Spanglish or Japanglish?

Those of you who follow me (both of you!) know that I blog on a highly irregular basis. I last blogged, in fact, back in July (summer is great for switching off), and wrote then about whether or not to correct learner English, especially if it is publically displayed. Staying with the same theme, I came across this the other day on a place mat of a Japanese restaurant in Córdoba.


‘Napkin’ is good, as was most of the text, including the fascinating history of chopsticks, which have been in use for over 5000 years, as opposed to Western cutlery, which is a mere 400 years old, and was called ‘demonic’ by the Church when it first appeared.

But if they can manage to say all this in almost unflawed English, where on earth did ‘quadrangular’ come from? A ‘quadrangular dish’? Give us a break, guys. It’s ‘square’! The word we use is ‘square’. And that’s beginner vocabulary, so can you please get it right for once?

But perhaps they did get it right. Perhaps they intended to say ‘quadrangular’. Because perhaps they wanted to make precisely the impact that this piece of Spanglish (or Japanglish) did make (on me, at least). Perhaps, in fact, the were deliberately playing with ‘triangular’, and are now designing ‘pentagular’ and ‘hexangular’ serving plates as a marketing ploy.

Like you, I don’t know the answer to all of these ‘perhaps’, and I didn’t have time to stay around and find out (although I suspect the employees don’t know the answer either). But the restaurant was part of an international chain, so it doesn’t seem outrageous to suppose that the ‘mistake’ was deliberate, and was intended to ‘play’ with English just as native speakers do when they talk about a ‘dronie’ (a selfie taken by a drone), or about ‘sheeple’ (people who follow trends blindly, like sheep).

The point is that if it is ok for NSs of English to be creative with the language, as with Brexit, vape, selfie stick and Vlogger (a teenager whose videos attract millions on YouTube), all of which were among 30 terms published by The Guardian newspaper as a celebration of the buzzwords that defined 2014, then surely it is OK for NNSs to do the same now that English is a global language or lingua franca.

Admittedly, they might have simply got ‘quadrangular’ wrong, though from the rest of the text on the place mat I find it hard to believe that the authors didn’t know the word ‘square’. Instead, I’m persuaded to think that by using what for me is a good command of English, they have simply had a bit of fun, a bit of what Guy Cook* calls ‘language play’.

At a more serious level, and tying in with a workshop in dealing with learner error that I’m running quite a lot at the moment, I think a student coming up with ‘quadrangular’ needs to be congratulated for his/her creativity. Perhaps they really did want to say plain old ‘square’. But even if this was the case, they have overcome a gap in their vocabulary via the creative application of the rules of the target language, which for me is far more a sign of success than a sign of failure, and which therefore needs rewarding accordingly.

* Cook, G. 2000. Language play, language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.