Miami Accents: How 'Miamah' Turned Into A Different Sort Of Twang
You might’ve heard it when you're out on the town, at Publix, or at that cafe down the street. Or, you might hear it when you open your own mouth.
English as a language in South Florida is shifting. Spanish speech patterns are being integrated into English speech as you read this. That’s right: there is a Miami accent taking form. (To academics, it’s technically a Miami “dialect.” For example, an "accent" would be a German guy speaking English with a German accent, while a "dialect" would be how you imagine Chicagoans speak English, saying “MAHM” instead of “MOM.” But we are going to use the more colloquial term, "accent.")
This classic YouTube video gives a rather hyperbolic representation of the Miami accent:
Compared to other accents around the country, like the Chicago, New York, and Boston accents that have been around for more than a hundred years, the Miami accent is relatively young. It has been continuously evolving due to sustained immigration over the second part of the 20th Century into today.
Professor Philip Carter is a sociolinguist at FIU and has traced the rise of the new Miami English. He stresses, “All dialects have a history. All varieties of speaking have a history that is embedded in circumstance, in conditions. The English language itself is the result of circumstance and conditions. There is no singular real thing that exists outside of Miami. Real English is spoken right here in Miami. This is it.”
Below are major waves of immigration that have contributed to the transformation of Miami speech:
Early 1960s: After Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba under a communist regime in 1959, a large group of Cubans, dubbed the Golden Exiles, fled to America. Composed of Fulgencio Batista supporters, this immigration wave was primarily composed of the professional, upper class and the skilled, unionized, middle class. In total, around 215,000 Cubans fled during this time.
1970: Census says that Miami’s Spanish-speaking population is 24%.
1980: Because the economy in Cuba was going through a downturn, Castro allowed a mass exodus from his country to the United States. During the 7-month exodus period, boats left from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor and transported approximately 125,000 Cubans to Florida, with the majority of exiles settling in Miami-Dade County. This mass immigration to the U.S. created a serious problem for the Carter administration because Castro had also put prison inmates and mentally disabled Cubans on these boats to the U.S. The Mariel Harbor was closed to emigrants on October 31st.
Late 1980s: In Nicaragua, economic hardship coupled with the Nicaraguan Revolution created a desperate situation for its citizens, particularly those who feared the return of the Sandinista government. South Florida saw an influx of Nicaraguan immigration during this time.
1990s: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which meant an end of Soviet economic support of Cuba, more and more Cubans defected from their homeland to the closest tip of the United States: South Florida. These Cubans came to the U.S. on rafts, usually constructed from materials of their homes like doors, tables or bed frames and other debris. During this time, more than 37,000 Cubans left for America.
1999: With the election of Hugo Chavez, emigration from Venezuela to South Florida of middle and upper classes citizens increased.
2000: According to the latest U.S. Census, 59.2% of people in Miami-Dade said they spoke Spanish at home.
So, as immigration to South Florida continues, the region has diverse generations of Latin American immigrants. Some families go as far back as the Cuban Exiles and could be in their 4th generation here in the U.S. Others have just arrived.
What’s happening is that kids are growing up and learning English in a Spanish-speaking environment. At school, they share cultures, accents, idioms and speech patterns, creating a new English accent that incorporates some non-native features.
Here are a few of the non-native features in Miami English:
- First, vowel pronunciation. In Spanish, there are five vowel sounds. In English, there are eleven. Thus, you have words like “hand,” with the long, nasal "A" sound, pronounced more like hahnd because the long "A" does not exist in Spanish.
- While most consonants sound the same in Spanish and English, the Spanish "L" is heavier, with the tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth more so than in English. This Spanish "L" pronunciation is present in Miami English.
- The rhythms of the two languages are also different. In Spanish, each syllable is the same length, but in English, the syllables fluctuate in length. This is a difference in milliseconds, but they cause the rhythm of Miami English to sound a bit like the rhythm of Spanish.
- Finally, “calques” are phrases directly translated from one language to another where the translation isn’t exactly idiomatic in the other language. For example, instead of saying, “let’s get out of the car,” someone from Miami might say, "let’s get down from the car" because of the Spanish phrase bajar del coche.
Miami Accents is a project of WLRN-Miami Herald News interns Karelia Arauz, Julia Duba, Isabel Echarte, Patience Haggin and Gabriella Watts. The project editor is Alicia Zuckerman.