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A new South Florida dialect is forming in real time

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

If you're hanging out in South Florida, you might hear someone say that they are making a party instead of throwing a party or that they are getting down from the car instead of getting out of one. You might find these expressions just a little odd, but researchers say that these adaptive phrases, translated word for word from Spanish, are part of a new dialect of English. We're joined now by Phillip M. Carter. He's a professor of linguistics and English at Florida International University in Miami. Welcome to the program.

PHILLIP M CARTER: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: Can you tell us a little bit about how you and your fellow researcher, Kristen D'Alessandro Merii, came to notice this, you know, new dialect?

CARTER: Sure. Well, I moved here to South Florida from Los Angeles about 13 years ago. I came primarily interested in the Spanish-speaking scene. Miami is one of the most diverse Spanish-speaking cities in the world. But once I got here, I started noticing that one of the more interesting linguistic phenomena was what was taking place to the English that you hear. And at first I thought that this was maybe a phenomenon of immigrant speech. But then I started noticing that folks who were born in Miami or came at a very young age had certain distinctive features in their English as well.

RASCOE: Can you tell us briefly what you learned from your study?

CARTER: The most recent study was focusing on lexical items in the dialect - so vocabulary words, specifically what linguists call calques. A calque is sort of like a borrowing. A borrowing is where you - you know, you literally take one word from one language and you incorporate it into the other language. And everybody knows about borrowings in English. We have lots of them.

But a calque is sort of a loan translation, where you don't borrow the word, but you borrow the concept and you translate it into the target language. A borrowing would be simply something like taco. In contrast, a calque is - to go back to the example of get down from the car, which comes from the Spanish bajar del carro, literally get down from the car. So what happens is when speakers come into a new language context, they sometimes rely on their mother tongue or their home language - they lean into that as a source to help them get through acquiring the target language, and they literally just translate expressions.

RASCOE: What makes this a new dialect is that these phrases are being used by non-Spanish speakers as well, right?

CARTER: That's right. That is an open, empirical question. We know that - our study focused on the speech of immigrants, their children and their grandchildren. And we know that children and grandchildren tend to be bilinguals, but we have lots of anecdotal evidence that these forms are seeping out of that community into the general South Florida, Miami, English speech community and are being used by non-Spanish speakers, non-Latinxes, non-Cubans as well.

RASCOE: How do you determine empirically that something is a dialect?

CARTER: The first thing to say is that dialects have - the vast majority of their sounds, their grammatical structures and their words are in common with other dialects. So we're not talking about a dialect that sounds more like Spanish than English. No. It's a dialect that sounds remarkably like every other dialect of American English. But dialects - they're made up of component parts. And so the component parts have a few things that are distinctive that someone not from the region might be able to put their finger on or might not be able to put their finger on, but say, gee, something sounds a little bit different here.

RASCOE: And so what do these linguistic changes say about how we use language?

CARTER: These changes show us our own patterns of movement. These patterns show us being us and doing us. The history of human language is a history of human beings speaking their languages, moving about the globe, sometimes isolating from one another, and sometimes coming into contact with one another. When that contact is sustained over decades or generations, we start to share vocabulary and sometimes the structures of our language influence one another.

I will point out that American English itself is a story of people moving from one place to another, right? The entire national dialect, the thing that is not in question, that seems normal to us, is itself a function of colonialism. And so movement is essential to human history. Human contact is essential to human history. And that gets inflected in our language varieties.

What's happening in Miami is that it's happening in real time, and we get to see it unfold right before our very eyes. And there are linguists who are studying it and bringing the process in real time to our attention. But this is just the way that language works. Sometimes I think people think of language as, like, something that you could put in a jar...

RASCOE: Yes. And it never changes (laughter).

CARTER: Yeah. And you put it up on the shelf, and there's a jar for English, and there's a jar for Spanish, and there's a jar for French or whatever. But that's not the right model. It's more - think of it more like a washing machine, where all the words go in and get tumbled around as the people move around the globe and come into contact with each other and so forth and so on. And so I guess the real message of the story is that every word has a history, every sound has a history, and it is our history.

RASCOE: That's Phillip M. Carter. He's a professor of linguistics and English at Florida International University. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

CARTER: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.