‘Get down from the car’: unique Miami dialect traced to Cuban influence

By Richard Luscumbe / The Guardian

Few would doubt Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution in Cuba transformed the look of Miami. The city’s vibrant Latin music and dance scene, thriving Cuban coffee bars, cigar shops, restaurants and colorful street art can all be credited to the wealth of culture that crossed the Florida Straits with the hundreds of thousands fleeing the island’s new communist regime.

Those changes, it turns out, also extend to the way Miami sounds. According to linguistic analysts at Florida International University’s center for the humanities in an urban environment, a new dialect has evolved blending Spanish meanings and English words into a colloquial form of language readily understood here by those who speak and hear it, but which just sounds “off” to the majority of English-speaking Americans.

Examples include people who say they are “getting down” from a vehicle, instead of getting out; “making a party” instead of hosting one; and “throwing a photograph” as opposed to simply taking it.

The dialect incorporates what linguists call “calques”, or “borrowed translations” from a speaker’s native language directly into another, such as the literal translation of the Spanish phrase “hacer una fiesta” into “to make a party” in English, or “casarse con”, meaning to be married with someone, not married to.

It’s a different concept, the researchers say, from the more familiar, so-called Spanglish or Franglais hybrid of single words or short phrases melded from two separate languages.

Instead, what has happened in Miami, notably since waves of Spanish-speaking Cuban immigrants began arriving after the revolution in their homeland six decades ago, has been a gradual assimilation from their Spanish phraseology into a widely understood local parlance in English.

“We really learn our language not from our families, but from speech communities around us,” said Phillip Carter, FIU professor of English and linguistics and affiliate of the university’s Cuban Research Institute, who led the research.

“What happens when the speech community is majority foreign born, as in the case of Miami where it’s about 65%, you have people responsible for caregiving, nannies, schoolteachers, children in the classroom, reinforcing those language patterns, and that’s kind of how it enters the language.

“The forms are very close to the regular forms anyway, it’s not like it’s actually shifting to Spanish. It sounds like English, they’re English words, just rendered a little bit differently. For that reason they kind of fly, people here don’t bat an eyelid, but to people from the outside, in conversation, a little flag might go up.

“You know what it means in context, but you can’t quite put your finger on why it sounds odd.”

Other parts of the dialect rely less on direct translation, and more on the familiarity among Cuban Americans of accepted, albeit ambiguous meanings. As an example, Carter cites the use of the generic word “meat”.

“In Spanish, ‘carne’ can refer to both all meat, or specifically to beef,” he said. “We discovered local speakers saying meat to mean beef, as in ‘I’ll have one meat empanada and two chicken empanadas.’”

Carter’s team concluded that the first waves of Cuban immigration were “just the beginning” of the process, with second-, third- and fourth-generation Cuban Americans, and now immigrants from other South and Central American countries in the Miami area, continuing its evolution.

“At this stage, we’re already 50-60 years into it,” he said.

“Immigration from Cuba has accelerated through the 2000s to today, and also because Cubans set up south Florida as a place where you can go and be Latinx, Latino, Latina, be Hispanic, and also maintain Spanish, it meant that when there was the civil war in Nicaragua, Nicaraguans came here; when there was political turmoil in Colombia in the 1980s, Colombians came here.

“So Miami became a site of immigration from the 1959 revolution to the present, and it hasn’t stopped. English language learners are continually introducing those types of forms into speech communities.”

For the research report, compiled with the language expert Kristen D’Alessandro Merii from the University of Buffalo, New York, a former FIU student, Carter spoke with several generations of Cuban immigrants and Cuban Americans, including college students identifying as Latinx and born in Miami who speak English more than Spanish.

“There are immigrants most proficient in Spanish and may have some proficiency or understanding of spoken English, and people like fourth-generation Cuban Americans who may have some passing understanding of Spanish if they don’t speak it, and are really proficient in English,” he said.

“And there’s a lot of variation that’s going on in the speech community like Miami. When you have two languages spoken by most of the population, you’re going to have a lot of interesting language contact happening.”

Carter said he intends to expand the research to look at different regions of Florida and other states where there are large Spanish-speaking immigrant populations, and also to other nationalities in the Miami area.

“I got a note from a Haitian American lady, who pointed out that in French they also say ‘get down’ from a car,” he said.

“It shows there’s more research to be done with speech communities here that are not of Spanish-speaking background, including Haitian Creole and French.”