Press Release: NYC’s Spanish Speakers Go with the Flow

The melting pot of New York City, where Latinos comprise nearly a third of the population, has produced “a significant change” in the way the city’s Spanish speakers express themselves, according to a new linguistic study from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Instead of speaking in the habitual style of their countries of origin, Spanish speakers from the Caribbean and the Latin American Mainland, especially the city’s second-generation Latinos, are accommodating each other’s speech patterns as measured by the way they use pronouns. This mutual convergence is not entirely balanced, but rather tilts in the direction of Caribbean Spanish. Further, the widespread bilingualism of Latinos born and raised in the city has resulted in a Spanish usage influenced by English.

“If pronoun use is any indication,” says the lead author of the study, Ricardo Otheguy, a linguistics professor at the Graduate Center, “Spanish in New York is being leveled. As a result, it is being differentiated from the language that Spanish speakers brought to the city.”

The six-year study, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is based upon a quantitative analysis of linguistic and demographic variables among 142 Latinos from the city’s six largest Spanish-speaking communities. The Caribbeans were from Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The Mainlanders were from Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico.

The study has been published in the December issue of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America and the most widely known journal in the field. Otheguy’s co-authors are Ana Celia Zentella, formerly at Hunter College, CUNY, now at the University of California / San Diego; and David Livert, at Pennsylvania State University / Lehigh Valley.

The “urban youth culture, in which Caribbeans play a leading role,” has encouraged the adoption of “Caribbean ways of speaking,” the study notes, which helps account for the tilt toward Caribbean pronoun usage. The authors of the study also speculate that the association of Caribbean speech with popular “cultural forms, such as Caribbean music … may have had positive social value during the formative years” of NYC-born and –raised Spanish speakers.

Other likely factors accounting for the “local prestige” of Caribbean speech include -- as might be expected -- the Caribbean population’s much longer residence and larger numbers than other Latino groups in the city, as well as “the higher rank of Caribbeans” in many work settings and their “greater experience with, and knowledge of, city life.”

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of the City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs, as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to twenty-nine interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns. Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, the Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events. Further information on the Graduate Center and its programs can be found at

Submitted on: JAN 1, 2008

Category: Press Room