The Miami dialect is not a second-language accent, like youâ€™d hear from a Cuban immigrant whose first language is Spanish. It is an American English dialect like New York City English, Southern American English, or any other dialect in this country: spoken by native-born Americans who speak English either as a first language or fluently along with the language of their parents. Which doesnâ€™t stop the accent from seeming foreign to others: Carter says that his students will sometimes find themselves in a neighboring county, only to be asked what country theyâ€™re from.
Thereâ€™s a whole bunch of things that set Miami English apart from other dialects. Much of it comes from Spanish: words or sounds that are pronounced in a certain way in Spanish will eventually show up in English. An easy one is the word â€œsalmon,â€ which in Miami is pronounced with the L: â€œsall-mon.â€ That comes directly from the Spanish word for the fish, which is, well, salmÃ³n. (In Spanish, all consonants make one sound and one sound only.*)
But that letter L gets even weirder. It turns out Spanish and English have different pronunciations of the letter, which are referred to as â€œlight Lâ€ and â€œdark L.â€ English actually has both of them: a light L is found in words starting with L, like the word â€œlight.â€ A dark L is found sometimes at the ends of words, as in the word â€œfeel.â€ Say that out loud: can you hear how, in â€œfeel,â€ it sounds almost like â€œfee-yulâ€? That â€œull-â€ sound as the first part of the L sound, thatâ€™s a dark L, and itâ€™s made with a slightly different shape of your tongue in your mouth. In Miami, all L sounds are dark, so a word like â€œliterallyâ€ sounds more like â€œull-iterally.â€
Vowels also show some impact from Spanish. Elsewhere in the country, English speakers have a tendency to â€œfrontâ€ some vowels. â€œFrontâ€ and â€œbackâ€ refers to the position of your tongue in your mouth, so â€œeeâ€ is a front vowel, whereas â€œohâ€ and â€œoohâ€ are back vowels. In the South and Mid-Atlantic, English speakers will move their back vowels a little to the front, so â€œboatâ€ sounds like â€œbehh-oht.â€ But in Spanish, thatâ€™s absolutely not done, and that carries over to Miami English. Keeping â€œohâ€ in the back isnâ€™t unique to Miami, but it is unique to Miami within the Southern U.S.
Another vowel thing: much of the U.S. does this weird thing with the â€œahâ€ sound in words like â€œhand.â€ When that vowel comes before a nasal consonantâ€”M or Nâ€”it becomes kind of nasal and more complex, turning into more like â€œhay-and.â€ Miamians, though, donâ€™t do that, so â€œhandâ€ has the exact same vowel as â€œcat.â€ Try saying it out loud. It feels strange, right? Almost British-y.
Miami English also has lots and lots of calques, which are loan phrases: essentially direct translations of Spanish phrases. In Atlanta, New York, and Seattleâ€”actually, basically anywhere besides Miamiâ€”you get out of a car. In Miami, you get down from a car, because â€œdown from the carâ€ is a direct translation from the Spanish, bajar del carro. There are dozens of these: in Miami you donâ€™t get in line or wait in line, you make a line. You donâ€™t get married to somebody, you get married with them. When talking about money, you donâ€™t say â€œfive ninety-nineâ€ for $5.99; you say â€œfive with ninety-nine.â€ If youâ€™re not up to anything much, you might say â€œIâ€™m eating shit,â€ the basic equivalent of â€œIâ€™m not doing shit.â€ â€œSome of those English calques are based on Cuban Spanish, and my strong suspicion is that kids are learning the local variety of English unaware of the sources of the loan words,â€ says Carter.
The verbs â€œcomeâ€ and â€œgoâ€ are also different in English and Spanish, and thus different in Miami English. â€œIn English, the verbs â€˜comeâ€™ and â€˜goâ€™ are really peculiar,â€ says Carter. â€œIf you invite me to your house, Iâ€™ll say â€˜Iâ€™m coming over now,â€™ even though what I meant to say is â€˜Iâ€™m going over now.â€™â€ These words are based on â€œdeiksis,â€ the relationship between the speaker and listener. Theoretically, â€œcomeâ€ should mean heading toward the speaker or listener, and â€œgoâ€ should mean heading away from the speaker or listener. Come to where I am, go to this other location. But in English, itâ€™s not that simple; we often get those totally wrong. Spanish speakers, and Miami English speakers, never get those wrong. An invitation to a birthday party in Miami might say, â€œGo celebrate Mariaâ€™s 10th birthday party at the zoo.â€ Sounds weird, but is actually correct: neither the sender nor the receiver of the invitation is at the zoo, so it should be â€œgo.â€
One of the hardest to nail down is in the actual rhythm of speech. Spanish is syllable-timed, meaning that each syllable is spoken for the same length of time. English is not; it is stress-timed, so certain syllables, especially one-syllable words, are shorter than others. (Think about â€œfor,â€ â€œand,â€ and pronouns like â€œheâ€ and â€œshe.â€) Miami English isnâ€™t exactly syllable-timed, but itâ€™s more regular than other English dialects, which makes it soundâ€¦different, somehow. â€œI have heard parodies of Latinos, or Latino characters who are putting on being Latino, where youâ€™ll find them speaking in a very fast way which gives that impression,â€ says Carter. Itâ€™s not that Spanish-speakers speak more quickly, just that their timing is different than English. We donâ€™t quite know how itâ€™s different, but speaking very quickly can sort of trigger our conception of Spanish rhythms.
Miami English is not, though, the same as other Spanish-influenced dialects of English, like Chicano English in Southern California. Some of those calques, for example, are specific to Cuba or the Caribbean and not found in Mexico. One of the most telling examples of a Southern Californian accent is turning â€œingâ€ and â€œinkâ€ endings into â€œeengâ€ and â€œeenk,â€ so â€œthinkingâ€ becomes â€œtheenkeeng.â€ These are not found at all in Miami.
Miami English isnâ€™t only spoken by Miami Latinos, though they are the predominant group that has this dialect. Carter has found that many Anglo whites in Miami will use this dialectâ€”but not always. Miami English coexists with Spanglish and flat-out Spanish in Miami, and speakers will often switch between those depending on who theyâ€™re speaking to. A white teenager might use the Miami English dialect with friends, and a Northeast-like accent with parentsâ€”after all, thereâ€™s a good chance the teenâ€™s parents hail from the North.
A major part of what makes Miami English special is how quickly and thoroughly immigrant groups have come to dominate the city. In, say, New York, even the biggest immigrant groupsâ€”Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chineseâ€”are still comparatively minor parts of the whole. But Cubans, and then other Spanish-speakers, became the dominant force in Miami so quickly that, essentially, stranger calques and pronunciations and rhythms have been free to become the norm.
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