Miamian English: What’s That About?

Language variation is an active process. As you travel from one corner of the U.S. to the other, you will see that different communities speak the same language differently. These differences can go beyond simple regional accents.

In Miami, a new variation of English is being born through the sustained contact between its many Spanish speaking Cuban inhabitants and English speakers.

When Languages Change

Despite the proliferation of linguistic standardization, language has historically been very fluid. In fact, a “standard language” is simply a variation of a given language, the grammar and semantics of which has been established as the lingua franca for the broader linguistic community. This process occurs for a wide number of reasons. For example, in Great Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries, the ruling class needed a common form of English with which to more effectively communicate, while also differentiating themselves from lower classes.

On the other side of the pond, American Standard English, also known as Academic English, was established to provide a common English by which to judge academic merit. While in China, a country whose regional dialects are not mutually intelligible, standardization didn’t begin until the early 20th century as part of modernization efforts.

And in spite of these language standardization milestones, standards still evolve in order to better reflect the many nuances of the languages in which they exist. In the U.S. the American Standard is colored by many different vocabularies and pronunciations, but the changes can be more drastic in areas on a linguistic border.

This is what languages do. As they come into contact, they influence one another. Haitian Creole, for example, which “evolved from pidginized French.” It’s also why Old English sounds almost unrecognizable to modern speakers, and Middle English only slightly less so.

Now something similar is happening in Miami, where a large part of the population is Hispanic.

Spanish and English Meet in the Middle

Beginning in the 1950s, southern Florida saw a wave of immigration from Cuba. This influx has meant the accommodation of Spanish speakers into a previously primarily English-speaking community. Now, “over 65% of the population of Miami-Dade County identified as Hispanic or Latina/o, and in the large municipalities of Doral and Hialeah, the figure comes up to 80% and 95%.”

Research led by Phillip M. Carter, a sociolinguist out of Florida International University, considers the effect this has had on the English spoken in the area. In particular, the role of Spanish-to-English “calques.”

A calque is a “borrowed translation” from a speaker’s native language directly into another, such as the literal translation of the Spanish phrase “hacer una fiesta” into “to make a party” in English, or “casarse con,” meaning to be “married with” someone, rather than married to.

These calques are distinct from the more familiar Spanglish. Whereas that sort of speech is the combination of short phrases or single words from one language into another, switching between the two mid-sentence, calques overlay the grammar of one onto the other, changing the latter’s fundamental structure. This creates sentences which are recognizably English, but which sound off, such as “We got down from the car and went inside,” or “I made the line to pay for groceries.”

Such literal translations are called “literal lexical” calques, but according to Carter’s study, there are also “semantic” and “phonetic” calques, which are loan translations of meaning and sound respectively. For example, the Spanish word carne means “meat” in general, but it can also be used to refer specifically to beef. As such, local speakers have begun to apply this sort of specificity to English use of meat (i.e., “I’ll have one meat empanada and two chicken empanadas”).

There are certain calques which occur only among the Spanish speaking immigrant generation. One example comes from the direct translation of “tirar una foto,” which becomes “throw a photo,” as a variation of “take a photo.”

Despite this, others are also being adopted by those born in Miami and the surrounding areas—groups who, while possibly bilingual, speak mostly English at home.

Language is learned in a community, and when that community is made up of two distinct languages, they will combine in interesting ways. Carter suggests looking at other states with large Spanish-speaking immigrant populations.

Now, unless we’re dealing with literature or pop media, using calques will not do when it comes to professional translation and linguistic expression. To unravel linguistic nuances and convey your message accurately, be it in Spanish or English, reach out to Trusted Translations’ expert linguists at our Miami office, our largest LSP center in the U.S., or through our online form for a free quote.

Image by Deyson Ortiz from Pixabay