Miami English: A language all its own?

English/Spanish sign

Miami English is a curious phenomenon. While locals can often pinpoint the so-called “Miami accent” it can still be difficult to describe, and it’s not as notably different as Boston or New York accents.

Miami’s Latin-American community has certainly made a mark on the way locals use language. The cultural influence has even affected non-Hispanic Miamians. One scholar describes Miami English as more of a dialect than an accent, since a dialect refers to the distinct grammatical patterns and sounds of a language.

“What’s noteworthy about Miami English is that we’re now in a third, even fourth generation of kids who are using these features of native dialect,” said Phillip Carter, a sociolinguist at Florida International University, in an interview with the Miami Herald. Carter’s primary focus is language use in Hispanic communities across the U.S. “So we’re not talking — and let me be clear — we’re not talking about non-native features. These are native speakers of English who have learned a variety influenced historically by Spanish.”

Miami English sounds different partially because of the influence of the Spanish language. Vowel sounds are a big indicator – Spanish has five vowel sounds, while English has 11, so certain vowel sounds, like the long ‘A’ in a word like “band,” are softened to more of an “ah” sound.

Syllable weight is also a variable in Miami English – specifically with the letter “L.” Miamians are known to use a heavy “L” sound, like that used in Spanish. The rhythm of the words used in Miami English has a Latin flair to it.

Many Miamians end their sentences in a high rising terminal – making their statements sound more like questions. This pattern, also known as upspeaking is seen in other regional accents, the most infamous of which is Valspeak, or the “Valley Girl” accent popularized by movies.

While it is common to have dialect variations when two languages are used concurrently, Miami is an anomaly because of how quickly the change occured. The Latin American influence in Miami began growing as more immigrants, particularly Cuban immigrants arrived – first in the 1960’s under Operation Peter Pan and with the Mariel Boat Lift in the 1980’s. Over time, immigrants from numerous other Central and South American countries began settling in Miami, and very quickly the distinctive language seeds were sown.

A Miamian may initially be completely unaware of how different their speech sounds compared to the speech of others – even those living in Broward County. Once identified, Miami English speakers may feel self-conscious and think they are not speaking “proper” English. Unfortunately, many Americans still harbor stereotypes about different accents. A University of Chicago study published in 2010 even revealed that Americans were not as likely to trust individuals with foreign-sounding accents.

Whether you have a “Miami accent” or not, it is important to try and avoid feeling ashamed over your accent. Everyone has a story to tell and every accent tells a story. Miami English developed out of vibrant, multi-cultural influences and as demographics change, so might the language.

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