected to materialize until Spain’s post-Brexit treaties with the United Kingdom — stalled for months over border issues — see the light, if they ever do.

Meanwhile, the government of Gibraltar has ruled out the possibility of making schools bilingual, as Oda recommends. “Classes have to be taught in English, since our students are examined through the English system of the General Certificate of Secondary Education,” says John Cortés, the local chief of education. The government headed by Fabian Picardo, a Socialist, claims to be interested in promoting Llanito and it supports research, in addition to having created a National Book Council to promote Gibraltarian writing and organizing a literary competition with a bilingual category. “The government will ensure that Gibraltar’s unique mix of English and Spanish, as well as separate English and Spanish, continues,” adds Cortés.

Meanwhile, Gibraltarians have already begun to organize themselves and have created the association Gibraltarians for a Multilingual Society. Many of all the usages and expressions that Sánchez misses in Leeds, the UK city where he now lives, have been captured in his novel Marlboro Man, where he recreates Llanito in the entertaining conversations by its lead characters, who are tobacco smugglers.

“Despite everything, I am optimistic because a pro-Llanito movement is underway,” he says hopefully. “I don’t think it’s an irreversible problem, nor do I think it’s going to be lost.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS