(San Juan; Public Education; Late 20th-early 21st Century)
First and foremost, intelligibility is at the core of our work; a close second is authenticity. If you cannot be understood by the audience, then all authenticity brought to the dialect is irrelevant. There will be moments when we make a choice that seems less authentic, but always for the purpose of clearer communication.
Rehearse and sing in dialect. Memorize your text in dialect. Revisit sound clips periodically to tap back into the sound/feeling of the dialect. ASK QUESTIONS if you are not sure about anything!
Puerto Rico is an island in the Greater Antilles chain of the Caribbean. The native Taíno population called the island Borinquén and referred to themselves as boricua (a widely used term to this day). It wasn’t until the island came under Spanish rule that it became known as Puerto Rico (“rich port”). With the European settlement came smallpox, and soon the majority of the Taíno population was lost to this disease or had become enslaved, loosing much of the language. The Spanish imported slaves from Africa (primarily from the West/Gold Coast: Uribi and Igbo), playing a factor in the Spanish that would be spoken in Puerto Rico for the next 400 years.
In the 1898 Treaty of Paris the island (along with Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba) was ceded to the United States. The perceived expectation was that language, on an official scale, would change from Spanish to English - and was not welcomed. Their dependency on the US has been a point of contention since this beginning; in fact, neighboring islands nicknamed Puerto Ricans “lo monte nebo la Caribe”, or “the kept people of the Caribbean”. It wasn’t until 1917 that the US Congress granted citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, and it wasn’t until 1948, after World War II, that Puerto Ricans were permitted to elect their own governor.
Four years later (1952) the territory became a U.S. commonwealth, granting them greater autonomy in their self-government. Between 1950 and 1970, more than half a million people (nearly 25% of the island’s population) left for
the mainland of the U.S. (La Gran Migración or the Great Migration). Today there are huge communities of Puerto Ricans in Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and New York City — all of which carry their own dialects.
The island itself is currently home to about 3.4 million people, is about 3500 square miles, and has nearly 300 beaches. As with any language, there is a variety of dialects spoken in various locations, by various generations, and by various social classes. While the islanders’ contentious relationship to being a multilingual and pluricultral people has abated to some degree, it is still important to recognize there are social and identity barriers to speaking Puerto Rican Spanish and/vs. English.
Perhaps one of the largest social factors in fluency is education. Families that are wealthier tend to speak English in the home and can afford the tuition of a private school, in which most (if not all) textbooks are in English. Lower income families are more likely to report speaking mostly or entirely in Spanish when at home, receiving much of their early education in Spanish, and not acquiring fluency in English until attending middle school.
This particular breakdown will closely follow sound samples collected from individuals who attended public schooling, spoke Spanish primarily in their homes, and became fluent in speaking English well into their teenage years, gaining fluency in reading, writing, and observing media even later.
Sound lives primarily in the middle of mouth, cupped in the front/middle of the tongue. Resting or thinking sound is a slightly forward open/open-mid central [ɐ].
Food Image/Taste/Texture: Créme Caramel (flan) or a spoonful of Coconut Pudding
- Jaw: held only slightly open (in 'close' territory on the vowel chart), finding easy mobility in opening wider with intensity/excitement of speech
Tonge: sits wide (w/out bracing), resting along bottom of mouth, ready for tongue tip tap
body (front/middle) is cupped
corners are held in a wider, slightly retracted position with great ease in widening
body is capable of a puckering fluidity, but tend to be more economical with their motion
Velum: resting slightly lower than middle, not nasal
Prosody: Rhythm, Stress, Pitch
Lengthy, lived-in vowels with a staccato tendency in the consonants. Especially with plosive and fricative actions taking place at the lips / teeth / alveolar ridge.
Just as easily, Puerto Ricans can find themselves using fricatives to blend together their speech…
Rhythm of the text is flexible and malleable with the intention of the speaker: percussive/staccato consonants & wider vowels (for greater understanding, heightened emotion, animation) vs. elision (less important text, withdrawing into self a bit more).
Pitch play is used in emphasis, broadening and narrowing in range easily within phrasing.
The UP-DOWN-UP pattern: on the onset syllable/word of the the emphasized phrase to jump up, rolling down in pitch through the next syllables/words, swinging back up to end in upward inflection.
***Note the pattern is repeated 2 times in this sample.
The break in the line demonstrates the end of the first phrase and start of the second.***
The DOWNWARD FALL pattern: the pitch starts/sweeps higher on the first word/syllable and tumbles down to finality.
Pronunciation: Salient Sounds
ɹ̈ → ɾ / x / r
The /r/ sound in Puerto Rico is unique. Many of the /r/s that pop up will be tapped [ɾ] or they will be gently rhotic, slightly raising the front body of the tongue to obstruct sound. This slight rhoticity can sometimes ffeel similar to an /l/ or have lip rounding (labialization) like /w/.
Tapped [ɾ] (I feel that VERY bad, QUEER forms, I SUFFERED a lot, I walked THROUGH)
Light Rhoticity [ɹ] (RED BARNS, my GROWING was uh, he's TRYING on different outfits )
Labialized [ɹʷ] (struggle to RECALL, TURNS to ice, through the TREES, one day I was CRYING )
A Note on Rhoticity: While Spanish and English are both rhotic languages, it is becoming more common as younger generations increase in English speaking fluency to begin using this bunched molar, rhotic /r/ in a more American English influenced sound [ ɹ̈ ].
When you have a ‘hard r’ such as in the words erre, Carro, arriba, the sound is a voiceless velar fricative [x]. This trait is found in older generational speakers and when Spanglish is more prevalent in the speaker.
Fricative [x] (a BIRD-like woman, my COURAGE fails)
The rolled /r/ tends to occur at the start of words and when islanders are striving towards a more authentic Spanish sound [r] - once again, this is more common when the Spanglish is prevalent in the speaker.
t / d → t̻ / d̻
These alveolar plosives are moved to laminal (blade) tongue placement, landing dental or alveolar.
(and THEY'RE like, I'm going in a TANGENT, FROSTY land is this, our traditional food, PROUD of the GOD that I have SERVED)
θ / ð → t̻ / d̻
Both the un/voiced /th/ sounds (alveolar fricatives) tend to become plosives, or not released. As noted above, these plosives are created with the laminal portion of the tongue (the blade).
(not THIS superficial, cause THEY'RE so flashy, at my BREATH, playing THIRD base, you know I miss THEM, THAT I'm going to do // through the trees)
d͡ʒ → t͡ʃ
This affricative sound (JUDGE) can often devoiced, becoming similar to the sound in CHURCH. The onset plosive is often shortened or glossed over, giving more time to the [ʃ].
(carry these CHEESE, claws of CHALK-white, I was a PITCHER, they TEACH English)
s → h
Within the realm of cognitive dissonance, it is common for Puerto Rican’s to pronounce /s/ in the middle of English words with an [h] sound. More frequently, this sound is dropped, creating a greater elision in the prosody.
(my friend he used to come to my house and sometimes he let me go to his house, mountains loom, glassy pools reflect)
Vowels & Diphthongs — Front vowel sounds become more centralized; closed back vowel sounds become rounder.
Lexical Set Keywords
Description // Additional Words
FOOT / GOOSE
These two sounds move to the furthest back, top, rounded placement [u̹] when the spelling is with an “o” or “oo”.
Cognitive Dissonance: When the word is spelled with an “-ew” it includes the palatal approximate [j]. (knew, stew, curfew, interview)
(the GOOD one, fox TOOKS four small sips, WOMAN searches slowly // TO watch list, and all the TABOO, it's
As we notice with the PALM lexical set, this onset vowel moves more to the middle of the mouth
(they just sit in SILENCE, turns to ICE, a bird-LIKE woman // all AROUND the zoo, where you can eat OUR traditional food // I was ABOUT to sign with the PIRATES)
PALM / LOT
In this merger, the open back vowel sits higher and further front in the oral cavity, landing in various plots near the medial sound of schwa [ə]
(FATHER is mad, verse DRAMA of old, I grow in San JUAN // sleek OTTERS, all about FOXES, and I miss that a LOT)
TRAP / BATH
These lower front vowels move toward the middle of the mouth, cupping in/near the middle body of the tongue - a “home base” sound for this oral posturing
(I'm going in a TANGENT but, get the BAGS, from the SHADOWS, trembling SPARROWS, boy I miss my FAMILY)
KIT / FLEECE
Both of these sounds move closer to the other, but most notable are the KIT words moving higher and more forward in the mouth toward FLEECE
(I'm not KIDDING, and IT'S SIX episodes, that HIS faith IS IS deep, sudden nightmare VISIONS, I ended being the PITCHER, that we are CITIZENS of the United States // two SEASONS, I FEEL the flashing)
i̽ə˞ / ɪ̝ə˞
The onset vowel of this diphthong reflects the FLEECE/KIT merger
(do you FEAR, QUEER forms, came over HERE)
This diphthong becomes a triphthong, adding the palatal approximate on the onset, raising the entire sound in the mouth
(fish without a LURE, a FURIOUS hoarse voice, a FURIOUS hoarse voice)
STRUT words remain in the back of the mouth in a more open position [ɑ̽] or move forward to a cupping in the middle of the tongue [ɜ]
(just COME COME with me, the bathroom is FLOODING, CLUSTER about BLOOD-red barns, you don't mean NOTHING, and I get in LOVE)
This diphthong stays very round in onset vowel, sometimes shortening to nearly a single vowel sound
(it SHOWS him, OH boy, cotton SOFA, SLOWLY through the trees)
Play With It
Play with these sounds! The technical work is important, but don’t let it dictate the sounds you are making. Test the boundaries and find the flow of the prosody.
Take a look at this slang dictionary to work on making your speech multilingual! (Cheat code: translate the page back and forth to get the PR Spanish word and the English definition)
Check out Gina Rodriguez & Ishmael Cruz Códova teaching a few common PR slang terms:
Listen to the music of Puerto Rico - song writers and soulful singers who depict the ties of the people to the island. Often times in the music the singer will cry/yell/shout out a sound that's not a word, known as grito, and you can hear/feel the sound in your mouth to bring you into some Oral Posturing, perhaps... Here's one to get you started....
IDEA - the International Dialects of English Archives: this is a great resource as they have multiple samples of different speakers saying the same text. It will highlight the variance the dialect can have and still be ‘right’. Sample Number 5 is a good sample for the specificity we are looking at in this breakdown.
Alexis Mateo (drag queen)
Giovanna Huyke (chef)
Carlos Beltrán (baseball athlete & manager)
Ricky Martin (singer - be sure to look for early life/career samples)
Elysanij (singer - much higher English fluency, but is keeping L1 prevalent in her persona)
La Brega podcast by NPR - (they broadcast this with both Spanish and English podcasts - this is great opportunity to hear the way prosody comes into play)
Borikén Podcast (more subtle sound, but great showcase of transitioning between English and Spanish words mid-sentence & various guests will have various dialects of PR)
When I Was Puerto Rican by Exmeralda Santiago - audiobook narrated by author (this is good to listen to for OP and some Prosody work. Pronunciation changes will be varied from what is outlined here as she has lived in America since her early teen years.)
Code Switch's podcast "Puerto Rico, Island of Racial Harmony?" touches briefly on the topic of how islanders' racially identify on the US Census and, perhaps, why.
- "Clap When You Land" by Elizabeth Acevedo - this book is written in poetic form and incorporates a seamless flow of Spanglish. The two characters are Puerto Rican and Nuyorican, which can be helpful in identifying a bit of the possible rhythms and structures in the two similar dialects.
***Not previously linked/attributed in above breakdown***
Chiclana, Angel. Person Interview conducted by Emily Coleman. 7 July 2021.
History.Com Editors. “Puerto Rico.” HISTORY, 28 Sept. 2017, www.history.com/topics/us-states/puerto-rico-history.
Sanford, Hannah. “Spanish Dialects in the Caribbean .” College of Humanities, 22 Nov. 2016, humanities.byu.edu/spanish-dialects-in-the-caribbean/.
Stantos-Decure, Cynthia. Personal interview. 30 June 2021.
Sevilla, Claudia. Personal Interview. 22 June 2021.
The Unlinking of Language & Puerto Rican Identity. 2017. Video. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/webcast-7935/>.