English in the 305 has its distinct Miami accent
By PATIENCE HAGGIN, WLRN
MIAMI (AP): Sometimes you can tell where someone is from by the
way they talk. New Yorkers, Bostonians, Chicagoans—their accents
are distinct, recognizable.
The Miami accent is harder to pinpoint. But there is one
and Miamians need only cross the county line to be singled out
for the way they draw out their vowels or linger on certain
syllables. More noticeably, most Miamians speak with a certain
Latino twang, the influence of decades of Latin American
immigration that has made a mark on the language of Miami
natives, even those who don't speak Spanish themselves.
``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 Florida International
University sociolinguist Phillip Carter, who studies
language in U.S. Latino communities. ``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.''
And if you want to get technical about it, Carter added, Miami
English is not really an accent. It's a dialect. Accent
refers to something that's not native, such as a foreign accent.
A dialect, on the other hand, refers to the native
language patterns both in terms of grammar and sounds of native
speakers of a language.
The difference in the Miami sound lies primarily in the
vowels, which have a certain affinity with Spanish
pronunciation. English has 11 different vowel sounds, while
Spanish only has five. English words like ``man'' and
``hand'' include a long nasal ``A'' sound that doesn't exist in
Spanish. Miamians now pronounce these words with a subtly
Spanish shading a bit more like ``mahn'' and ``hahnd.''
Miami's ``L'' is a bit different from the rest of the
country's, too. Miamians tend to have a slightly heavier ``L''—a
bit more like the Spanish ``L''—than most US-Americans. It can
be heard in the way they drag the ``Ls'' in ``Lauderdale'' or
is also a factor. In Spanish words, all syllables are equally
long, while English syllables fluctuate in length. The
difference is only milliseconds, but it's enough to be
Naturally, it doesn't stand out to those who grew up surrounded
by Miami English. Many Miamians are surprised to be told their
English sounds ``non-standard.''
Michelle Antelo, who's always lived in Miami, said high school
teammates on a competitive cheerleading squad in Broward County
were the first to tell her she spoke differently.
``They would always do that thing that people ask you to do when
you're from another country, like, `Oh, say toilet,''' Antelo
recalled. She couldn't hear the difference for herself.
The Miami dialect is usually subtle, but in the viral
YouTube video ``Sh(asterisk)(asterisk) Miami Girls Say''
actors drop full-on twangy vowels and exaggerated sing-song
Latino rhythm and intonation, while peppering their speech with
colloquialisms like ``irregardless” and ``supposably'' [not
words in English]. This may be an exaggeration but maybe not by
Not everyone in Miami speaks like the YouTube actors. As
with any regional dialect in North America, those in the “upper
classes” tend to sound closer to the standard accepted English,
while the “lower classes” tend to have stronger regional and
This range in dialect isn't unique to Miami. It occurs whenever
two languages have come into sustained contact. What makes
Miami's language evolution extremely rare is how quickly it took
Miami has always been home to Latin American immigrants, but the
first sizable wave arrived from Cuba during the 1960s,
followed by the Mariel influx of the 1980s and then the
balseros of the 1990s. They were joined by political
refugees fleeing regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela
and by immigrants from Colombia and México and
other countries to the south.
Immigrants overwhelmed the city's population so quickly that
before long children growing up in Miami were learning English
from people who were not native English speakers themselves.
This led to a number of nonnative features like Spanish vowels
and ``L'' sounds being incorporated into the language.
But it's wrong to think of Miami English as broken English or
one that is less correct than the English spoken in other parts
of the United States ``I think it's unfortunate that speakers
harbor a sense of shame or embarrassment or misinformation about
their native dialect,'' Carter said.
Every dialect has its own particular heritage, and no one
dialect is more correct than another. ``Real English is spoken
right here in Miami. This is it,'' Carter added.
Despite this, misconceptions of ``correct'' and ``incorrect''
speech still exist—sometimes to the detriment of those who speak
the Miami dialect. Many people believe that ``Standard American
English'' sounds like the English spoken in the heartland and
not speaking this standard can be an obstacle in the
For actor Cedric Dumornay, at least it has not been an
insurmountable one. He became aware of the Miami sound only
after he won a monologue contest. When he met the contest's
producer in Los Angeles, he was told that he would be typecast
only for Caribbean or Latino roles because of the way he spoke.
``She said, `If you really want to work in this industry, you
have to be able to do a general American accent,'?" Dumornay
explained. So he began taking classes with Lisa Jeffery, an
accent reduction coach based in Miami.
Jeffery teaches people to speak with a standard US-American
accent. In other words, to switch their Miami sound off,
temporarily. Most of her clients come for professional reasons.
They include businesspeople, lawyers, broadcasters and actors.
The Miami dialect can strike non-Miamians as ``cutesy-wootsy,''
in Jeffery's words. People tend to associate it with what has
made Miami globally famous—its vivacious, sexy, South Beach
culture. ``Now that's perfect for young girls who are going to
party on South Beach because it is so cute. . But once they get
jobs and they become professionals, it's not so popular,''
23, moved to Miami from Argentina when he was 10. He
thinks his Argentine accent had faded and been replaced by the
Miami accent. He sees the accent as a mark of the unique mix of
cultures found in Miami.
``I guess when I hear someone with the Miami accent I think of
the diversity,'' Espinosa said. ``I think of how cultured Miami
An accent—and the stereotypes associated with it—can prejudice a
listener against the speaker, even unconsciously. A 2010 study
by the University of Chicago found that US-Americans are
less likely to trust people with accents that sound foreign.
To non-Miamians, the Miami dialect can sound foreign, or at
least unprofessional. Jeffery is sometimes directly contacted by
employers asking her to reduce their employees' accents, which
can make them seem overly cute and diffident.
People with accented speech can even be held to a higher
standard. Listeners tend to notice the ``gonnas'' and
``wannas'' of accented speakers more often than those of
people who speak the standard US-American dialect. She tells her
clients to watch their contractions, and to speak more
grammatically correct than the average US-American.
Learning to speak Standard US-American English has helped
Dumornay get more roles, and has let him avoid being mistaken
for a foreigner.
Antelo, an actor with a job in real estate, said she doesn't
think her accent will jeopardize her career. She said it can
even make her a more interesting person when she walks into a
``I think having a Hispanic giveaway, so they can see I have a
kind of culture to me, makes me more interesting, just by me
opening my mouth. So I think it's like putting seasoning on a
steak,'' Antelo explained.
Carter hopes to undertake a large-scale study of the Miami
dialect, which would involve interviewing about 100 speakers of
different age groups and backgrounds. To him, the Miami dialect
is at the core of the city's culture.
``Can you imagine your own identity without your language?''
Carter asked. ``The answer is probably no. So it is a
fundamental, quintessential part of who we are.''
For any region or culture, language reflects a group's identity
and social history. The Miami dialect, which will continue to
evolve as demographic and social groups shift, is part and
parcel of the area's unique history, a feature that will
continues to be shaped by the city's story.
``Language,'' Carter said, ``is the cornerstone of human
Alicia Zuckerman, Gabriella Watts, Isabel Echarte, Julia Duba
and Karelia Arauz of WLRN/Miami Herald News and Miami Herald
staff writer Ana Veciana-Suarez contributed to this article.
Information from: WLRN-FM,