Sociolinguist debunks Miami English misconceptions

Put me the light.

If that compels you to flip a light switch on, you’re probably from Miami.

Often gone unnoticed, this literal translation from Spanish to English is just one example of how immigration is shaping how English is spoken in Miami.

Phillip M. Carter, a sociolinguist in the FIU Department of English, has conducted research on Hispanic-English dialects in the United States, particularly in Texas and North Carolina. He has recently brought attention to the Miami English dialect through national and international media, including the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, CNN, CNN en Español, MSN Latino and BBC Mundo.

“Miami English is a systematic, rule-governed variety of English with subtle structural influence from Spanish. It’s spoken by native English speakers, mostly second-, third, and fourth-generation Latinos, who learn it as their first-language variety.”

Preliminary findings of Carter’s research on Miami English has found the difference in this variety lays in the pronunciation of vowels, intonation, stronger-sounding consonants, including the consonants “L” and “R,” and literal translations.

“Despite the fact that for most speakers this influence is ultimately very light, it can be extremely salient for English speakers unfamiliar with the dialect.”

The United States has long experienced waves of immigration since European settlers first arrived in the 1500s, including those from Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and countries in Scandinavia. Miami English is no different than the varieties of English spoken in other parts of the country that have been influenced by these groups, including Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

“I think it’s important for our community to understand that what is happening in Miami has happened many times over in the history of the English language. It’s just that the time-depth of the language change is different. German influence on English in Pennsylvania happened about 200 years ago, whereas we get to see Spanish influence on English unfold before our very eyes.”

Carter hopes to undertake a large-scale study of the Miami dialect, which would involve interviewing speakers of different age groups and backgrounds. To him, the Miami English dialect is at the core of the city’s culture.

“Every dialect has its own history, and no one language variety is more or less correct than another,” Carter said. “It’s wrong to think of Miami English as ‘broken’ English or as a variety that is in any way less correct than any variety spoken anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Miami English is real English, and it’s a fundamental part of who we are.”