More than 70% of Miami’s population is of Hispanic or Latin-American origin. In the streets of this international city, a particular type of “Spanglish” is on the rise: In recent years, the dynamics of language itself have led to the creation of a whole new English dialect.
In the United States, there are around 30 major English dialects, often influenced by Native American, European and African languages. And even beyond English, the country is a melting pot of different languages, Spanish certainly being the most prominent: It is estimated that around 42.03 million people in the United States speak Spanish at home.
Miami is, perhaps, the place where that reality is most evident. With a special contribution from Cuban immigrants, this city has seen the emergence of a new dialect that is already the subject of study by language and culture experts.
In the 15 years since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, about 500,000 Cubans fled to Miami.
Defined as a regional language variety, Miami English is distinguishable by its unique vocabulary and grammar and pronunciation rules, different from other regional varieties, which together constitute a single emerging language.
A decade of study
The rise of the Miami dialect was recently investigated by Phillip M. Carter, from the Florida International University, and Kristen D’Alessandro Merii, from the University of Buffalo. These experts note that some exclusive expressions are evidence that a different dialect is emerging in South Florida.
This is a common phenomenon that can also occur in other regions of the world when two languages come into close contact. In this case, Spanish lexicon is being “borrowed” and translated directly into English, to then get passed on and be adopted by bilingual generations.
One of the most emblematic of these mixed expressions is to “get down from the car”, which comes from the combined structures of “getting out of the car” and “bajarse del auto”, in Spanish. “Studies like these remind us that there are no ‘real’ nor ‘fictional’ words, there are only words. And all the words have to come from somewhere. Every single word has a story. This applies to all the words that are being spoken in Miami,” explains Carter.
After researching other Spanish-English dialects in Texas and North Carolina, Carter launched an ambitious project 10 years ago to lead the first study on the Miami dialect. But what he heard in Miami was unique: he called it “Miami English” and defined it as a variety of English with a subtle structural influence of Spanish, mostly spoken by native English speakers who are second, third, or fourth-generation Latinos.
Carter based his theory on the vowel system. As explained at the International University of Florida, vowels are one of the first areas of research for linguists to understand whether one language has influenced another. Since Miami is such a diverse and multilingual city, Carter wanted to determine whether the sounds of Spanish vowels had transferred to English.
More than 2.7 million people currently live in Miami, and a third of them are of Hispanic or Latin origin.
All speech is sound waves, which come from the vocal cords. But these waves take shape in specific sounds through the movements of the tongue. The speakers of different languages move their tongue differently. Carter and his team wanted to identify the “shape” of the Spanish vowels, or what movements the tongue had to do in order to produce different vowel sounds.
Their decade-long research took them one step further: They were able to confirm that “Miami English” is in fact a new dialect, since Spanish expressions and semantics are being introduced in English. For example, an “empanada de carne” becomes a “meat empanada” rather than the more specific “beef empanada”.
Researchers studied more than 50 sentences and expressions that are only used in Miami, such as “making the line” instead of “waiting in line”. According to Carter, the data suggest that there is a thin line separating what sounds “foreign” from what is acceptable in Miami.