Clues to Shifting Latino Identity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Dec 5 13:20:06 UTC 2002

New York Times, December 5, 2002

In Simple Pronouns, Clues to Shifting Latino Identity


    New York City has long been a laboratory for the study of language, a
petri dish in which dialects mingle and collide, where linguists have
lurked incognito in department stores, luring unwitting natives into
blurting out revealing phrases like, say, "Fourth Floor." For many years,
scholarly interest in New York language focused on indigenous varieties of
English, the most notorious being Noo Yawkese. But as the city's
demographics have shifted, scholars have turned their attention to such
things as Spanglish and the nature of New York Spanish.

Now a team of linguists is studying the consequences of the collision of
Spanish dialects in New York, looking not only at how that contact is
affecting the Spanish spoken but also at what the outcome might suggest
about the evolution of Latino identity in the city and beyond. If they
find dialects converging, they say, it may signal the rise of a New York
Spanish and perhaps signify an eventual convergence of identities too. If
they find the dialects unchanged, it might imply that the contact between
different groups is fueling an urge to remain distinct.

"The question is what does this say about the unity of Latinos in the next
generation?" said Ana Celia Zentella, a professor of ethnic studies at the
University of California at San Diego and one of the researchers in the
New York study. "And what do these language accommodations mean for the
future of Spanish in New York in particular and in the United States in
general? "When you think that the United States is the fifth largest
Spanish-speaking nation in the world and New York has more Spanish
speakers than 13 Latin American capitals, you begin to appreciate the
dimensions of the linguistic and cultural hybridity that's taking place."

Oddly enough, what the researchers are studying is a linguistic feature
that may look insignificant at first glance: the use or nonuse of subject
pronouns. But it is one of those tiny details in science, like the finch's
beak in the study of evolution, that occasionally illuminate something
profound. The use of subject pronouns in Spanish has long been of interest
to linguists. (There is an entire book on so-called subject expression
among Spanish speakers in Madrid.) In English, the subject of a sentence
is always expressed; in Spanish it can be, and often is, left out.

For example, where an English speaker would say "We sing," a Spanish
speaker could say either "Nosotros cantamos" or simply "Cantamos."
Linguists say Spanish speakers from the Caribbean tend to use a lot of
pronouns; people from Central and South American countries use them less.
"What makes New York City interesting, and why we grabbed this issue, is
that New York contains people from areas that differ with respect to this
feature," said Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York and a researcher on the project.

"It's interesting to compare Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans with the
Mexicans, who use few pronouns," he said. "And communities are different
in their exposure to English. The Mexican community in New York is new;
the Puerto Rican community is well settled." The language of New Yorkers
has often attracted attention. In a seminal piece of field work back in
1962, the sociolinguist William Labov stationed himself in department
stores, asking directions, and elucidated the class differences in the way
New Yorkers pronounce that inimitable after-a-vowel R. (The clerks serving
the more affluent shoppers in upscale Saks said "fawth flaw" far less
frequently than their peers at a discount store.)

But the city has changed. Latinos are more numerous and more diverse. They
make up 27 percent of the city's population. And while nearly
three-quarters of New York Latinos in 1990 came from Puerto Rico, the
Dominican Republic and Cuba, that group's share has dropped to 57 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans in New York City tripled during the
1990's to nearly 187,000, according to the 2000 census. The number of
Ecuadoreans rose by nearly 30 percent, to 101,000.  Other large groups
include Colombians, Peruvians and Central Americans.

"Language is a window into people's views of themselves vis-a-vis the
dominant group and vis-a-vis the other groups that they're often lumped
with," said Professor Zentella, who, with a Puerto Rican mother and a
Mexican father, grew up knowing that words like frijoles and habichuelas
expressed more than beans. "People will often use their particular
regional variety of Spanish as a flag, emblematic of their national
origin," she said. "But there are other times in which they refer to
Spanish as the unifier of a much larger, disparate group of people across
different class and ethnic and national backgrounds."

Professor Zentella describes herself as "an anthropolitical linguist" who
studies what happens when people from different groups converge. Among
other things, she has studied Spanglish, which she sees as "a way of
making a graphic statement about having a foot in both cultural worlds."
She has also studied forms of pronunciation that are stigmatized, assumed
by others to be lower class and therefore incorrect. "Some things get
tagged as markers that then carry a lot of social weight," she said.
"That's how groupness is conveyed through language."

Professor Otheguy has spent years studying the influence of English on New
York Spanish, exploring the significance of English phrases that end up
being translated word for word into Spanish, and of so-called loan words
that are borrowed from English to express ideas that may not be expressed
in Spanish. For example, he said, early Spanish-speaking settlers in New
York were mostly from the Caribbean, so they took "the winter vocabulary
of English," creating words for things like steam, coat and boiler words
that are spoken rather than written but that resemble their English

"Many times the loan takes place even though there is a word that's usable
and perfectly accessible to the people who borrow the English word," he
said. "So it isn't simply a matter of filling a gap because the gap ain't
there. The person knows a Spanish word and uses both of them." So far,
Professors Otheguy and Zentella and graduate students working on the
pronoun study have interviewed some 120 Spanish-speaking New Yorkers,
including 20 each who were born in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican
Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, or whose parents were born there.

Each group of 20 includes a range of people from different social classes,
degrees of education and exposure to English. Some have had a lot of
contact with others from their place of birth; some have had relatively
little. They have lived in New York for varying lengths of time. None were
told the precise nature of the research, just that it entailed documenting
the experiences of Latino immigrants in New York. They were asked about
their background, their childhood, their experiences anything to get them
to relax and keep talking.

Every interview was then transcribed, with every verb that could have had
a pronoun highlighted in boldface. Each verb has been coded as to whether
a pronoun was used and each interview is being analyzed to identify what
factors predict pronoun use and how they differ between groups. Findings
are expected next year. If linguistic behavior is an indication of
identity, a merging of dialects might suggest a merging of identities,
Professor Otheguy said. It could suggest that Latinos in New York are
thinking of themselves less as members of national groups than they did in
the past and more as members of a broader community.

But people also use language to distinguish themselves from others. "So
the possibility may be that the contact with other Hispanics does not
create a sense of Hispanic fraternity but just the opposite," he said. "It
creates a sense of wanting to be not mistaken for Mexican or Cuban. `I
want to be Ecuadorean.' So that's the alternative."

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