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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Get down’ from the car. ‘Make’ the line. Is Miami English a dialect?



By PATRICIA MAZZEI


The stereotype of how many Miamians speak involves a sing-songy rhythm with a heavy-sounding “L” and a generous sprinkling of Spanglish. But what if the conversational language of South Florida were more than a lively accent? What if it were a distinct regional dialect of American English?


Phillip M. Carter, a linguistics professor at Florida International University, argues that it already is. Miami English, he calls it. And he is on a mission to destigmatize it.


“This is probably the most important bilingual situation in the Americas today,” Carter said.


More than 60 years of steady immigration from Spanish-speaking countries have heavily influenced the local English’s vowel system (Miami residents often speak English with Spanish vowel sounds), grammatical structure and lexicon, he explained: “English is influencing Spanish, but Spanish is also influencing English.”


The result is a version of English that is just as worthy of recognition as other widely accepted dialects, Carter said, such as the ones spoken in New York or in the American South.


“People are really tired of being told that they’re wrong, and tired of being corrected,” he said, adding that “those linguistic differences are a really important part of people’s identities.”


In his latest study, Carter and a co-author, Kristen D’Alessandro Merii, posited that decades of exposure to Spanish, which often feels like Miami’s dominant language, has resulted in phrases spoken and understood even by native English speakers who are not fluent in Spanish. (Some amount of Spanish is spoken in perhaps half of Miami-Dade County households, Carter estimated, though in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, that figure can exceed 90%.)


Those phrases, translated from Spanish, are known as calques. For example: Get down from the car (bajarse del carro), instead of get out of the car. Make the line (hacer la fila), instead of join the line. She recommended me this (me recomendó esto), instead of she recommended this to me.


“Miami English is full of these types of expressions, and not only among immigrant speech, where you would expect to find it,” Carter said. “These expressions get passed down and incorporated into the speech of native English speakers.”


Andrew Lynch, a linguist at the University of Miami who has conducted research with Carter, called the argument that Miami English is a dialect — which goes beyond an accent and refers to an all-encompassing way of speaking, including pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary — “a compelling hypothesis.”


“I’m not entirely convinced that we’re there right now,” Lynch said. “I think right now we’re more at the stage of a sociolect,” which refers to the way a particular social group speaks.


White Miamians once spoke more like other white Southerners, pronouncing Miami “Miamah.” That started to change after the 1959 Cuban Revolution as waves of immigrants from Cuba and other Latin American countries moved in, and white non-Hispanics started moving out.


Those immigrants were largely upper- and middle-class Spanish speakers, which helped establish Spanish as a strong and important language, Lynch said: “To this day, Miami is the only major urban area in the U.S. where Spanish is not relegated principally in the lower socioeconomic strata.”


Among the examples of Miami English in pop culture cited by Carter is a viral video from 2012 titled “Stuff Miami Girls Say … and Guys” — though using more colorful language — that parodies how frequently Miamians say things like “bro,” “irregardless” and “supposably.”


The three young Miamians in the video also use “super” as an adverb, one of the calques from Spanish mentioned in Carter’s research. (“Ay, I’m super bloated.”)


That a just-for-fun video more than a decade old found its way into an academic journal amused Michelle Sicars, 35, one of the video’s stars, who now lives in New York. But it did not surprise her to learn that Miami English might be its own dialect.


“I have friends in Miami who are 100% American — their parents are Irish and English — but they were born in Miami, and they have the accent, and they use these words,” she said. “It’s, like, the wildest thing.”

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