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University of Basel

This side and that. (02/2023)

At home in the mix.

Text: Noëmi Kern

Borders are a part of everyday life in Gibraltar and shape the language used there. For the people living in Gibraltar, language is therefore more than just a means of communication.

satellite image of the Strait of Gibraltar
The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, in the south lies Morocco (Africa), in the north the Iberian Peninsula (Europe). (Image: Getty Images)

“Qué pasa?” – What’s up? That’s how Instagrammer The Llanito History Doctor from Gibraltar begins each of his videos. Then he proceeds – in English – to discuss historical and cultural events in Gibraltar. This mixture of languages is not just his personal brand at work. In fact, “Yanito” (or “Llanito”) is a language variety that combines British English with Andalusian Spanish. It is emblematic of the geography and history of Gibraltar and carries great symbolic value for the Yanitos, or the people of Gibraltar.

Their country is located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and has been under British rule in various forms since 1713. For that reason, people there today mostly speak English, the country’s official language. Yet, this tiny territory, which spans just 6.5 square kilometers and is home to around 34,000 people, is a crossroads for different cultures and languages, including people of different faiths – Christian, Jewish or Muslim – from all across the Mediterranean region and about 15,000 commuters who travel from Spain each day to work in Gibraltar. Spanish was the lingua franca here until the 20th century, and it is still widely spoken today.

It was only following World War II that English became the country’s main language. During the war, the British trained troops in Gibraltar, causing civilians to leave the countryside. As a result, they were exposed to English more frequently. After the war ended, the British also established a school system in Gibraltar, and people came to realize they would need to speak English in the future if they wanted to succeed here. For a time, Spanish remained the home language in many households; today, it’s the language of the neighbors across the border. The Yanitos speak Spanish when they travel to Spain to shop or go on holiday.

Flexible border regions.

“Contact across national borders is part of everyday life for the people of Gibraltar,” says Marta Rodríguez García. She is researching languages in Gibraltar for her dissertation project. She compares the situation there to that of Basel in the three-country region: People from Germany and the Alsace region of France work in Switzerland, while many residents of Basel do their shopping in neighboring countries. As a result, people from different regions come in contact with one another. “You can sense that multiculturalism. It impacts people’s daily lives and even influences their personalities. People’s lives and experiences in this city also inspire my research,” says Rodríguez García. She is particularly interested in how Yanito is currently being used by younger people between the ages of 16 and 35. “There is more linguistic flexibility in border regions. This repertoire of languages is a resource that people can play with,” remarks Rodríguez García. She draws on the example of Basel’s French suburb to the north, which is more frequently referred to as “Huningue” rather than “Hüningen.”

Although this exchange across borders seems a matter of course today, Yanitos are all too aware of how quickly that can change. “In 1969, the dictator Franco closed the borders overnight. This divided families,” says Marta Rodríguez García. Under the regime that followed, the border remained closed until 1982, leaving Gibraltar isolated for 13 years. During that period, the United Kingdom maintained an air bridge to supply Gibraltar with the most important goods needed by the workforce there. It was an influential time, and its impacts are still palpable today.

Around 96 percent of Yanitos voted against the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU. Brexit is a cause of concern for many people because the border between Spain and Gibraltar now constitutes an external border of the EU. “Older generations in particular know that it doesn’t take much to shift the balance, and borders can be closed in a heartbeat. On the other hand, people trust that the UK and the EU would never agree to close the border.”

This political situation underscores Gibraltar’s unique status as a country. “The people here are proud to be part of the UK, but they also know that they’re different from other British citizens. They have a Mediterranean culture and they are close to Spain, yet they aren’t Spanish themselves,” says Rodríguez García.

Language as unique identity.

Gibraltar’s language is an expression of its position between two distinct worlds. It gives the Yanitos something of their own that they can use to – quite literally – give voice to their unique status in the world. “I can use language to define the boundaries of my identity and demarcate the worlds to which I belong. Young people in particular are very proud of this unique quality,” says Marta Rodríguez García.

The way they use Yanito depends on numerous factors, and social context plays a major role. For that reason, Rodríguez García worked with focus groups – including teenagers at schools and youth centers, people who had studied in England, and families – to get an idea of how they used Yanito.

“People who speak both languages can play with combining English and Spanish. This is very creative.” It’s like the way German speakers in Switzerland use Swiss German and High German interchangeably. The variety someone speaks at any given moment depends both on the situation and on whom they are speaking to. Mixed forms are also common and give way to some very imaginative turns of phrase.

People who are not bilingual copy expressions they hear others using without understanding exactly how the phrases came about. “This leads to certain patterns of speech that become common. And I identified these patterns in each of my focus groups,” says Rodríguez García. Here, she noted that introduced Spanish terms or phrases frequently function as so-called discourse markers. For example, “bueno” (good) can be used to usher in or highlight a change of topic or speaker. “Venga” (come on!) and “Qué pasa” (what’s up) are also common examples. “The remarkable thing is that these linguistic elements become so commonplace. Their usage is different in Yanito than it is in the language of origin, and they don’t simply replace English phrases, either.”

That’s another reason why it can be difficult to clearly demarcate where Yanito begins and where it ends. “Yanito eludes the kind of simple definition that is required in science. My main takeaway is that Yanito is extraordinarily flexible and works on different levels.” The boundaries between Spanish and English are fluid, and the language here is an expression of the region’s dynamic discourse that transcends national borders. On the other hand, Yanito is also key to the shared identity of Gibraltar’s populace, which doesn’t quite fit in anywhere else in the world. “In the course of my research, I’ve noticed that Yanito is particularly fascinating on an interactive level and from a conversational perspective. That’s what I’d like to continue to focus on,” says Marta Rodríguez García. So, finally, to answer the question, “qué pasa?”: Quite a lot, actually!


More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (November 2023).

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