An Introduction to the Puerto Rican dialect
“I’m nice but I have a razor situated under my tongue” is what I jokingly say about my no-nonsense attitude that makes its way through my speech when anyone has any sort of coraje to disrespect me or my people. It was sharpened and ready to verbally slash the white American student who told me that she could not understand Puerto Ricans because it was like the “ghetto version of Spanish.” I didn’t slash her. Instead, I told her that Puerto Ricans speak perfectly Puerto Rican.
You see, personally I don’t speak “perfectly” Puerto Rican nor do I speak perfectly Dominican. But I do simultaneously speak the two together, perfectly. I’ll throw a strict Dominican”vaina” into the very middle of a Puerto Rican refrán so deeply Boricua that it even smells like Tembleque and sounds like the cuatro. I get teased, occasionally scolded, for refusing to choose one but both are a part of my essence, and I playfully call that essence “Mangú con Alcapurrias”. When that girl had the audacity to call Puerto Rican Spanish “ghetto” I was deeply offended but not surprised.
Antiblackness seeps through turned up noses and verbal reactions like “huh? you guys don’t know how to pronounce” when non-Puerto Ricans and non-Dominicans feel the need to degrade upon hearing a Puerto Rican and/ or Dominican speak. I counted to ten when that girl told me that a part of my existence was “ghetto.” Then I smiled and politely told her “No sweetheart, Puerto Rican Spanish is not ‘ghetto.’ Puerto Rican Spanish is unique and perfectly Puerto Rican.” But after the fifth person to suggest that Puerto Rican Spanish was unacceptable and less prestigious than other dialects of Spanish its time to explain just why Puerto Rican Spanish is perfectly Puerto Rican and absolutely prestigious. Let’s dispel some assumptions and ignorance about a general Puerto Rican dialect:
DO PUERTO RICANS ROLL THEIR Rs?
Vamos a ponernos claros, Puerto Ricans do roll the ‘r’ indeed, but not always and certainly not as often or as strong as some other dialects, but not because Puerto Ricans can’t. The Africans who were enslaved in Puerto Rico overwhelmingly did not have a strong “r” in their native languages so when the Africans were forced to learn Spanish it was difficult for them to roll the ‘r’. This ended up becoming the standard, not because it was difficult but because it was more popular and had become standard. This is why there are instances where Puerto Ricans do not roll or pronounce the “r” as strong as other Spanish speakers. Examples:
PUERTO RICO is often pronounced PUELTO RRICO (it’s never pronounced PUELTO LICO as many non-Puerto Ricans tease).
SUERTE is often pronounced closely to SUELTE…but
CARRO is indeed pronounced CARRO (not CARO or CALO)
Usually the ‘r’ sound transforms into an ‘l’ sound when a single ‘r’ comes after a ‘ue’ or when it is at the end of some words. At times when a Puerto Rican says “vamos a ver” it may sound like “vamo’ a vel ” …..but what about the ‘s’ in vamos?
WHY DO PUERTO RICANS FORGET ABOUT THE LETTER S?
They don’t. Many of the Spaniards that came to colonize Puerto Rico were from the Canary Islands and Andalucia, Spain where the ‘s’ at the end of words has been dropped since before Spanish was actually developed into an actual language. The ‘s’ in Puerto Rico is always pronounced when the word begins with an ‘s’, however depending on the word, the ‘s’ in the middle of a sentence is also often dropped or “weakened”.
LOS NIÑOS is often pronounced LOH NIÑO
HERMANASTRA is often pronounced HERMANATRA
VISTE is often pronounced VITE
But SEMILLA is never pronounced ‘EMILLA because semilla begins with the letter ‘s’
BUT WHY DOES SEMILLA SOUND LIKE SEMI-JAH? There’s no English J in the word.
The ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sounds that can be compared to an English ‘j’ at times actually vary per word and even pueblo. The harsh English ‘j’ sound that they both can produce come from the exact same sound that existed in many African languages that were brought to Puerto Rico.
YAUCO is often pronounced closely to JOWCO but can also be softer and pronounced as YOWCO
MAYAGUEZ is almost never pronounced as harsh as MAJAGUEZ
LLUVIA is pronounced both YUVIA and JEWVIA depending on pueblo or region
JUEYES is often pronounced JUE-JES but also as a softer JUE-YES
The harshness found in the ‘ll’ and ‘y’ letters in various words comes from the African influence on the language of Puerto Rico, but not all Puerto Rican Spanish is spoken harshly, especially when describing the “jíbaro” accent. In fact, the same girl who told me Puerto Ricans spoke “ghetto” also said we sounded “lazily.”
Sometimes Puerto Ricans don’t pronounce ‘d’. DO PUERTO RICANS SPEAK LAZILY?
No. Puerto Ricans don’t speak lazily. Puerto Ricans speak like Taínos. The Taínos are the indigenous original people of Puerto Rico. The Taíno language is a very softly pronounced language and does not require harsh enunciation in order to pronounce. Often when there is a ‘d’ in between the vowels ‘a’ and ‘o’ in a Spanish word, the ‘d’ is dropped or “softened” by Puerto Ricans. The same phenomenon happens when the ‘d’ is between two ‘a’s but in a different way. The ‘d’ is also often dropped when a word ends in ‘d’.
ENAMORADO is pronounced like ENAMORA’O
GUISADO is pronounced like GUISA’O
GUISADA is often pronounced like GUISA
VERDAD can be pronounced like VELDA’ or VE’DA’
The first two examples regarding the words “enamorado” and “guisado” can also be heard throughout regions around Sevilla, Spain but this phenomenon is more popular in Puerto Rico than it is in Spain.
Taíno words include; Tanama (butterfly), Ana (flower), Yaya (creator/God), Caney (elder) and they are all words that require less enunciation in order to pronounce.
IS PUERTO RICAN SENTENCE STRUCTURE WRONG?
No. Puerto Rican sentence structure and rhythm mimic the sentence structure of some African languages that were brought to Puerto Rico. A similar structure is found in the Ashanti tribe and other languages of Nigeria like Yoruba, as documented by linguists who study the Puerto Rican dialect/ language. Some sentence structures throughout the Puerto Rican dialect can also be found in the English spoken in the United States.
Non-Puerto Rican dialects may formulate the sentence “What are you doing?” to “Que haces tú?” whereas in Puerto Rico it is often popular to hear “Que tú haces?” The subject and verbs are sometimes switched to formulate sentences in Puerto Rico in comparison to other dialects and people.
WHY DO PUERTO RICANS MAKE UP WORDS THAT SOUND LIKE ENGLISH WORDS WITH A SPANISH TWIST?
Every single group of Latina/os uses anglicismos or words that derive directly from English words and then sound like Spanish, not just Puerto Ricans. Puertorros in the United States and on the island have many due to the influence of the United States, colonization on the island, and migration from Puerto Rico to the United States. Anglicismos include words like bildin, parkear, rufo, and tripear. Due to early migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States, English has blended itself into Puerto Rican Spanish. This also why you can sometimes diferentiate Puerto Ricans raised in the United States apart from a Puerto Rican directamente de la isla by the speech.
While this article could continue on forever documenting and explaining the history behind every piece and part of Puerto Rican dialect I choose to end it reminding people who degrade Puerto Rican Spanish that Puerto Ricans do not speak the “ghetto version of Spanish.” Puerto Rican Spanish is no less acceptable than any other Spanish no matter what Univision or Telemundo may have you believe or what gringo professors who struggle to understand the dialect may say. Puerto Ricans speak exactly how Puerto Ricans should speak; a “sancochified” mixture of all things that ethnically and culturally make up a Puerto Rican. Cuando hablamos, nuestras raices brillan.