Code-Switching and Immigrant Identity in Rosa Nissán’s Hisho que te nazca
Rey Romero 1

Code-switching is the linguistic term for the alternation of two or more languages (codes) between and within sentences in the discourse of one speaker (Poplack, 581). Although this phenomenon is typical of the speech (oral production) of bilinguals, several authors have implemented code-switching as a literary or poetic device to portray the bilingual and bicultural setting or character (Keller, 178). This paper focuses on the use of code-switching, namely Spanish and Judeo-Spanish, in the literary work of Mexican Sephardic author Rosa Nissán.  Nissán debuted her literary career in 1992 with Novia que te vea, a novel that relates the childhood and womanhood of Oshinica, a first-generation Mexican of Turkish Sephardic parents.  This novel and the subsequent eponymous film introduced Sephardic language and culture to the Mexican public at large, emphasizing commonalities between the immigrant and national groups. Because of the success of Novia que te vea, both novel and film have been reviewed and critiqued in several articles, most thoroughly by Halevi-Wise (1998) and Alfaro-Velcamp (2006). In this paper, I will focus solely on Nissán’s second novel, Hisho que te nazca, published in 1996, because it has not been studied previously from either a literary or linguistic angle, and I believe Judeo-Spanish is utilized more as a literary device and less as a linguistic curiosity. In this paper, I will describe the characteristics of the code-switching present in Hisho que te nazca and will discuss several motivations for its implementation throughout the novel.

One of the interesting issues regarding the novel’s code-switching is that Spanish and Judeo-Spanish are considered to be two dialects rather than two languages.  In linguistics, the critical point to decide between a language and a variety (lect) of a language is mutual intelligibility. If two linguistic groups are mutually intelligible, then they speak dialects of the same language. Both of Nissán’s novels are written in what we may call an academic version of Latin American Spanish, but the dialogues are interspersed with Mexico City Spanish (also known as chilango) and Judeo-Spanish. In spite of the common origin of all these varieties of Spanish, the geographical distance and lack of familiarity with the Spanish of the other community could pose an intelligibility challenge for the reader. The author has attempted to minimize this obstacle by providing a Judeo-Spanish/Spanish glossary at the end of both Novia que te vea and Hisho que te nazca. The reader finds unfamiliar Judeo-Spanish words in italics, thereby indicating its ‘otherness’ and their explanation in the glossary. It is interesting that the reader is assumed to be familiar with chilango Spanish, as the author did not provide italics or glossary for this dialect.

However, from a linguistic point of view, it is clear  why Nissán assumed that the reader might need additional help understanding Judeo-Spanish, as it diverges from Latin American Spanish at the phonological (pronunciation), morphological (word formation), and lexical (vocabulary) level. For instance, Judeo-Spanish maintained the Old Spanish palatal system (with additional changes), as illustrated by the pronunciation of <j> in mujer ‘woman’ and ojo ‘eye’ like the second <g> in ‘garage’ (a voiced palatal fricative in phonological terms). In Peninsular and Latin American varieties, this Old Spanish fricative became a velar [x] or glottal [h]. This particular phonological divergence is readily illustrated in the novel’s title, as the author has attempted to transcribe the voiced palatal fricative with <sh> in the word Hisho (Spanish hijo). This is also exemplified throughout the novel with the name of the main character, Oshinica, the Sephardic adaptation of the French Eugénie plus the Judeo-Spanish diminutive -ika. I believe that the fact that this distinct Judeo-Spanish pronunciation is part of the main character’s name serves as a literary device to instantly remind the reader of the protagonist’s Hispanic and Jewish background, something both familiar and unfamiliar to the predominantly Catholic Spanish-speaking public, and also establish an indelible link between Oshinica and her Sephardic identity, a key theme throughout the novel. Other examples of palatal vs. velar divergence present in the novel include bashar (Spanish bajar ‘to lower’), deshar (Spanish dejar ‘to leave out’), and viesha (Spanish vieja ‘old woman’). Due to orthographical limitations in Spanish, Nissán utilized the same digraph <sh> to transcribe both voiced and voiceless palatal fricatives, which are distinct phonemes in Judeo-Spanish. Other examples of phonological divergence explained in the novel’s glossary include the preservation of initial /f/: fuir ‘to escape, flee’ (Spanish huir) and metastasis of the consonantal group /dr/: tadre ‘evening’ (Spanish tarde).  These phonological differences conveyed through orthography could easily be solved by the reader by inferring from their context, yet the author chooses to address them in the glossary. This illustrates how important the “voice” of Judeo-Spanish is for the novel, since the reader must hear it at its essence even when the lexical items are basically the same and pronunciation differences are minimal.

On the other hand, a key point for the Spanish reader is confronting the divergent Judeo-Spanish lexicon, especially those items inherited from Old Spanish or adapted from Hebrew, Turkish, French, and other Mediterranean languages.  Judeo-Spanish vocabulary contains Old Spanish lexical items that have either fallen into disuse or that are considered archaic or rural in certain areas of Latin America and Spain (Romero, 52). Examples of these items in the novel include topar (Spanish encontrar ‘to find’), merkar (Spanish comprar ‘to buy), and consesha (Spanish cuento de moraleja ‘fable with moral lesson’). In addition to this layer, like most languages of Jewish groups, Judeo-Spanish vocabulary is also characterized by Hebrew and Aramaic items, especially to convey religious and cultural concepts (Wexler, 99). Oshinica and her family use the following, among others: benadam ‘human being,’ mazal ‘luck,’ tevilá ‘ritual bath,’ and Shabat ‘Sabbath.’ The final layer is composed of borrowings from French and Turkish. This is not surprising since Oshinica’s family hails from Turkey, and in the early twentieth century there the language of Western education and upper mobility was French.  Oshinica’s family immigrated to Mexico soon after World War I, a time when Turkey experienced a surge in nationalism, including Turkish-only language policies (Sachar, 104). Examples of Turkisms incorporated into the novel’s Judeo-Spanish include deli ‘crazy’, englenear ‘to have fun’, mushteris ‘customers’, and sarjosh ‘drunk’. These divergent phonological and lexical features indicate a switch in the code in the speech of characters. These characteristics let the reader know that the language is now Judeo-Spanish, and I will discuss the purpose of this switch in a subsequent section.

However, in spite of being an artificial version of code-switching, because it has been created by the author and not documented through naturally-occurring linguistic data, the Judeo-Spanish and Spanish alternation in the novel mimics the patterns found in real-life bilingual speakers.  Moreover, these patterns have been studied with empirical linguistic data.  According to Poplack (609), fluent bilinguals tend to make more switches inside the sentences, known as intra-sentential switches. For example, “tiene que coser parte de la camisita para el bebé, echar dulzurías y bendiciones entre la ropita” (She has to sew part of the baby’s shirt, throw in sweets and blessings amid the clothes). This sentence is mostly in Spanish, but the word for sweets, dulzurías, has been rendered in Judeo-Spanish.  However, most of the novel’s switches actually occur between sentences, in inter-sentential code-switching. Poplack’s research demonstrated that less-fluent bilinguals preferred this kind of switching, probably because their lack of fluency prevented them from incorporating elements from one language into the grammar of another (609).  To illustrate, observe this inter-sentential code-switching, “Mira qué yuselicas cosas te trusho de Houston, es muy buen padre.  Hazlo por tus hishicos. Ya quisieran muchas tener un marido como el tuyo” (Look what beautiful things he brought you from Houston, he’s a good father.  Do it for your children. Many would like to have a husband like yours). The first two phrases contain phonological and lexical elements characteristic of Judeo-Spanish, but the last sentence has changed to Spanish, as evidenced by the pronunciation of muchas (Judeo-Spanish munchas).  But, overall, the most common pattern in Oshinica’s language is the usage of single Judeo-Spanish items in the Spanish discourse.  In linguistics, these temporary, single-word switches are denominated ‘nonce borrowings’ and in Oshinica’s speech they appear to depict cultural concepts or practices such as ashugar (bridal dress), fashadura (ceremony similar to a baby shower), dulzuría (typical sweets).  The older Sephardic women characters, especially her mother and aunts, use longer Judeo-Spanish sentences, and rarely any chilango Spanish lexicon.  Curiously, Oshinica’s Judeo-Spanish usage mimics her use of Hebrew, as the hagiolanguage only appears momentarily to depict a Jewish concept that would be difficult to explain in Spanish: Shabat, matzá, Rosh Ashaná, Pesaj, bar mitzvoth, birith, among others.

Nissán has managed to establish the divergent dialectal characteristics of Judeo-Spanish and also mimic realistic code-switching patterns throughout her novel.  But the reason behind this language alternation may be a bit more nuanced. In the beginning of Novia que te vea, her first novel, Oshinica explains that she is using Ladino (her preferred nomenclature for Judeo-Spanish) “para que se diviertan,” for the amusement of the reader. But, beyond entertainment, I believe that this code-switching is necessary in order to give an accurate depiction of the transition from the Judeo-Spanish immigrant family to the first generation Mexican child. This child would probably grow up bidialectal, with the ability to navigate between the two cultures and their corresponding “Spanishes,” albeit mixing them. The following illustrates this dialect mixing within Oshinica’s home:

            -Aide Bulizú, ¿de qué abrithes [sic] esta ventana?, mos estamos entesando.

            “Y cerren, cuando lleguí me estaba atabafando.

“Cuando quieras oír más janum, ven una tadre a mi caré con las de la calzada de La Piedad, ahí sí te vas a englenear.

-Hey, Bulizú, why did you open this window? We are freezing.

“So close it, when I arrived I was suffocating.

“When you want to hear more, ma’am, one of these evenings you should come to my game night, with the women from La Piedad Avenue, now that’s a lot of fun.

 As Oshinica listens to the older women argue and play cards, she decides to interrupt them and head home:

             -Híjoles, creo que también ya llegó el mío y se pone furioso de que no esté en casa.

-Damn, I think my husband is probably home by now and he gets furious if I’m not there.

This example reflects several linguistic patterns that appear throughout the novel. First, most Judeo-Spanish dialogues occur when the older characters are speaking or when Oshinica is quoting them. Judeo-Spanish rarely occurs within Oshinica’s dialogues or thoughts. Numerically speaking, roughly one third of all Judeo-Spanish code-switches occur within Oshinica, and most are nonce borrowings.  When comparing both of Nissán’s novels, we see that Oshinica’s Judeo-Spanish in Hisho que te nazca contrasts with her younger self in Novia que te vea, as the character has become more Mexican and less immigrant.  This is reflected in her independence and feminism, as she breaks cultural taboos with her divorce and in pursuing a career in the arts and letters.  Ultimately, the author has allowed for this transformation to be reflected in the language as Judeo-Spanish gives way to language mixing and, most strikingly, Oshinica’s predilection for chilango Spanish.  She uses the Mexico City dialect even to address the older Sephardic women, as in the previous dialogue.  She uses phrases such as híjoles (damn) and padre (cool), her adjectives and adverbs overuse the diminutive -ito: nadita (nothing) and she emphasizes them with re-: rebonito (very beautiful).  In short, the purpose of including Judeo-Spanish and Spanish code-switching in the novel goes beyond providing a mere curiosity, and it adds a linguistic dimension to the protagonist’s cultural metamorphosis into a first-generation Mexican and her battle between the old country’s mores and the call of feminism.


Oshinica’s attitude towards Judeo-Spanish also fits a realistic linguistic situation of first generation families. Whereas the immigrant parents tend to maintain their heritage language and may or may not become bilingual in the new language, their children and grandchildren may become semi-speakers of the heritage language or eventually lose it, but become fluent in the new language. This first generation may exhibit ambivalent attitudes towards their own performance of the heritage language, often perceiving it as imperfect.  Oshinica declares that the older women who play cards with her mother “hablan un ladino precioso” (they speak beautiful Ladino). Perhaps this comment of admiration reveals that she is aware that her own Judeo-Spanish is not as authentic or as fluent as the older generation’s.  In fact, Oshinica’s Judeo-Spanish every now and then includes failed attempts at Judeo-Spanish forms, as she overcompensates by changing the pronunciation of Mexican Spanish words: trabasho (work; Judeo-Spanish lavoro or echo), movio (boyfriend, groom; Judeo-Spanish novio). These ‘fake’ Judeo-Spanish lexical items reveal her linguistic insecurity, and ultimately, her linguistic patterns in avoiding Judeo-Spanish and embracing the Mexican dialect.

Although Rosa Nissán has taken a decisive linguistic risk by including different levels of code-switching with a divergent Spanish dialect, the effect is an authentic story of growth of first-generation Mexican Oshinica.  By including Judeo-Spanish, the author asserts the protagonist’s Sephardic identity and also emphasizes her struggle between the two cultures. This is achieved thanks to the linguistic characteristics of Judeo-Spanish, a variety distinct from the reader’s Spanish, but familiar enough to be comprehended and integrated in the text. At the same time, by including Judeo-Spanish in a Mexican novel, Nissán introduces to a greater public this particular dialect, thereby providing a literary foothold for an otherwise underrepresented and endangered language.

Works cited

Alfaro-Velcamp, Theresa. 2006. “ ‘Reelizing’ Arab and Jewish ethnicity in Mexican film.” Latin American Film History 65:2 (October 2006), 261-280.

Halevi-Wise, Yael. “Puente entre naciones: idioma e identidad sefardí en Novia que te vea e Hisho que te nazca de Rosa Nissán.” Hispania 81:2 (May 1998), 269-277.

Keller, Gary D. (1984). “How Chicano Authors Use Bilingual Techniques for Literary Effect.” Chicano Studies: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Ed. Isidro Ortiz, Eugene García, and Francisco Lomelí. New York: Teachers College, 1984. 171–92.

Nissán, Rosa. Novia que te vea. Mexico City: Planeta, 1992.   

Nissán, Rosa. Hisho que te nazca. Mexico City: Plaza & Janés, 1996.

Poplack, Shana. “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español: Toward a typology of code-switching.” Linguistics 18 (1980), 581-618.

Romero, Rey. “Dialect concentration and dissipation: Challenges to Judeo-Spanish revitalization efforts.” Judeo-Spanish and the Making of a Community. Ed. Bryan Kirschen. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.

Sachar, Howard. Farewell España: The World of the Sephardim Remembered. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Wexler, Paul. “Jewish Interlinguistics: Facts and Conceptual Framework.” Language 57:1 (1981), 99-149.

1 Rey Romero (PhD Spanish Linguistics) is Assistant Professor of Spanish Linguistics at the University of Houston-Downtown, where he teaches courses in linguistics and translation.  He is the author of Spanish in the Bosphorus: A sociolinguistic study on the Judeo-Spanish spoken in Istanbul (2012) and over a dozen peer-reviewed articles on Judeo-Spanish linguistics. The author would like to thank J. Mushabac and J. Roumani for all their comments and guidance.