Do You Speak Miami? | God's World News

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Do You Speak Miami?

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    A customer walks into a CVS/pharmacy y mas (and more) store in Miami, Florida. These stores are staffed by bilingual workers and sell brands popular with Hispanic customers. (AP/Lynne Sladky)
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    A group of Cuban immigrants enjoys a game of dominoes in a small park in Miami’s Little Havana district in 1980. These men were mostly older when they came to the United States, and many never learned English. (AP/J.Scott Applewhite)
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    A sign welcomes visitors to the Little Havana area of Miami. The neighborhood got the name when many Cuban exiles settled there after fleeing Cuba during the revolution. (osseous/CC BY 2.0)
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    The Spanish and German words for “dandelion” are calques—direct translations. (AP/Michael Probst)
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    Languages change over time. The epic poem Beowulf is written in Old English. It’s very different from the language we speak today! (Public domain)
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“We got down from the car.”

“Her new shoes were que cute.”

Sound odd? Most English-speaking Americans would answer “yes.” But in South Florida, expressions like these have become local jargon—perhaps even their own dialect.

The Cuban Revolution ended in 1959. For years afterward, thousands of Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s communism to the United States. Ever since, Spanish and English speakers have co-existed in and around Miami.

Decades of translating back and forth encouraged the two groups to borrow words and phrases from each other—sometimes within the same sentence. This mash-up gave rise to so-called “Spanglish” . . . and restroom signs like “Please keep this baño clean” or the exclamation “Que [how] cute!”

All language learners tend to translate directly from their native tongues. Linguists call such translations “calques.”

Dandelion is a good example. When Germans didn’t have a word for the yellow flower, they consulted Latin botany books and found dens lionis—literal translation: “lion’s tooth.” The German calque for the flower was Löwenzahn (“lion” + “tooth”). The French didn’t have a word for the weed either, so they borrowed from German. Their calque for Löwenzahn became dent de lion. The English heard the French term, didn’t understand it, and used the sounds to form dandelion. Que cute!

English borrows—a lot. But sometimes it gives words to other languages. Skyscraper became rascacielos in Spanish and gratte-ciel in French (both literally “scrape-sky”).

Philip Carter studies spoken English in Miami. He conducted a study with linguist Kristen D’Allessandro Merii. They documented Spanish-origin calques in South Florida English. According to their research, many expressions are becoming part of a new dialect using various types of language borrowing.

For example, some Miamians use “get down from the car” instead of “get out of the car.” The phrase comes from the Spanish bajar del carro. Bajar means “to get down,” so it makes sense that they think of exiting a car as “getting down,” not “getting out.”

Some of the older, immigrant generation say “throw a photo,” from tirar una foto, as a variation of “take a photo.”

Most people know that Old English (Beowulf) is different from Middle English (Chaucer) is different from Early Modern English (Shakespeare) is different from present-day English. They also realize that London English sounds different from Atlanta, Cape Town, or Sydney English.

But few pause to think about the gradual and patchwork nature of how language adopts new words like pajamas (Hindi) and kindergarten (German).

“What’s happening in Miami,” Carter explains, “is how dialects are born.”

Que totally wunderbar!

The same Lord is Lord of all. — Romans 10:12

Why? Understanding that language is evolving gives valuable insight into other people and cultures—and makes us more tolerant of quirks in others’ language skills.

For more about the power of words, see Frindle by Andrew Clements in our Recommended Reading. 

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