Puerto Rican Spanish for the Non-Linguist


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.

Do Puerto Ricans Speak The “Ghetto Version” of Spanish?


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.


“Spanglish” as told by linguist Ana Celia Zentella

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.