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Yanito - a tale of two languages

Temporary shack built by Spanish workers in La Línea (1950s).
Temporary shack built by Spanish workers in La Línea (1950s). / SUR
  • Gibraltar's curious language is dying out and evolving into Spanglish, says a local historian

For any English speakers who have visited Gibraltar, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled into a ‘Spanglish’ conversation.

Maybe you’ve been greeted with a warming “buenos morning” while walking into a shop on Main Street.

Or perhaps like me recently, you smiled when you were told the price of something you wanted to buy was “ninety nueve” pence.

Spanish workers pre 1967

Spanish workers pre 1967 / SUR

Whether or not you’ve experienced this delightful mix of languages yet, you’ve probably heard that some people speak Yanito (or Llanito) in this linguistically rich region.

This curious mixture of Andalusian Spanish and British English is peppered with vocabulary from Genoese, Hebrew, Maltese, French and Portuguese - thanks to the fascinating history of Gibraltar.

Yanito also borrows words from Haketia, a Judeo-Spanish language once spoken by Sephardic Jews in Northern Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. Today, the language is spoken in Gibraltar by the Llanitos, which is what the Gibraltarians call themselves, and also by some across the border in the Spanish town of La Línea.

It involves a lot of jumping back and forth from English to Spanish and can be difficult for both Spanish or English speakers to follow.

However, Yanito, which is spoken by only a few thousand in this tiny part of the world, is slowly dying out, according to local historian Tito Vallejo.

Fewer speakers

Speaking to SUR in English, he explained how modern text speak on mobiles, a higher level of education in the post-war years and exposure to

One of the first streets in La Línea.

One of the first streets in La Línea. / SUR

pure English and Spanish has seen the numbers of those who speak it slowly dwindle.

“Yanito is the necessity to invent words or corrupt them to what they sound like,” said Tito, 65.

“It’s come from people speaking very bad English and using the wrong words when they don’t know the right one.

“But it’s not Spanglish, that is what they speak in the Americas where Spanish and English speaking people live close together.

“It [Yanito] started back at the turn of the 19th century in Gibraltar when the British started building the dockyards. They employed thousands of workers to do the labour, the majority of whom were Spanish. But there were also Genoese, Portuguese and other nationalities employed. So you had this melee of languages where nobody could understand each other. Spanish people could not pronounce the names, which gave rise to Yanito.”

Tito explained that up until World War Two, there was no law saying you had to attend school, so many children worked at the expense of their education.

According to Tito, English was on the verge of disappearing from the local population, so religious orders such as the Irish Christian Brothers and the Loreto Nuns arrived in the tiny British overseas territory to help teach English at school.

However, the death knell for Yanito was sounded with the advent of World War 2, when the entire civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated to the UK, Madeira and other parts of the world.

In the UK they were exposed to pure English for several years and on their return to the Rock brought a wealth of accents from the various regions.

Tito, 65, said: “There was a change in the law when everyone returned and we started educating people properly. And you had to go to school whether you liked it or not.

“Today a lot of people are Yanitising sentences using proper English words - so Yanito is evolving into Spanglish.

“It’s a pity that young people are not using it any more, but that’s because a lot of their parents are not using it either. Yanito is what you used to hear at home. But I’m a sinner too as I speak to my kids in English.”

Border closure

Tito, whose father was Spanish but grew up Gibraltarian, and whose mother was English, further explained how the closing of the border with Spain - which lasted from 1969 to 1982 - created a rift during which there was minimal contact with Spain.

He said this was adverse in keeping up with spoken Spanish, meaning English cemented itself as the predominant language.

“And with the advent of TV we started listening to good Spanish. We spoke Andalusian Spanish, but many of the programmes on TV were dubbed in South American Spanish, so our Spanish improved.

“Unfortunately, Yanito is dying out. And with this new chat language that is being used on mobile phones, it’s corrupting everything.”

Nevertheless, Tito, who worked for the MOD and Gibraltar Territorial Army before retiring, started making notes of Yanito words in his late teens, and published a Yanito dictionary, which is now on its third edition.

In 2014 he published the first Spanish edition, which sold out in two weeks in the Campo de Gibraltar area.

He added: “Luckily I made notes of all these words growing up, as half of them are not used any more.”

Origins of a name

As for the name of the language itself, the dad of four said there are two popular explanations as to how the name came about.

“When Gibraltar was Spanish, it was a bit like Dodge City,” he explained.

“Nobody wanted to live here because the Barbary Pirates kept attacking. All your sins were pardoned if you came to live in Gibraltar, to encourage people here. Still no one came to live, so they opened it up to the common people, which in Spanish is ‘gente llana’, which was corrupted to ‘Llanito’.

“The second version, which is my favourite, is that the name came from the ‘llano’, which means ‘plain’ in English. The Spanish workers who came to help build the fortifications in Gibraltar were not allowed to stay at night and the Spanish military would not allow them to build houses behind the defensive wall. So they lived in tents and shacks on the plain between the mountain behind La Línea and the Spanish fortifications.”