Like, uptalk, and Miami

I’ll start with a three-strip series from One Big Happy:




The two features at issue here — the discourse particle like and “uptalk” (a high rising intonation at the end of declaratives) — have been much discussed in the linguistic literature. The popular, but inaccurate, perception is that both are characteristic of young people, especially teenagers, especially girls, and both features are the object of much popular complaint.

(Hat tip to Bonnie and Ed Campbell.)

Then, from Sim Aberson, links to two stories from radio station WLRN in Miami, in a series on the accents of Miami: “Miami Accents: How ‘Miamah’ Turned Into A Different Sort Of Twang” by Gabriella Watts (August 26th) and “Miami Accents: Why Locals Embrace That Heavy “L” Or Not” by Patience Haggin (August 27th). The first of these focuses on features of Spanish that have spread in Miami, after 50 years of waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the area. The second focuses on features that contribute to outsiders’ impressions that Miami speech sounds both foreign and feminine — concluding that

In addition to the pronunciation features that pervade their speech, Miamians tend to pepper their sentences with “likes” and end them in “upspeak,” making statements sound like questions. These features can make speakers seem unconfident and overly cute — in short, unprofessional.

(and thus calling for accent-reduction coaching).

The first has a YouTube video with an exaggerated performance of Miami-speak (by a young woman, of course) and then an inventory of “non-native features in Miami English”:

First, vowel pronunciation. In Spanish, there are five vowel sounds. In English, there are eleven. Thus, you have words like “hand,” with the long, nasal “A” sound, pronounced more like hahnd because the long “A” does not exist in Spanish.

While most consonants sound the same in Spanish and English, the Spanish “L” is heavier, with the tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth more so than in English. This Spanish “L” pronunciation is present in Miami English.

The rhythms of the two languages are also different. In Spanish, each syllable is the same length, but in English, the syllables fluctuate in length. This is a difference in milliseconds, but they cause the rhythm of Miami English to sound a bit like the rhythm of Spanish.

Finally, “calques” are phrases directly translated from one language to another where the translation isn’t exactly idiomatic in the other language. For example, instead of saying, “let’s get out of the car,” someone from Miami might say, “let’s get down from the car” because of the Spanish phrase bajar del coche.

Now, on that “heavy L” — a piece of lay terminology that was unfamiliar to me. Spanish /l/ differs in two ways from Standard American English /l/: (1) SAE /l/ is apical alveolar (with the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge), while Spanish /l/ is laminal alveolar, often labeled dental (articulated on the alveolar ridge with the blade of the tongue just above the tip); (2) SAE /l/ is velarized in certain contexts (as in both liquids in loll), while Spanish /l/ lacks this velarization in all contexts. (Somewhat confusingly, the tradition in phonetics and phonology is to term velarized /l/ dark and the unvelarized variant light.) From the description above, I gather that “heavy L” is laminal. (On the other hand, /t d n/ are also laminal in Spanish but apical in English, but no one seems to have commented on that feature in Miami.)

5 Responses to “Like, uptalk, and Miami”

  1. ebakovic Says:

    Arnold — what reference do you have for /l/ being laminal (or dental) in Spanish? The work I’m familiar with makes it clear that /t d/ are dental while /l n r rr/ are (apico-)alveolar (unless, in the case of /l n/, they assimilate to the following consonant). /s/ is also usually classified as alveolar, though I’ve always assumed that this varies from person to person, as it does for English.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh alas, I was recollecting a generalization from a long time ago, and should have gone back to sources. Now the question is what the /l/ of Miami English is like phonetically.

  2. Charles Kisseberth Says:

    hi arnold
    the musical equivalent of uptalk, upsinging, is clearly not a matter of youth… i collect recordings of live performances of Bob Dylan with the same obsessiveness as i collect tonal patterns in Bantu languages, and there was a period in the middle of the first decade of this century where he frequently lapsed into upsinging… i found it annoying but thankfully he has gotten through that period… i had thought that it must be a function of what age and abuse of his throat had done, but the fact that he no longer does it casts doubt on that explanation… anyhow, i enjoy your blog

  3. Alon Says:

    @ebakovic: I don’t think most contrastive English/Spanish textbooks (e.g., this one) discuss this distinction, but (as a native speaker of Rioplatense Spanish) I do have the feeling that my intervocalic /l/ tends to be more laminal in that language than in English. In other environments, of course, it assimilates.

    The realisation of Spanish /s/ is very much dialect-dependent. The characteristic Castilian version is definitely apico-alveolar, but in the Americas it can be dental (as in some Mexican dialects), alveolar (as in Rioplatense) or anything in between, and is not always apical.

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