Languages on the island

This blog is about the English language in Puerto Rico.

In order to understand the current state of affairs on the island with regards to English, a short historical description is needed to contextualise language use on the island.

Location

Puerto Rico is a small island on the Caribbean, east of Dominican Republic.

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Map of Puerto Rico & the Caribbean, c. 1920s Found in Notting Hill, London.

Puerto Rico’s ethic heritage

For over four hundred years Puerto Rico belonged to Spain as one of their first and last colonies (1492 – 1898).

During this time, Puerto Rico’s native population, the Taíno Indians (a subgroup of the Arawakan indigenous people from Northeastern South America), were driven to (near-) extinction the later half of the 16th century, as a result of numerous social atrocities, including the spread of infectious diseases and the enslavement of hundreds of indigenous people. Despite the short cohabitation with Spanish colonizers, some linguistic features of the Taíno dialect persist to this day in Puerto Rican Spanish. Many of these remaining features include specific lexical items, such as: place names, names of specific types of vegetable and fruit, and natural occurrences, and others.

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Place names from indigenous origins

Following a shortage of manual labor, the Spanish colonizers resorted to importing African slaves to the island. The majority of these slaves were said to come from West Africa. Some theorists and linguists believe that the African population spoke a dialect of Puerto Rican Spanish, called “Bozal Spanish” (cf. Lipski, 2001). Little is known of the influence of the African population in Puerto Rican Spanish, but some linguists have highlighted phonological features, such as vowel nasalization (Navarro, 1948: 227), as originating from this ethnic population.

Many Spanish colonizers in Puerto Rico are said to have been from regions in Southern Spain, such as the Canary Islands and Andalucia. Because of these migratory patterns,  Puerto Rico’s dialect is often most compared to that found in southern regions of Spain. Andalusians, for instance, are often credited for bringing the stereo-typical syllable-final /-s/ weakening, in words like “adios” (goodbye) often produced as [adióh]. They are also known for bringing d-dropping in intervocalic positions, such as in words like “doblado” (folded) produced as [doblao]. Other features from Andalusian Spanish include the famous s-θ merger, known as “seseo”, which makes words like “abrazar” (to hug) and “abrasar” (to sear) undistinguishable homophones. From the Canary Islands, Puerto Rican Spanish is said to have adopted similar intonation patterns, in particular, the elongating of stressed vowels.

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Relative distance between Puerto Rico and the Canary Islands (5,186 km).

Spanish-Centric Nationalism in Puerto Rico

Although Spain was a colonial power who undoubtedly committed social atrocities against Puerto Rican natives, the last years under Spanish rule were defined as periods of peace and a newfound Puerto Rican identity rooted in the Spanish language. This period was characterised by the granting of civil rights and the emergence of an educated Puerto Rican population. Most importantly, as the main language of expression for most Puerto Ricans for many years, together with the emergence of the printing press and Spanish-speaking intellectuals, philosophers and artists, Spanish gained nationalistic value among many Puerto Rican natives. Till this day, Spanish plays an influential role in the Puerto Rican community as perhaps the most influential symbol of Puerto Rican nationalism. Further, many Puerto Ricans today still view Spain as the island’s motherland or “la madre patria”.

Puerto Rico as a U.S. Territory & the Introduction of English

Puerto Rico has been an “unincorporated territory” of the United States since 1898. Many language experts mark this historical moment as the moment the English language was first introduced in Puerto Rico. While this is partially correct – especially when talking about public school education – the English language on the island (as well as the presence of North Americans) was present long before then. Puerto Rican linguist, Alicia Pousada, traces North American influence back to Spanish colonial times, when the United States was one of the island’s primary trade partners. Back then royal decrees were made that permitted the occupation of foreign (American) tradesmen on the island (Pousada, 1999). However, it is safe to say that following U.S. occupation after the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. changed from an economic one to a political one. With these political changes came changes in the linguistic landscape, particularly when English was made the main language of instruction in all public schools and English was declared co-official language alongside Spanish (in the Language Law of 1902).

Many subsequent changes happened with regards to language policies on the island. These language policies not only affect public school education (and their language of instruction), but also the language of court, science, and the media. The presence of English on the island is undeniable one, although many non-linguists and native islanders fervently defend what they think to be the island’s vernacular “Spanish”. Many Puerto Ricans consider English use, or English use mixed with Spanish, as a deviation to the island’s norm (Spanish) and a sign of linguistic incompetence of certain Puerto Ricans. English use on the island is popularly viewed as “non-Puerto Rican”, and English is often viewed as a foreign language (rather than second language) (Clachar, 1997; Pousada, 1999). As such, any definition of Puerto Rican Spanish that includes English features is rejected by many – as many Puerto Ricans will only acknowledge the influence of African, indigenous, and Spanish culture in Puerto Rican culture. Despite its presence for over one hundred years, English is still a controversial topic for many Puerto Ricans today.

This Blog

This blog aims to discuss the English language in Puerto Rico. It tackles questions such as:

  • the role of Spanish and English in Puerto Rico;
  • Puerto Rican nationalism and national identity;
  • Language policies;
  • Code-switching;
  • Linguistic features of Puerto Rican English.
  • Features of Puerto Rican Spanish (which are essential to describing Puerto Rican English).
  • Reflections on current ongoings on the island and how these relate to the issue of language.