I grew up in Miami thinking I spoke English “normally” (sans any discernible drawl or dialect)—the same way they spoke on Diff ’rent Strokes or The Brady Bunch. It wasn’t until I traveled that I was confronted with the fact that even I, an American-born kid, had some sort of funky Spanish accent. “Where are you from?” Middle Americans would ask.
Over the years, I began to notice that almost everyone I grew up with, typically second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans and other Hispanics, but also non-Hispanics, had that subtle Latin intonation. According to Florida International University linguistics professor Dr. Mehmet Yavas, this phenomenon is common in bilingual regions. “Non-Hispanic children going to school with Hispanic children and being taught by Spanish-English bilingual teachers pick up features not found in monolingual English-speaking places,” he says. Yet what my Miami friends and I have is more specific. Kids who grew up in places with ample Spanish speakers such as New York and Los Angeles don’t have quite the same thing going on, and the Mexican-American accent is similar yet unmistakably different.
Turns out the Miami accent is influenced by the predominance of Latin Americans from the Caribbean, where Spanish is strung together by pushing the tongue forward, closer to the front teeth, as opposed to the middle roof of the mouth. Yavas points out that in Miami’s bilingual environment the sequence of longer and shorter syllables, which gives English its “galloping rhythm,” is unknowingly superseded by the “staccato” or “machine gun” rhythm of Spanish speakers. This explains our unique twists of the tongue and why many of my non-Hispanic and Jewish friends here also speak with that unmistakable Miami accent.
What it means for Miamians like me, who venture beyond our unique surroundings, is that people think we’re sort of foreign. Funny, I never feel foreign in the 305, where everybody talks just like me.