Add a unique English dialect to the many things this sunny city is known for.
November 29, 2023 at 7:00 am EST
What Valdez experienced hinted at something bigger—an English dialect that had formed over decades of Latino migration to Miami. The new arrivals and their children learned English through direct translation of Spanish phrases – and this became a distinct local dialect.
Now, thanks to a study released this spring, Miami — known for its beaches, basketball team and tumultuous weather and politics — is getting recognition and validation for its unique use of the English language.
In Miami, people don’t “line up”, they “make” the queue (from the Spanish “hacer la fila”). They are not “very” tired, they are “super” tired (“Estar súper cansado”). They don’t “get off” their cars, they “get off” their cars (“Bajarse del carro”).
This is a form of what experts call Miami English.
Various American dialects—a way of using a language with vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation specific to a particular region or group—are popular across the country.
In New England, “evil” is a substitute for “many.” Some New Yorkers say they stand “in” a line, not “in” a line. In some Jewish communities, to explain something “on one foot” means to give a direct answer, translating directly from the Hebrew “al regel achat” (or the Yiddish “af eyn fus”).
“There are many, many, many ways to speak American English and many regional, ethnic and social dialects,” said Philip M. Carter, a professor at Florida International University and lead author of a paper on the Miami dialect published in the journal English World Wide in May. “And this is just another addition to the tapestry.”
Miami culture is sometimes dismissed as “frivolous or unintellectual,” and that can seep into conversations about its dialect, Carter said. However, Miami stereotypes do not make the dialect that has developed over the years any less valid or grammatically complex than other dialects, according to Carter.
Carter’s study went viral on social media and caught the attention of both Miami locals and a national audience.
In one Instagram post, the popular Only in Dade account asked its followers, “What’s the ‘Miami English’ phrase you say?” — and garnered more than 3,000 comments from Miami residents sharing their favorite examples of the slang.
In Miami English, one commenter noted, a restaurant server will know you want beef if you order an empanada with “meat.” (“In Spanish, ‘carne’ can refer to any meat as well as beef specifically,” Carter said.)
Another thing: telling someone to turn right is spoken as “Make a right”. This is a direct translation of “haga una derecha”, as derecha in Spanish means both to go straight and to turn right.
The study intrigued people because it validated their experiences, Carter said.
“I think they care about it because people are tired of being told that the way they speak is not real, illegitimate, inappropriate, or not part of the United States language scene,” he said.
Carter, a native of North Carolina, has spent the past decade researching the unique variety of English spoken in Miami.
The mass flight of Cubans to the city after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, along with Latin American immigrants from other countries, didn’t just change the city. It also changed the way its residents spoke, he found.
English in Miami is a nod to the city’s Spanish-speaking roots, part of the city’s role as one of the nation’s largest immigration centers, said Harvard University professor Americo Mendoza-Mori, a professor of Latino studies at Harvard University who completed his Ph.D. University of Miami.
As the country grows more diverse, Miami is a leader in its thriving Latino population. According to 2020 census data, nearly 7 in 10 people in Miami-Dade County are Hispanic or Latino, the most populous Hispanic-majority county in the United States.
“Miami is probably the most diverse Hispanic city, maybe in the world, just based on the number of different kinds of Spanish language varieties or dialects that are used here,” Carter said. The distinct Miami dialect draws from these Spanish dialects and expressions to create Miami English, he said.
Along with their own dialect, Miamians also have a unique accent with their “long vowels” and specific idioms that have been emphasized and lovingly tweaked by its speakers over the years. (An accent is a variation in the pronunciation of words.)
Miami English “borrows” Spanish idioms, which are then translated directly into English.
This phenomenon is based on what linguists call “kalki” – the borrowing of phrases that are native from one language to another.
For example, “Sofía se casó con Rafael” would translate directly to “Sofía marries Rafael” instead of the conventional grammatical “Sofía marries Rafael” because in Spanish you marry with someone, no to someone.
People learning English for the first time often rely on these loans to learn a new language. However, when these idioms are translated directly, they can sometimes sound illiterate or “ungrammatical” to the ears of English speakers.
But Miami’s situation is remarkable, Carter said. The use of chalk was passed down from immigrants to second- and third-generation Americans, meaning people who grew up speaking English as a first language at the same time—or even before—they learned Spanish.
Although his study focused on Cuban Americans and Cuban immigrants, Carter said his team has heard anecdotes about other immigrant groups in Miami adopting the dialect, including those who are not of Latin American descent.
This would make sense, Carter explains, because dialect is mostly learned by peers.
Marta Valdez is a second generation Miami native. Her family immigrated from Cuba and then founded Valsan, a well-known local department store in South Florida.
Her small business, Martha of Miami, sells clothing with sayings and items specific to Miami.
“I feel like when you say you’re from Miami, people automatically assume you live on the beach, that you have a tan, that you spend all day going down Ocean Drive,” Valdez said.
But for Miami Latinos, Valdez says, the reality is the greater Miami area and the Hispanic culture that comes with it.
“For us, what Miami is is reaching every corner and there’s a Cuban bakery everywhere you go,” she said. “Going to la ventanita and la ventanita being full of old housing when they came to Miami in 1980 or 1960, before Fidel or after; the lady behind the counter had a bit of an attitude because she just came from Cuba – that’s Miami.
Harvard’s Mendoza-Mori noted that companies based in Latin America often prefer to do business in Miami to avoid potential political or economic crises in their home countries.
This made Miami the unofficial capital of Latin American business development, which made the Spanish language and Spanish-based English dialects a key component of the city’s economic engine.
Latin-influenced dialects spoken by children, such as Miami English, have historically been discouraged by the US education system. However, these dialects are linguistically complex, despite the stigma attached to them, Mendoza-Mori said, along with other dialects such as African American Vernacular English.
The recent identification of dialect in higher education recognizes a particularly interesting soup created by generations of Latino immigration, legitimizing Latino Miamians when other systems have failed to do so, he said.
Ricardo Brown, a Cuban-American from Miami who hosts a Miami-based radio show on Actualidad Radio and has spent more than 40 years as an English- and Spanish-speaking journalist, said he has no doubt he speaks Miami English.
“I think I picked up the Miami dialect and I’m proud of it,” he said. He said he noticed a “huge difference” in expression when he interviewed Latinos from other American cities. “And I think it’s a good thing, you know. We are a multicultural country. I think that’s one of the things that’s great about the United States.