Spanish Dialects in the Caribbean

Orlando Alba presented on the dialectic differences of the Caribbean Hispanic Islands for the Annual Barker Lecture in Language and Linguistics.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 17, 2016)—“Many researchers believe that the three Hispanic Antilles are comprised of an area that is linguistically similar, thus making it possible to speak Antillean Spanish as a single dialect, but that is not true,” said BYU professor of Spanish Orlando Alba.

Alba presented his lecture “La identidad dialectal de las islas hispánicas del caribe (Linguistic Identity of the Caribbean Hispanic Islands)” for this year’s Annual Barker Lecture. He is an expert in the linguistic identities of the Caribbean Hispanic Islands: the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Alba himself was born and raised in the Dominican Republic.

In his lecturescreen-shot-2016-11-22-at-10-47-11-am, Alba argued that although there are similarities in the linguistics of these three countries, each one has their own identity and particular way of speaking. This is evidenced by a Dominican humorist who imitates Puerto Ricans as part of his act. “We, Dominicans, we are a race that makes itself known wherever we go,” he said in a clip shared by Alba, alternating his accent periodically, thus demonstrating his linguistic identification as “different.” “Dominicans, we go to Puerto Rico and we speak like Puerto Ricans. We go over to Miami and we speak a mix of Puerto Rican and Cuban.”

The linguistic differentiation of these countries also depend on the education level and class of the person who is speaking. The more educated class of the three countries have a similar, Caribbean Spanish accent, while the lower classes have much more linguistic variation between the regions.

Even in low sociocultural examples from the different countries, the speech can sound similar. This, Alba explained, is because the countries differ by the frequency of linguistic traits. Alba used the example of the s. When there is an s inside of a word, 81 percent of Puerto Ricans pronounce it as an h as opposed to 29 percent of Dominicans. More common in the Dominican Republic, however, is omitting the s altogether, whether it is an internal s or it comes at the end of the word. In both positions, over 60 percent of Dominicans do not pronounce their s’s.

These dialectic differences extend to syntax (the ordering of words in a sentence) and lexicon. Alba referred to lexicon as the vocabulary of the island dialect. “Understandably, the presence of Anglicisms tend to be more intense in Puerto Rico than in the other islands where they are not commonly used. These borrowed words belong to the everyday vocabulary of Puerto Ricans: bill, break, brown, counter, dry cleaning, issue [and] laundry,” said Alba.

“Logically, there must be more similarities than differences,” he said. “After all, one cannot forget that the same language is spoken on the three islands. Therefore the differences in the way they speak on one island or another are contained within the Spanish language.”

Abla explained that although the forms of Spanish on the three islands have similar traits, that does not mean that they have a single linguistic identity. “There is evidence that the speakers are fully aware of their own national linguistic identity. For that reason, many are not only able to distinguish the way two citizens from other islands speak – they even caricaturize them and make fun of their linguistic differences,” he said. “This then ultimately means recognizing that they do not share the same way of speaking – that is, the same dialect.”

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Spanish and Portuguese Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.