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What started with Spanglish has become a whole new English dialect in Miami

Latinos have transformed the city in the last half-century —  and the Hispanic influence extends to English phrases that a study has identified as the "Miami Dialect."
Photo Illustration: A retro-looking illustration of a woman's mouth over various postcards of Miami Beach
Justine Goode; NBC News / Getty Images

Growing up as a first-generation Cuban American in Miami, Ismael Llano never thought twice about the way he spoke.

“It’s one of those things where if everybody speaks the same way, then it’s not odd,” said Llano, who was born and raised in Miami toggling between Spanish and English as the son and grandson of Cuban immigrants.

That “same way” of speaking includes phrases that aren’t usually used in English, such as “get down from the car” instead of “get out of the car” or “married with” instead of “married to” or “throw a photo” instead of “take a photo.”

It wasn't until he was in high school or college, Llano said, "where I started to realize ... we’re the ones who are doing something different down here with the language."

It turns out those Miami-specific English phrases evolved from direct translations of Spanish: "Bajarse del carro" directly translates to "get down from the car."

Llano, who co-hosts the podcast “Pero, Let Me Tell You,” focused on news, politics and culture from a Cuban American perspective, interviewed a guest last month, Phillip Carter, whose study this year has made national headlines — and confirmed what residents like Llano have long felt: There is a distinct “Miami Dialect.”

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The way Spanish and English have intertwined in Miami after the arrival of many Cubans half a century ago has gone beyond what some may call “Spanglish” and evolved into a new English-language dialect entirely, said Carter, a professor of linguistics and English at Florida International University.

Carter studied groups of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers and found that what made the "Miami Dialect" was the use of “calques,” or “borrowings.” Calques occur when a Spanish phrase is directly translated into English — like “get down from the car.”

While the phrases are more common among Spanish-dominant speakers, even second-, third- and fourth-generation native English speakers in Miami use them — which explains why the "dialect" is so prevalent.

“When you have a situation such as that which took place in Miami, where the immigrant group becomes the local majority, things can get passed down to first-language speakers of the language, namely the children of immigrants, and then their grandchildren,” Carter said.

In the early 1960s, many Cubans left their country after Fidel Castro’s communist takeover, many of them settling in Miami. Cuban Americans and other Latino immigrants have been instrumental to the city’s economic and social growth. Spanish is everywhere, and some refer to Miami as Latin America’s northernmost city.

‘Very much our own thing’

Jose Urbino, a Miami native and fitness trainer, grew up speaking Spanish and English and switching between the languages frequently. He said he realized that everyday phrases in Miami weren’t always commonplace in other places across the country.

“There are times when we go to other cities and I’ll say some weird Miami phrase,” he said.

For example, Urbino will say he’s just “eating sh-t” to mean he’s just “sitting around doing nothing of value," he said. Though it may sound like an odd thing to say, the phrase is a direct translation of a very common Spanish expression, “comiendo mierda,” which is used among Cuban Americans to mean just “hanging out.”

“There are tons of those types of phrases out here, that are those very literal Spanish-to-English translations,” said Urbino, who said being bilingual has been crucial to his career. “They are very much our own thing.”

Other words and phrases Urbino pointed out as commonly heard in Miami even though they may not be unique to the city include “irregardless” instead of “regardless,” as well as “pero (but) like,” and “super good.”

English as a 'thermometer' of change

Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring professor of humanities and Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and the author of “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” and “The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language,” sees the evolution of language in Spanish- and English-speaking U.S. cities like Miami as an integral part of the country’s identity.

“How American English changes is a thermometer measuring the transformations of who we are as a nation,” said Stavans, who wasn’t surprised by Carter’s findings in Miami.

“The United States has a number of major cities with pronounced Latino presence. Aside from Miami, these include San Antonio, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and New York," he said.

“After similar studies are done in most of them," he said, "it will be clear that each has a similar yet unique dialect, depending on where the Hispanic immigrants originated from."

English has influenced languages around the world, including Spanish in the U.S.: In Texas, researchers have found Spanish expressions that are direct translations from the English, like "háblame p'atrás," a direct translation of "call me back."

But in the case of Miami, where Spanish has changed English expressions, other linguists agree that the city's specific history has led to this moment.

“There is indeed a sociolect of Miami English that is commonly heard here in Miami, and that’s especially so among U.S.-born Latinos who are English dominant,” said the author of “Spanish in Miami: Sociolinguistic Dimensions of Postmodernity,” Andrew Lynch, a professor of modern languages and literatures at the University of Miami who has studied Spanish for over 20 years. “So this is not about speaking Spanglish. This is about speaking a characteristic variety of English that would sound different than someone from New York or Colorado or California.”

Embracing the changes

Urbino recalled that once he realized his Miami language was different, his younger self tried to assimilate a more “proper” way of speaking.

"We thought that there were all of these rules that we were supposed to follow to try to be like good citizens or good Americans. So we would hear this sort of stuff," he said, referring to the Miami phrases characteristic of Miami, "and just be like, ‘Oh, no, that’s not how that goes. That’s not right.'"

Carter said he hopes his study opens people’s eyes to the vast variability of language in general, arguing that for too long, people have been told the way they communicate is “incorrect” or “wrong.”

“I think people are tired of being told that the way their mother speaks is bad or that the forms that they use in their home are stupid," Carter said. "Or they’re tired of seeing their children go to school and be held back based on their dialect or their multilingualism."

What's encouraging about the "Miami dialect" is that it shows that in Miami, where Latinos are the majority, the use of Spanish and Spanglish has been widely accepted.

“You do need people to reflect on it positively for it to stick around. If it’s totally negative, then it probably won’t stick,” Carter said about the city's distinct dialect. “So there’s evidence that people use them. And there’s evidence that they are positively evaluated, which leads us to believe that these are features of a dialogue that will likely be around for some time.”

For Miami natives like Urbino and Llano, the new study offers a breath of fresh air.

“Now that somebody gave it a name and it’s been studied — that makes it official, that means that I’m not a weirdo anymore,” Llano said. “There is a beauty to feeling validation in that way.”

Urbino said the influential convergence between Spanish and English is here to stay — both in his life and in Miami.

“I can’t imagine that there will not be an even greater influence like that here in the city,” he said. “Miami will be a Spanish-dominated city until the waters take us.”