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 Hispanic 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 Americans. It can be heard in the way they drag the “Ls” in “Lauderdale” or “literally.”
Rhythm 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 noticeable.
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** Miami Girls Say” actors drop full-on twangy vowels and exaggerated sing-song Hispanic rhythm and intonation, while peppering their speech with colloquialisms like “irregardless” and “supposably.” This may be an exaggeration but maybe not by much.