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.
Of course, 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 non-standard accents.
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 place.
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 Mexico 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 professional world.
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 Hispanic 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 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,” Jeffery said.
Nicolas Espinosa, 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 is.”
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 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 American dialect. She tells her clients to watch their contractions, and to speak more grammatically correct than the average American.
Learning to speak Standard 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 casting office.
“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 experience.”
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.