Spanish in the City

What’s behind an ongoing change to the Spanish spoken by New Yorkers?


Pronouns are on the rise in New York City.

Not English ones, mind you. In English, personal pronouns like I, you, and me are obligatory, meaning we have to use them if we want to talk about ourselves and the people around us without sounding like those irritating pro athletes who enjoy referring to themselves in the third person.

But Spanish pronouns work differently. In many contexts, they can be—and very often are—omitted. Yo bailo and tú bailas mean, respectively, I dance and you dance, but so do bailo and bailas. And in contexts like these, where personal pronouns are optional, it seems New Yorkers are opting to use them more often.

In a recent study, Naomi Lapidus Shin of the University of New Mexico and Ricardo Otheguy of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York analyze interviews with 140 Spanish-speaking Latinos living in New York City. (The original dataset was developed by Otheguy and Ana Celia Zentella.)

The researchers find that Latinos who are relatively new to the city use these pronouns about 30 percent of the time. But those who have been in the city for at least five years (or who moved to the city as youngsters) use them 35 percent of the time—about a 15 percent increase. The shift is even larger for some Latinos: Colombians and Cubans, whose communities tend to be more affluent. It’s also larger for women.

What’s going on? Why, within about five years of moving to the city—and certainly within a generation—do pronouns become more enticing? For some Latinos, the shift might arise from contact with other Spanish speakers, some of whom hail from regions that use more pronouns than others. But another promising explanation involves a different language that runs rampant in the Big Apple: English.

Recall that pronouns are obligatory in English. As newcomers to the city encounter the language and its speakers on a daily basis, some English-like tendencies may creep into their Spanish. Specifically, in contexts where Spanish speakers could take a pronoun as easily as leave it, exposure to pronoun-happy English may make them likelier to take it. (And indeed, higher rates of pronoun use are associated with better English abilities.)

Contact with English can also explain who the linguistic innovators—those driving the shift in pronoun use—tend to be. Wealthy Latino communities have more innovators than poorer ones, perhaps because their members have broader social networks that include more contact with English speakers and English-Spanish bilinguals. Innovators are also overly represented among women. This is not entirely unexpected. For one reason or another, women tend to be at the vanguard of lots of different language changes. But in this particular case, women also have more contact with US-born bilingual speakers—including their own children.

So pronouns are proliferating in New York, and researchers have some idea why. But do the Spanish speakers propagating this change do so knowingly? Probably not, Shin told me in an email.

Still, other patterns of pronoun use are more conspicuous. Dominicans, says Shin, have a distinct habit of placing personal pronouns before a verb when asking wh-questions like where and why—a feature other Latinos sometimes adopt when imitating Dominican speech. Shin also points to “Central Americans who use the pronoun vos in their home countries (e.g., Hondurans, Salvadorans) and then switch to [the second-person pronoun used by the majority of Spanish speakers in the states] in the U.S.” These speakers nonetheless hold onto vos for “very specific contexts”—such as fixed phrases like fijate vos (roughly, Listen to this)—“that become emblematic of their identity.”

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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