On September 20th 2017 a Category 4 hurricane struck the island of Puerto Rico, leaving the 3.5 million people on the island without power, food, water, or communication. Today it has been approximately three weeks since the hurricane hit the island, many remain uncommunicated, without food or water, experts predict a massive exodus to mainland U.S, of around 100 000 to 200 000 citizens. What remains to be seen is whether the current situation on the island will change the way the United States and the English language has been historically perceived by islanders. It is with this in mind that I now reflect on the anthropological study I conducted in Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016.
At the the outset of this project, I had the intention of observing the role English played on the island. I was interested in observing the linguistic outcome of a 119 year old relationship with the United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Contemporary Puerto Rico is divided into three major political parties, all of which reflect a stance on the relationship between the island and mainland U.S.: independence, commonwealth, and statehood ideologies. At the very heart of this struggle for identity – or arriving at an concensus of what Puerto Rico is – is the issue of language. In the past, many politicians on the island have used language as a starting point to discussing the fate of Puerto Rico’s identity: Spanish is often treated as the most obvious signifier of Hispanic heritage and thus authentic Puerto Rican identity, meanwhile English is treated as an outsider’s code, necessary in order to assimilate to a largely English-speaking United States. Some traditionalist scholars and teachers have suggested the co-existence of English alongside the local Spanish as detrimental to the purity of Spanish and Puerto Rican culture.
Inspired by ongoing talks of globalisation and Late Modernity, I was keen to see how technological advances and mobility altered the fabric of traditional language ideologies, as well as the very distribution of languages on the island. I was inspired by the post-structuralist work of sociolinguists such as Ben Rampton in the U.K. and Penelope Eckert in the U.S. and their moves towards incorporating anthropological methods to describing language in society. I saw ethnography as key to arriving at an accurate portrayal of the distribution of English on the island, its contextualised uses, and its social meaning. Beyond immediate political values attributed to the existence of English on the island, English simultaneously possesses an international currency as the language of technology, business, science, and higher education. Thus, the present study is my attempt at doing justice to the issue of the English language in Puerto Rico, considering all of its potential implications or social meanings – that is, “what it means to speak English in Puerto Rico”. This dissertation considers the understudied adolescent community: the future of Puerto Rico. With this dissertation I aim to represent the voices of the adolescents who so graciously gifted me with their time and their patience, and helped me accomplish my goal of conducting two school ethnographies in Puerto Rico. I dedicate this thesis to them.
As with any ethnography, the present research possesses the following setback: though a lot of work and time was invested in gathering data to give shape to this study, it still represents a snapshot of society at a particular moment in time. That is, if I were to conduct this same study on the same group of people today, I may not get the same results I once did when I first embarked on this journey in September 2015. This is especially true now, when the island not only faces the consequences of a crushing government debt and high unemployment rate (as it still did at the time of my observations), but now the struggle has become a new one: one of desperation and survival following the aftermath of a powerful natural disaster. Perhaps now, more than ever, English acquisiton will be perceived as a way out of the current state of affairs on the island. Only time will tell.
Friday, October 17 2017
I thought I would share my experiences as a speaker in one of the largest meetings for sociolinguists — known as the Sociolinguistics Symposium, recently held in Spain.
I must admit that every bit of this conference I found intimidating, particularly as I came to know many experienced linguists, whose work I’d often read, cite on papers, but never met. It’s an odd feeling feeling like you know someone based on what they’ve written, but you’ve never actually met them in real life.
I felt like an impostor, like I didn’t belong among this group of highly esteemed, world-renowned academics. I put a lot of pressure on myself leading up to this conference — mind you, I had just arrived to Ireland from Puerto Rico and had finished conducting my fieldwork. My data analysis was quite preliminary at that point. Luckily, my supervisor had asked to view my slides prior to this event and had provided me with feedback. I had been working on my presentation for over a month, but the nature of my Ph.D. programme (which is quite solitary), led me to a lot of self-doubt. I didn’t have the opportunity to see other linguistics Ph.D students as much as I liked, I had spent the first three years of my Ph.D. studying alone at the library. As you can imagine, this amount of isolation is not good for one’s mental health, especially as it becomes very hard to feel like you’re a part of something, or part of an academic community. To top things off, I was living away from home, without the emotional comfort of my family or home friends.
For the past three years, I have struggled with depression and have often sought counseling. Just over a month ago I was approached by a faculty member and offered a study space on campus. I would finally be working alongside other linguistic Ph.Ds. This is something I had been waiting for for a some time (for three years). It is perhaps more possible to imagine then the level of nervousness I was experiencing, suddenly coming into contact with hundreds of sociolinguists, after years of not really knowing many people studying my own discipline. I didn’t sleep well for three days leading up to my talk. After giving my presentation, although still feeling uneasy and exhausted, I felt relieved and proud of myself for sharing my ideas and results with linguists and linguists-in-training such as myself. To my surprise, I received a lot of positive feedback; many seemed genuinely interested in my subject. I didn’t have time to discuss all of my material as I had prepared too many slides, but I managed to discuss the gist of it.
I guess what really struck me from this experience was my panel’s chairperson. After the session finished, she approached me and said to me that, although I was nervous, I had done a good job. She then gave me constructive feedback concerning my presentation style, e.g. not to sit down, not to use my hands as much, etc. But, most importantly, she taught me not to apologise about my work in progress, as effectively, many researchers present works-in-progress at these events. She further encouraged me by telling me that I “knew my stuff” and that it showed throughout my presentation. Having her, an established academic, personally tell me that I was “very good”, “knew my stuff”, and “should not apologise” was very empowering. She then said to me that she was letting me know because she thought it was important for women in academia to encourage other women academics, as it is hard enough for people of our gender to prove ourselves as worthy researchers. The thought of being treated differently in academia based on my gender had never occured to me previously.
Recently I’ve felt very discouraged when thinking about the people involved in my field, sociolinguistics. Many people who advocate for social equality, but in practice – in the academic world – they are consumed by the pressures of being taken seriously and being “respected” — at times they do it at the expense of their students, the future academics. Thus, in many of these conferences academics may focus on saying something witty, or smart, even if it comes across as rude and offensive. I know this is the language (and behavior) of some of the people in this career, and the fact that my discipline deals with society, inequalities, and people’s attitudes does not exempt it from this negative side to academia. I know that in the future there will be many people who want to tear me down to make themselves seem more intelligent. Some of whom have had access to better funding, more resources, or prestigious opportunities in their respective schools, and have had privileged PhD experiences. So it’s quite hard for some to imagine what others have had to go through to get there. I have already felt inadequate, or unworthy, many times during my PhD. This was the first time I was putting myself out there, at an international conference. Having the first reaction be “you are good and I think you should know that” meant the world to me. I am extremely grateful to this person, and the lesson she taught me. Although I have become somewhat cynical of people in my field, it’s encouraging to know that there are still some who are genuinely interested in encouraging others, and ultimately advancing the field of sociolinguistics. I know we need more people like this in my field, and I hope that someday I am able to encourage others the same way this woman encouraged me.
In her blog post on Puerto Rican Spanish (PR Spanish), Dorothy Bell offers a pretty concise and accessible description of this particular dialect of Spanish, or Caribbean Spanish. It is by no means a comprehensive account, nor is it intended to be, but it is written in a way that will attract the wider, non-specialist audience to the curiosities of world Spanishes, particular those whose features are lesser known. I recommend this article for anyone who is interested in Spanish dialectology and Caribbean dialects of Spanish. Bell does an ‘okay’ job at covering most of the hallmark features of PR Spanish: she provides the essential counter-arguments to dismiss common negative stereo-types tied to this particular way of speaking. While many have dismissed PR Spanish as being “ghetto” or “inferior Spanish”, Bell traces its origins and complex genetic make-up to places like Andalucia and Canary Islands.
Perhaps what is noticeably missing from her description is how — in addition to borrowing words from the English language — is the phenomenon of code-switching among island Puerto Ricans as well as Puerto Ricans in mainland U.S. That is, some Puerto Ricans (but not all) code-switch in conversation with other bilingual Puerto Ricans (the level of code-switching, or code-switching style, is dependent on English and Spanish competence). This, of course, is primarily due to Puerto Rico’s sociopolitical status as a U.S. territory and the instruction and spread of English on the island. Linguists have demonstrated time and time again how code-switching is a natural outcome of bilingual and multilingual communities. However, in the case of island Puerto Ricans, many see code-switching as a threat to the island’s Hispanic heritage. Thus, code-switching strategies on the island are met with much resistance, and not everyone code-switches. However, among mainland Puerto Ricans (Puerto Rican Americans) it is seen as a symbol of Hispanic heritage; in other words, switching to Spanish is seen as a way of preserving one’s Hispanic identity in the presence of a powerful cultural force.
It might also be interesting to mention the phonological variation of English loan words and borrowings in Puerto Rican Spanish. For instance, certain words – especially those which have not been fully integrated to Puerto Rican Spanish – are produced variably by Puerto Rican bilinguals. That is, some speakers appropriate borrowed words to Spanish pronunciation, while others do not. On the island, one might hear a member of the elite community producing English words in a Standard American accent, despite the context of the interaction being Spanish (see Perez Casas 2008). Obviously this stylistic choice would be a study within itself rather than a general description of Puerto Rican Spanish. But, my reason for noting this is to highlight how some English words are not fully integrated into the Spanish language and therefore retain their original pronunciation (some have suggested frequency as a factor that contributes to whether a word becomes appropriated).
Granted, Bell herself seems to be a Puerto Rican American – this dialect in itself is quite different from the dialect found on the island, as she noted on her final paragraph:
Due to early migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States, English has blended itself into Puerto Rican Spanish. This also why you can sometimes differentiate Puerto Ricans raised in the United States apart from a Puerto Rican directamente de la isla by the speech.
However, the description above is particularly troublesome as it suggests that only Puerto Ricans in the U.S. experience the fusion or “blending” of two languages. This statement disregards English’s historical, political, and cultural presence on the island of Puerto Rico for over 100 years. This description suggests that the Puerto Rican population is just like any other Hispanic community in the U.S., which has found itself in contact with the English language and American culture as a migrant community. However, as a U.S. territory island Puerto Ricans have inevitably found themselves in contact with the English language with many language policies in place as well as cultural influences; therefore, the distribution of English is not merely down to migration patterns. Perhaps Bell did not intend in communicating this, but rather intended on arguing for a different STYLE of blending in mainland U.S.
She also importantly fails to include the influence of Puerto Ricans’ indigenous population, the Taino indians, who contributed to the Puerto Rican lexicon. Prior to their extinction, the Spanish and indigenous people co-existed for quite some time, research suggests (cf. Pousada, 1999). Such that there are still words used in Puerto Rican Spanish today that are from Taino origin. Take for instance, the word “huracan”, originally ‘Jurakan’ their word for ‘hurricane’, or place names such as “Mayaguez” (currently the name of a town west of Puerto Rico).
In sum, it’s quite a nice article to read if you want to know the stereotypical Puerto Rican Spanish features but obviously it’s not meant to be a comprehensive description. It’s short and sweet.
Have a look for yourself.
Image retrieved from Dorothy Bell Ferrer’s blog post.
Ferrer, D. (2014). Do Puerto Ricans Speak The “Ghetto Version” of Spanish?. La Respuesta. Retrieved from http://larespuestamedia.com/pr-ghetto-spanish/
Perez Casas, M. (2008). Codeswitching and Identity Among Island Puerto Rican Bilinguals [Ph.D Dissertation]. Georgetown University.
Pousada, A. (1999). The Singularly Strange Story of the English Language in Puerto Rico. Milenio, 3, 33 – 60.
For decades the concept of bilingual speech or “code-switching” has been at the forefront of many studies on multilingual communities and language contact zones. Very generally, code-switching involves the act of using two or more languages within a single utterance or speech turn. It is not a novel occurrence, but perhaps the natural outcome of two or more distinct cultures cohabiting in shared spaces. It is also not the outcome of language incompetence or deficiency in one or two languages, rather, an act of linguistic skill and superior knowledge in the structural components of each language (awareness of grammar). Indeed, many studies have suggested that code-switching occurs in equivalent sites (see Poplack, 1980), or the using of two or more languages in a way that is respectful and consistent with the morphological, phonological, and structural aspects of each code.
In America, Puerto Ricans have been the “token” population for studies that observe code-switching. This is potentially due to their long presence in the U.S. dating back to the late 1800s. Indeed, some of the most famous work done in the area was conducted by Puerto Ricans in New York, as was a famous ethnographic study by linguist Ana Celia Zentella (below). This video seems a bit dated, but it nonetheless captures the general idea of the phenomenon of bilingual speech, not unique to Puerto Ricans. But, as any aspect of speech, anything that occurs in variation has the potential to index (or signal) or specific social meaning when used in a peculiar way, or at a specific point in time. Thus, code-switching – like words, intonation patterns, and sounds – have the potential to do identity work, or to be used to indicate a specific aspect of one’s identity, beliefs, or social orientations.