The People of Gibraltar
2014 - Llanito - Ni hablar del peluquín 

As we passed along we heard the confused sounds of half a dozen unknown languages, mixed with English, and the national dialects of Scotch and Irish soldiers. ( 1821 - Theodore Dwight ) ( see LINK )

The way Gibraltarians talk is known locally and elsewhere as Llanito  -  also spelt  Yanito or even Janito. The word can also refer to somebody who is a Gibraltarian. The origin of the word, as well as it spelling, is both controversial and difficult to pin down. Anja Kellermann in her ‘Language, Politics, and Identity in Gibraltar’ has identified three main types of theories as to how the word came about:

1. from a common first name such as Giovanni, or Johnny
2. from place names such as el llano
3. from other meanings of the word llano

To take them in order, the word Llanito, or better still Gianitto, seems to have an Italian flavour. It has therefore been suggested that it is derived from the diminutive of Giovanni, a very common Italian Christian name. It is the derivation, regardless of spelling, that Gibraltarians seem to find the most appealing. Manuel Cavilla in his Diccionario Yanito is in no doubt that this is where the answer lies. To quote from his introduction to the first edition:
Los andaluces que con ellos convivían deben haberlo pronunciado ‘yani y no ‘llani’ y como diminutivo afectuoso, ‘yanito . . .
He may well be right as regards the origin of the word but his arguments concerning its spelling are difficult to follow as I cannot see why the use of ‘y’ should be more Andalus than ‘ll’. Besides there are various factors that mitigate against the distortion of Giovanni being the correct origin of the word.

Firstly it is curious to note that in the census of the population taken in 1777 not a single person of Italian decent – and there were many – had Giovanni as a first name. By 1791 there were 13 and in 1878 only 10. Personally I can also confirm that during my research into my own genealogy I came across the first names of literally hundreds of relatives and close friends all of whom were originally from Genoa. Not a single one was called Giovanni. In other words it would seem that there were not enough of us called Giovanni to make the name synonymous with a whole population.

To be fair one of the best known Gibraltarians of the late 18th Century was called Giovanni Maria Boschetti.  (see LINK ) Prior to that there were several well known local worthies with the name -  people like Giovanni Battista Sturla ( see LINK ) come to mind. But I doubt whether either can be accused of being responsible for the word Llanito.

Secondly, and perhaps more disturbingly, according to Johannes Krammer in his book - ‘English and Spanish in Gibraltar’, the Genoese version of the Italian name ‘Gianni is pronounced as ‘dzani’ – and the ‘dz’ as a consonant is not part of either Gibraltarian or Andalusian Spanish.

An alternative first name hypothesis is that Yanito derives from ‘Johnny’ which has been distorted by a Spanish pronunciation. The linguist John M. Lipsi has suggested that first name based ethnonyms such a choni and chone have been shown to derive from Johnny in various other places including the Canary Islands. According to Lipsi it is this reference to the occupiers rather than the local population, that may have been the source of Yanito

For example an article in the Sporting Magazine of 1839 includes the following:
Their surprise at the manner in which the horses took them actually knew no bounds  . . . And now they see that Johnny (as they call us) can ride a. few, we trust that the Calpe Hunt will meet with still more favour in their sight, though, to do them justice, they never have been half so hostile to it as Johnny would be in his own country to any foreigners who might think fit to ride over his fields and fences, saying nothing of his corn or seeds.
and another from a British Military man stationed in Gibraltar - Major Edward Napier -  writing in 1840:
If at the last village we were annoyed by dogs, here we were equally so by a set of ragged urchins, offering their services to hold our horses whilst we refresh ourselves at the 'fonda,' and assailing us with incessant cries of 'Johnny, Johnny' . .  the appellation bestowed near Gibraltar on every Englishman . . . .  
Whether these examples suggest that the origins of Llanito can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century is a moot point. What it does show is that at least in the eyes of these two writers, it was the English rather than the Gibraltarians who were known as 'Johnnys' - and that it was the Spaniards who had probably come up with the name. 

A local and rather more prosaic version of the above is that the corruption of Johnny to Yanito was a consequence of visits by British troops to the red light district of La Linea around a street named somewhat appropriately la Calle Gibraltar. It was a very popular explanation among Gibraltarians just after the Second World War.

La Calle Gibraltar

Yet another perhaps less well known theory is that offered by another Gibraltarian - Lionel Ullger. He suggests that the word derives from the English word 'Janitor'. The theory rests on the idea that a large number of the people who came into contact with the many Spaniards that came to work daily into Gibraltar were janitors, and that many of these would have been either Gibraltarian or English - hence an association between profession and nationality - Janitor - Llanito. 

It is a nice idea in that the pronunciation of the two words is very similar. However, the theory depends on having a large number of Spanish blue-collar labourers working under people who were janitors. My own view is that it is far more likely that Spaniards would have worked under 'foremen' rather than 'janitors. In fact as far as I can tell, the later profession has never been much in demand in Gibraltar. 

As regards the place name hypothesis, Llanito, if only from its spelling, seems to be a Spanish diminutive of the word ‘llano’ meaning ‘a land or place that is a plain’. The problem of course is that Gibraltar is probably the least ‘llano’ town on earth. Could it possibly have been an ironic reference? It is an appealing thought as irony is very much part of both Gibraltarian and Andalusian humour. However, there have been several attempts at explaining just how a transition from the proper meaning of ‘llano’ could have taken place.

First of all there is a curious suggestion by the Gibraltarian, Tito Vallejo. His theory is as follows. During the late 19th century Spanish workers from the Campo Area were employed by the British military authorities in order to develop and enlarge the Gibraltar dockyards. As there was a serious lack of accommodation in both Gibraltar and Spain at the time these people made their home in a shanty town at the foot of the Sierra Carbonera in a depression known as el llano or ‘the plain’. They called themselves la gente del llano and Vallejo suggests that they eventually came to be known as llanitos and that somehow the word came to refer not just to themselves but to the people who lived in the place where they worked and to their idiom.

 The Neutral Ground and Spain from the Moorish Castle with Sierra Carbonera and el llano below it in the distance

I am not sure as to the historical accuracy of the above but it seems to me highly unlikely that the origins of the word Yanito lie here. For a start the psychology is wrong. Without going into the social and political whys and wherefores, Gibraltarians would never under any circumstances, confuse themselves with their Spanish neighbours. Also I suspect that the word predates the start of the work on the dockyards which occurred in 1890.

Another rather speculative place name theory offered by Johannes Krammer, a professor of linguistics, takes into account the fact that the bulk of the population of Gibraltar lived on the flatter parts of the town at the bottom section of the Rock. The people who lived there may conceivably have chosen the name ‘llanitos’ to distinguish themselves from others who lived further up the slopes. It would be a bit like the local reference to La gente de la Buena Vista or those people who lived on the upper reaches of the town with a view of the bay. As these were not - as might have been expected - the most prosperous folk in Gibraltar the term eventually came to be associated with people who were 'good for nothing.'

Krammer has also come up with yet another even more outlandish explanation - the Arabic word, dzani which means ‘mountain side’ and has been known to have been used to denote people who live in or around a fortress. What attracts Krammer to this theory is the fact that Arabic place names are very common in Spain – Gibraltar itself being one of them. The difficulty in accepting this theory is that it would mean that the word ‘Yanito’ would have been in common use long before our friend Admiral Rooke took Gibraltar and there is precious little evidence of this.

As regards theories concerning other meanings of the word llano there are at least two possibilities. The first goes like this. After Gibraltar was captured by the British, well-off people of whatever nationality were reluctant to settle on the Rock. The place therefore became populated by la gente llana or the riff-raff, giving rise to the word llanitos. In other words an insulting term created by an irate Spanish population who hoped to return soon.

The second - which in a sense is connected to the first - is concerned with the linguistic hypothesis that ‘Yanito’ as the name of the ‘language’ precedes that of the name of the people. The argument is that the local idiom – not long after 1704 - was seen as rather common and somewhat illiterate. This seems a reasonable assumption as many of the non-military inhabitants of the  Rock at the time – and many years since then – were non-Spanish speakers like the Genoese, who because of the similarities between Italian and Spanish could speak some Spanish albeit badly. The origin of the word is therefore attributed to ‘llano’ meaning ‘plain or crude language’, a llanito being somebody who speaks in this way.

As regards the spelling of the word, I doubt whether there is much mileage in analyzing the different versions as each could easily be corruptions of each other. As such it does not surprise me that the more neutral - and less Spanish - Yanito is preferred by many Gibraltarians. Unfortunately this chosen usage does very little to explain its origins.

Finally, it seems to me that the problem with all of these hypotheses is that none of them have been verified. Unlike those incredible readers at the OED, nobody has ever checked to find out when the word was first used. It adds another layer of uncertainty. Also as Llanito is primordially a spoken language the writer is always unsure as to whether words should be spelt the way they are pronounced or in conventional Spanish. For example:

‘santificao’ or sanctificado’ meaning ‘certified’ - Spanish would be 'certificado'
‘sansacabao’ or ‘sansacabado’ meaning ‘finished’ - Spanish would be 'terminado'

Officially and academically Llanito is neither a language nor a dialect and is linguistically defined as a ‘code-switching’ system – in other words a method of communication in which people tend to use two languages within a single sentence: in this case Spanish and English.

Technically, code-switching implies the use of both languages in a syntactically and phonologically appropriate manner, and on the whole I think this is what Gibraltarians often do although not always. Also I am not quite sure what the rules are:
For example:

‘I am going to see Jose para arreglar para mañana’
Voy a ir a Jose to arrange for mañana’
 ‘I am going to ver a Jose para arrange for tomorrow’.

Most Gibraltarians would probably feel quite at ease with the first sentence, less so with the second and perhaps even less with the third.

'Code-switching' by definition does not involve borrowing or distorting words of either language such as is the case in Pidgin English or Creole and so forth. And yet it is quite clear that something of the sort does take place within the code-switching system in the spoken language of Gibraltar.

How Llanito works
The following is an analysis of various categories of words, phrases and expressions, used - or perhaps it would be safer to say, once used - by Gibraltarians when communicating with each other. These examples are used within the structure of a code-switching system which makes use of a species of UK English and Andalusian Spanish, the later of the variety spoken in the area known as the Campo de Gibraltar.

As far as I can make out there are quite a few distinct categories. Some consist of hundred perhaps even thousands of words; others are limited to a few dozen. None are used consistently and few Gibraltarians will be aware of all of them. Many are now no longer used.

Mispronounced Spanish Words
These refer to a plethora of slightly distorted Spanish words. Some of them probably originate from the poorer areas of the Campo de Gibraltar: others may be uniquely Gibraltarian.

Aserga - acelga - spinach
Bomba - pompa - pump
Caramales - calamares - squid
Caravela - calavera - skull
Casadora - cazadora - leather jacket
Catapaso -cortepaso - fall
Maquearse - maquillarse - to make oneself up
Morcillones - mejillones - mussels
Mirlar - birlar - to nick
Moniato - boniato - sweet potato
Ombrigo - ombligo - belly button

Adding an A to a legitimate Spanish word
Adelante - delante - in front of
Afoto – foto - photo

Una afoto Gibraltar

Amoto - moto - motobike
Aojalá - ojalá - hopefully


English words used as if they were Spanish
As we can hardly have been able to anglicise Spanish without knowing English it is quite possible that these were introduced into Llanito when education began to improve and English was taught at school.

Apologia - disculpa - apology
Afordar - afford in English but no single word in Spanish
Aplicación - application - application
Batteria - pila - battery
Demostración - manifestación - demo ( political )
Documentario - documental - documentary
Editor - redactor - editor
Miembro - socio - member
Notorio - de mala reputación - notorious
Oditor - interventor - auditor
Orden - pedido - order (form)
Kaite - cometa - kite
Checkear - quadrar - to check


Mispronounced English words used as if they were Spanish
An even more common phenomenon is the inclusion of grossly distorted English words pronounced as if they were Andalusian Spanish. The words are attributed gender, tense and so forth and can be used either quite unselfconsciously as if they were proper Spanish words or ironically.

It is impossible to count or classify these words as there are probably thousands of them. Usage depends on context and the individual. Similarly their use cannot always be attributed to ignorance. Nevertheless in many cases a Gibraltarian user might not be able to tell you what the correct Spanish word is although these types of words are far less prevalent today than they were in the past and are now often just used for humour or effect.

tipa – the teapot or even the coffee pot!
sili- ceiling
suish – the switch
chut – the shoot
batear – to bat
manolo - manhole


Mispronounced English words for specific places used as if they were Spanish.
This is similar to the previous category but refers to actual place names and streets in Gibraltar. Many of these words probably originated from the large number of Spanish dockyard workers who once entered Gibraltar for many years on a daily basis.

El dokya – the dockyard.
El apparó – the upper Rock (of Gibraltar)
El haristón – Irish Town
Siete mil lei – City Mill lane
El pishiwey – The Prince of Wales (football club)


 El haristón ( Unknown )

Several Spanish words joined together to form a single word 
Ponolove – pues no lo ves - don't you see?

Spanish words compressed to fewer syllables 
Alme - hagame - do me (a favour )

Legitimate Spanish words used with different meaning 
Alpiste – booze - bird seed
Apañao – had it, another thing coming - handy

Mispronounced words
Another variation relies on the fact that certain English and Spanish words sound roughly the same and have a similar meaning. In such cases the English pronunciation of the word is often preferred. It is nevertheless always pronounced with a Spanish accent.

It is quite possible that the Genoese language may have been responsible for these mispronunciations. All the ‘acc’ words shown below are pronounced with a hard ‘c’ in Italian. The theory, however, falls when applied to words such as ‘districto’ and ‘numbero’ since the Italian is the same as the Spanish.

Akselerar - accelerate
Akseptar – accept
Aksento - accent
Districto – district
Númbero - number


Words incorrectly translated from the English into Spanish
These are often the result of a convoluted reasoning.

Aceitero - oil tanker
Aceite casto – castor oil
Pan de lata - tin loaf


Words adapted from languages other than English or Spanish 
Llanito makes use of a whole plethora of words which can be traced back to Italian, Genoese, Jewish, Catalan, Arabic and other origins. Quite a few of them are used as if they were legitimately Spanish. In fact a large proportion of the population may still think that they are authentically Spanish words. I know I did.

Abucha (French) - a command to lie down given to a dog
Chapeo (French) - hat
Chofe French)  -  chauffeur

Bicéf (Arabic) - enough
Bóbili bóbili (Arabic) - without paying
Majandush (Arabic) - not very much of

Acavalin (Genoese) - carried on somebody’s shoulders
Banderola (Genoese) - small glass window
Patuco ( Genoese) - boulder
Mappa (Genoese) - (Spanish) bisagra - hinge
Mascon (Genoese - (Spanish) puñetazo - punch

Barraca (Italian) - tent
Biscocho (Italian) - biscuit
Carpeta (Italian) - desk
Minestra (Italian) - vegetable soup
Picar a la puerta (Italian) - (Spanish) llamar - knock on the door
Pastiso (Italian) - (Spanish ) - embrollo - a mess
Bizims (Jewish) - testicals
Maot (Jewish) - money

 Barraca en la Caleta ( 1931 - George Lewis Land )

Words that appear to be unique to Gibraltar
Despite our tendency to steal and corrupt everybody else’s words, we also use quite a number of them that are our very own creations.

Aliska for give it to me
Bollo for bread roll, dent
Camolla for back of the head
Piquis-labi for a delicious morsel of food
Pirule for a fifty-fifty chance
Pituso for a weakling
Camufla for an idiot
Chanfla for coins of little value
Chavea for young lad
Chuchurrío for shrivelled

 Un chavea y su borico ( Unknown )

We also seem to have a penchant for the creation of rolling phrases many of them based on similes, all of them unique to Gibraltar. Some are immediately identifiable as they use local landmarks or people to describe events or situations. Here are a few examples:

Más viejo que la palmera del Buleva (an identifiable palm tree )
Más años que la palmera de la sinagoga (another palm tree)
Más pesao que la bolla del Quarri (the Quarry is an actual place in Gib)
Más moscas que el caballo de Besure (Besure was a local gharry driver)
Más años que el Utopia (ship that sank off Gibraltar)
Más años que una tapia (corruption of Utopia)
Mas ciego que una tapia (corruption of a corruption)
Más años que la burra del pianillo (actual organ grinder’s donkey)
Más años que una banda de loros (unknown)
Más viejo que anda’ pa’lante (unknown) - (as old as the hills)
Ponerse como Bachicha. (to gorge on food – Bachicha may be slang for an Italian)


 La palmera la sinagoga

 1891 - el Utopia

Phrases that are uniquely Gibraltarian  
These phrases use either words which are specifically Gibraltarian or are of unknown origin.

Se armó un sipi-sape. - a fracas took place
Se armó un follin. (as against ‘follon’ which is legitimate Spanish) - a fracas took place
Se armó un gori / el gori - a fracas took place
Iba a to mecate - he/she was going very fast
La gente del pish - posh people


Phrases originally based on ignorance but used ironically thereafter.

Quien se ha creido que e? - el hijo del mebli? ( based on a rather aloof Major Melby )
El Aga Khan del gobernador - the governor's Aide-de-camp)
The bigin in the floor and the horse can't pass ( A gharry driver explaining why he cannot continue - 'bigin' being a plank of wood.

 Traditional Gibraltar Gharry and driver

To end, I suspect Llanito is a dying phenomenon. As newer generations become progressively more and more exposed to 'traditional' English and Spanish - both via education and through radio and television - its peculiar usage will be replaced by more conventional speech patterns. Code switching as such will undoubtedly continue as is normal for most frontier town. But that peculiar idiom that we call Llanito will eventually become a curiosity of the past. A pity!

The following 'LINKS' might also be of interest

1.  A Dictionary of Llanito
2. A Comparison between Llanito and other colloquialisms used in the Campo de Gibraltar