Puerto Rican Spanish: Is It Really the Ghetto Spanish One Must Avoid Learning?
Much has already been written and argued over the legitimacy of Puerto Rican Spanish. Even The “Latin American vs. Peninsular” feud hasn’t seen as much friction as the “Puerto Rican vs. Spanish” one. Entire Reddit threads have spawned to cater to this debate and yet a conclusion remains as elusive as ever. But let’s be objective here. There are dialects. And dialects are what make a language fluid and fun. Every language has them in varying numbers and so does Spanish. Of course, depending on who you ask, every dialect can be labelled posh and ghetto.
But the dialect of Puerto Rico has earned an unfairly bad reputation of being less than “educated.” While the jury is still out on what this standard qualifies as, I can offer my two cents on the subject before all else: That Puerto Rican Spanish is not the lesser Spanish. No Spanish is. Every dialect offers its own set of unique idiosyncrasies and is as linguistically legit as any other. With that bit of political correctness out of the way, let’s explore what makes Puerto Rican Spanish so, shall we say, special.
Puerto Rican Spanish: Straight from Andalusia
The area we call Puerto Rico today didn’t always have Spanish speakers. In fact, Spanish is only about 500 years old in the region. Until then, the place was home to a local ethnic group called Taíno. And some of the earliest Hispanics to settle here were from Seville and around in Spain. Now Seville is in a region we refer to as Andalusia which speaks its own kind of Spanish with copious Arab influence, thanks to the Moors. Entire books exist that discuss the ways Andalusian Spanish differs from its non-Andalusian cousins so I won’t waste time on that drivel. Suffice it to say, though, that it’s different enough. Working-class Seville and Puerto Rico, they sound almost identical. For instance, listen to Zatu, the singer of SFDK, a hip-hop band from Seville. You would easily mistake Zatu for a Boriqueño.
And the Hispanics didn’t travel alone. When they travelled to the New World, they brought with them shiploads of African slaves. So if we go back 500 years from now, we find a curious mix of Spaniards, indigenous Taínos, and ethnic Africans. Each of these groups had a rich linguistic heritage of its own, but given the Spaniards’ military might, Spanish eventually won. This victory came at a price though. A whole bunch of Taíno and African words contaminated the Puerto Rican lexicon. Over the next 500 years, this would evolve into a remarkably distinct variety of Spanish.
Puerto Rican Spanish: The Canary Effect
As we’ve already seen, Puerto Rican Spanish sourced its lexicon from multiple parts of the world. But Taíno and indigenous African weren’t the only influence on the Spanish of Puerto Rico. In fact, the most significant influence to the accent came only in the early 1800s from the Canary Islands. That’s when Puerto Rico witnessed a wave of immigration from the Canaries which introduced its own Andalusian-flavored Spanish to the mix. Despite being an Andalusian derivative, Canarian Spanish has a distinct character of its own. And Puerto Rican Spanish exhibits it in full glory.
The effect is not exactly uniform though. It’s felt mainly in the central mountain region of the country. Here, the lexicon is a mix of Canarian Spanish and Taíno, although the latter is practically extinct today. Besides the vocabulary, the most notable feature is in the intonation. People of this region tend to draw out their stressed vowels longer than usual. This practice also defines Caribbean Spanish.
Spanish or Spanglish?
This one’s the purists’ biggest peeve. Spanish doesn’t seem to exist in its purest form in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a part of the United States. And that means a very strong English influence. As is the case with Spanish in New York or Miami. Language has been a hotbed for politics in this territory. This is why English has often replace Spanish as the official language here. Although Spanish remains the first language throughout the island, many people love English too. Most Puerto Ricans have spent some amount of time in the US. Many have lived in the US for at least two generations. As a result, Puerto Rican Spanish has normalized a lot of English words. Words like parquear (to park) and bizarro (bizarre) litter Puerto Rican Spanish.
But I still feel it’s less than fair to single out Puerto Rican Spanish for this contamination. Language suffers this phenomenon all the time. Even Argentinean Spanish is heavily influenced by Italian. As is Uruguayan. And then you have the Anglicized French of Canada. Languages have always influenced each other. That’s no reason to dismiss one as less than legitimate. Is Puerto Rican Spanish as pure as Peninsular Spanish? Of course not. But is it an inferior Spanish? Not in any universe.
How Puerto Rican Spanish Sounds
Accent is the first feature that identifies a dialect. And one doesn’t have to be a career linguist in order to identify it. And Puerto Rican Spanish has a very distinct accent of its own. It sounds different from other dialects of Spanish. Very different. Two major sources of influence have shaped the sound of this accent. Andalusian Spanish has influenced the pronunciation. And various indigenous African tongues have influenced the intonation. The vocabulary owes much of itself to the Taínos and, of course, English. Let’s understand some of the most notable features of Puerto Rican Spanish now.
In Puerto Rico, as in the rest of the New World, seseo rules. Thus, casa (house) and caza (hunt) are homophones. As are cima (top) and sima (smooth).
1. The Boricua Don’t Lisp
We call it a lisp although it isn’t. In Spain, at least in the north, they sound their z as /th/ (as in thumb). Thus, zapato sounds like /thapato/. They also do this with their ce and ci. Thus, cinta sounds like /thinta/ and cerdo sounds like /therdo/. Legends say this goes back to a medieval price whose lisp wound up trending all over Spain. But that’s little more than a curious legend. Regardless of how it originated, the fact remains that the rest of the Spanish-speaking world doesn’t talk like this. The folks down south in Andalusia sound their z, s, and c (in the ce and ci combos) as /s/. No /th/ involved. And since the New World Spanish draws mainly from this dialect, no /th/ in Latin American Spanish either.
Interestingly, the opposite also happens in some parts of Andalusia where all they pronounce their /s/ as /th/. This is called ceceo. Depending on where you are in Spain, seseo and ceceo can coexist. In fact, ceceo is even considered uneducated in many circles. In Puerto Rico, as in the rest of the New World, seseo rules. Thus, casa (house) and caza (hunt) are homophones. As are cima (top) and sima (smooth).
Boricua, by the way, is anyone from Borikén, the pre-Hispanic name of Puerto Rico. So there you have it, the Boricua don’t lisp. Every s is /s/. Every z is /s/. And every ce amd ci is /se/ and /si/, respectively. This is how they talk in Latin America, this is how they talk in Central America, this is how they talk in the Caribbean, and this is how they talk in Puerto Rico. And, of course, in the Canaries as well.
2. No “D” Between Vowels
Ever heard words like hablao and casao and wondered what the heck they mean? Well, that’s Spanish, Puerto Rican Spanish to be precise. People here tend to swallow their d if it comes between two vowels. That’s why their hablado sounds like hablao and casado like casao. That’s also why casada sounds almost like casa in Puerto Rico. This deletion of d also features in Caribbean Spanish. Do note that in such words, the elimination of d doesn’t affect the word’s stress pattern. So, even after nada turns into naa, it still retains the stress on the first a.
The practice of losing the intervocalic d isn’t a new one. Nor did it originate in the New World. The idea goes back more than two centuries and originated in, you guessed it, Spain. Due to this, some corruptions have even gone mainstream. Take estampía (suddenly), for instance. It started off as a corruption estampida (stampede). Words like moa, marío, and ganao had already replaced moda, marido, and ganado in El chasco de los aderezos, a play by Ramón de la Cruz in the late eighteenth century. That being said, the practice is largely confined to the New World today.
Some native speakers also retain the intervocalic d, albeit hardly so. They just soften it to the extent that you just feel a presence instead of hearing the letter. This practice is less frowned upon by the purists as uneducated speech and is quite common in places like Mexico. In Uruguay and Argentina, they may omit the d and nasalize the resulting diphthong. So their –ado sounds like the Portuguese –ão. Could this be the influence of a Portuguese-speaking Brazil next door? I don’t know. But the theory doesn’t sound all that improbable, does it?
3. No “D” in the End
If a syllable ends in d, many native speakers tend to either pronounce it super soft (almost like the th in this), or not pronounce it at all. And when that happens, the original stress pattern remains unchanged. Thus, pared becomes paré and verdad becomes verdá. This practice reminds me of what the Brits do with their r. Just like silent intervocalic d, though, silent syllable-final d is also not a solely Puerto Rican thing. Many Latin Americans seem to have a beef with this letter. Don’t ask me why. Oh and even Spaniards do this. You’re more likely to hear madrí or madrith instead of madrid when in Madrid. Of course, elimination or softening of d is considered less-than-educated by the educated class. Thus, when in formal settings, stick to verdad and casado instead of verdá and casao.
So basically it all boils down to this: Can you do it? Yes. Should you? No. In familiar circles, omitting the final d is common and acceptable but why risk it? In fact, this practice is more frowned upon than the one involving intervocalic d. It could be because the latter is a much older phenomenon hence more established? Just my personal hypothesis, don’t quote me on this. In order to pronounce the soft d, just say d without letting the tip of your tongue touch anything. The regular Spanish d happens when the tip touches your upper teeth. Even to the purists, this would sound less crass than omitting the letter altogether.
4. No “S” in the End Either
This letter is treated exactly like the letter r in British English. Silent at the end of a word and silent before a consonant. Well, to be accurate, the letter isn’t entirely dropped. Instead, it’s aspirated. Aspirated? That’s when you replace a consonant with a brief breathing sound. More like /h/. So, in other words, word-final s and s before a consonant sound like /h/ in Puerto Rican Spanish. That’s why dos ratos is rendered as doh ratoh and usted as uhteth. I don’t know how acceptable this one is in posh circles but I’d wager fairly so. I’ve heard even talk-show hosts and newsreaders talk like that. And just as is the case with d, this phenomenon is common in Caribbean Spanish as well. Even in Cuba, Venezuela, and Argentina! Outside of the New World, people in Andalusia, the Canaries, Ceuta, and Melilla also aspirate their syllable-final s.
A related phenomenon is one where instead of s, you turn the following consonant into a plosive. A consonant is said to be plosive when it comes with a tiny h built in. We English speakers do this with consonants like /p/, /k/, and /t/. That’s how we pronounce pin as /p’hin/ and cat as /k’hat/. I don’t know if this plosive thing is unique to English but it’s certainly alien to Spanish. Spanish is more of a WYSIWYG language. You pronounce what you see. To a good extent if not all the way. But in some regions, both in and outside Puerto Rico, the consonant immediately after s takes on a plosive form. The s, of course, vanishes altogether. Thus, césped sounds like /ceph’-eh/ and listo sounds like /lith’-o/.
5. And Not Even “J”?
You do know that Spanish j is pronounced like the ch in Scottish loch, right? That’s why mujer is pronounced as /mu-‘xer/, José as /xo-se’/, and jardín as /xar-‘deen/. Interestingly, the letter j didn’t even exist in the Spanish alphabet until King Alfonso X ordered a spelling reform during the late 13th century. This reform, along with j, was codified only three centuries later by Giorgio Trissino in 1524. Back then, the letter was still pronounced as the s in measure. That’s how the French pronounce it even today and that’s also how the letter is still pronounced in Judeo-Spanish, a dialect that split from Spanish in the 15th century.
So the /x/ sound is how Castilian renders its j. That would be central and northern Spain. Some might consider this the proper pronunciation but that’s subjective. Now let’s go back to Puerto Rican Spanish which is what we’re discussing here anyway. Here, as well as in some other places in Latin America, you keep it simple and render it as the English /h/ sound. Thus, mujer is a simpler-to-pronounce /mu-‘hair/ and jardín is /har-‘deen/. I repeat, this is the English /h/ sound we’re talking about, not the letter h of Spanish which is silent.
This rule also applies to the letter g in the combinations ge and gi. So gente is /xen-tay/ in Spanish but /hen-tay/ in Puerto Rican Spanish. I don’t know about you but I personally find the more guttural version cooler. Besides, even in Puerto Rico, you won’t be any bit unintelligible if you were to go with this pronunciation instead of the simpler /h/ sound preferred locally. If anything, it might only give your speech a posher appeal since the closer you sound like a Spaniard, the more educated you sound to them.
Puerto Ricans tend to pronounce their r (single, not double) as l. But only when it comes after a vowel or diphthong, especially ue. And only if it precedes t or d.
6. The Puerto Rican Twang
Yes, Puerto Rican Spanish has a twang of its own! But it works very differently compared to the better-known Yankee twang. We’ll not discuss the latter though. Ever noticed how many English speakers pronounce their -ing? They just lose the nasal bit altogether and reduce it to -in’. That’s how running is often heard as runnin’ and flying as flyin’. This isn’t a particularly American thing either. Almost every dialect exhibits this practice. Now let’s get back to Puerto Rican Spanish. What happens here is the exact opposite.
Spanish known no twang. There’s no nasal pronunciation in this language. But Puerto Rican Spanish seems to digress. Here, a twang is introduced even where there isn’t meant to be one. This happens when a word ends in n. When a Puerto Rican pronounces such a word, you hear an invisible g. At least a hint thereof. Thus, consideran sounds like /kon-see-day-rang/ and not /kon-see-day-rann/. I don’t know what they call it officially, I call it the Boricua twang. Catchy enough, don’t you think?
7. Puerto Rican Spanish or Puelto Rican Spanish?
Now this one truly sets the Spanish of the region apart. Nobody from the mainland speaks like that. Puerto Ricans tend to pronounce their r (single, not double) as l. But only when it comes after a vowel or diphthong, especially ue. And only if it precedes t or d. Other than Puerto Rico, Cuba and Dominican Republic share this pronunciation too. But not, say, Mexico, Colombia, or Argentina. This transformation also happens when the r comes at the end of a word, e.g. ver, decir, etc. A Puerto Rican would often pronounce them as /bel/ and /day-seel/.
And no, it’s not /pwel-toh lee-koh/ as many outsiders joke. It’s /pwel-toh rree-koh/. Only the first r becomes l, because it comes between ue and t. The second r is the first in its word, hence gets trilled as rr (as is prescribed by the Spanish language). That’s why carro is never calo and perro is never pelo, even in Puerto Rico. But suerte and parte do become suelte and palte here. Do note, however, that the spelling never changes. It’s just the way they’re spoken. Amusingly, a lot of young Puerto Ricans have even started using the American-style rhotic r in Spanish words. This pronunciation doesn’t even exist in Spanish! Would you accept it as evolution? Or would you diss it as linguistic decadence? I leave that up to you.
And now, here’s something about the word-final r. It definitely renders as l only when followed by a vowel. For example, amor eterno renders as amol eterno. However, in any other case some Puerto Ricans completely omit the word-final r.
8. Double “R” No Longer Double?
And this applies to not just the letter rr, but also r where it ideally sounds like rr. What happens is that the heavily trilled sound of rr is reduced to the quick-flap r sound. Some Puerto Ricans, actually most, go further crazy and flat-out replace the trill with the guttural ch of loch. That’s almost like the French pronounce their r. This one is perhaps the defining feature of Puerto Rican Spanish and the Boricua take it as a shame, a pride, or both. Do note, however, that the guttural rr is in no way considered educated. Despite being mainstream, you’ll never hear it taught or encouraged in schools. Parents are often seen discouraging their children from pronouncing their rr like a peasant. Puerto Rican Spanish shares a lot of its personality with Caribbean Spanish, but not this one.
So, in short, while arroz is /ah-‘rrohz/ in Spanish, it’s /ah-‘rose/ or /ah-xohz/ in Puerto Rican Spanish. Needless to say, the practice is more prevalent in the boonies than in big cities. And as mentioned earlier, a lot of city kids have already started sounding their r the American way. No matter what you do, I beg you not to do this. Ever.
9. Shortening of Words
It’s as if they were in a perpetual state of rush, them Puerto Ricans. While it’s an established fact that Spanish speakers speak considerably faster than their English-speaking counterparts, speakers of Puerto Rican Spanish take it further up a notch. The Boricua speak faster than most Hispanics I’ve come across so far. And when you need to pack as much in as little like them, you ought to cut your words to size. A lot. And that’s exactly what they do. While pa’ for para and porfa for por favor are common everywhere, others not so much. In Puerto Rican Spanish, in rapid speech leastwise, entire syllables might get the ax to make room for more words. Only here will you hear pai and mai for padre and madre, respectively. At times, even entire words might go missing, most notably the prepositions de and en.
10. A Pepsi® for Her, a Pecsi for Me
What the heck, Puerto Rico! What’s wrong with you? Does anything sound like it’s intended to in this country? Meh, that would be too boring. Here, we do things differently, even if it means pronouncing p as /k/. As you’d expect, this isn’t a very posh way of doing things even in Puerto Rico, but you can be sure to run into this pronunciation often. But not all instances of p qualify. The only ones that do are those that precede a consonant. Thus, you have Pecsi for Pepsi and concecto for concepto. Do I like it? Doesn’t matter. That’s how it is and I’d rather embrace it as a regional quirk. I suggest you do the same. Would a language really be fun and interesting if it sounded the same everywhere its spoken?
Grammar Gremlins in Puerto Rican Spanish
How much deviation from the books is appropriate for a dialect when it comes to grammar? I don’t know. Some might be more tolerant than others. But if a grammar gremlin goes mainstream and enjoys better currency in a region than the prescribed syntax, I’d say go with it. We could debate all day long over how much is acceptable but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to see how different Puerto Rican Spanish is from other dialects grammar-wise. Let’s see.
1. The Preterit That Looks Like Present
This one’s about the second person singular form for regular verbs. The tú form, that is. In Spanish, a conjugated verb’s ending says a lot about its tense, person, and number. The present tense conjugation adds an -s to the verb whereas the preterit, an -aste/-iste. In Puerto Rican Spanish, they do both in the preterit form. Confused? Take the verb comer (to eat) for instance. In the present tense, it’s comes (you eat). And in the preterit, comiste (you ate). In Puerto Rico, however, the preterit form would be comistes, employing both -iste as well as -s. Similarly, bebiste (you drank) becomes bebistes and hablaste (you spoke) becomes hablastes.
2. The Incorrect Preterit for Traer
The grammatical anomaly in Puerto Rican Spanish isn’t limited to regular verbs. Traer (to bring) has a problem in the preterit tense too, even though it’s irregular. Actually two problems. Let’s look at them one by one. The first one is in the second person singular conjugation. The correct way of doing it would be trajiste (I brought). But the j is eaten up in Puerto Rican Spanish, resulting in a grammatically incorrect traíste or traístes. The second such anomaly occurs in the first person plural, the nosotros form. Here, it should be trajimos (we brought), but comes off as traímos. The omission doesn’t seem to happen in other conjugations, such as trajeron, traje, or trajo. I’d wager it could have something to do with omitting j only when it’s stressed?
3. Problem with Haber
No, no, there’s no problem with haber in general. It’s hay (there is, there are) that seems to be out of line in Puerto Rican Spanish. Not even hay, to be precise, it’s the past tense había (there was, there were) that’s the problem. Hay, as you might already be aware, is impersonal and also number-agnostic. It works for both singular objects as well as plural. Since había is the past tense of hay, the number neutrality holds. That’s why había translates into both there is and there are. In Puerto Rico, había often loses its number-neutrality and becomes habían when referencing a plural object. That’s blatantly incorrect but enjoys a wide enough currency throughout the nation.
4. Invisible Anglicism
It’s one thing to lace Spanish sentences with English words, completely another to model Spanish sentences after English. The former is a common occurrence and happens all over the world in varying degrees. Call it code-switching or mere Anglicism, no natural language is lexically chaste. But the latter is a different beast altogether. You can’t just literally translate one language into another. You definitely can’t form Spanish sentences by translating English sentences word-for-word. Unless we’re talking Puerto Rican Spanish. In this case, since the actual words in used remain Spanish, I call it invisible Anglicism. That’s because unless you’re an expert, you wouldn’t even see anything amiss there.
Take, for instance, the greeting see you. Being idiomatic, the correct translation is nos vemos (we see each other) and not the word-for-word te veo (I see you). Guess which one is preferred in Puerto Rico, though. Similarly, I’ll call you back is translated in one of the following ways:
Te devuelvo la llamada (I’ll return your call).
Luego te llamo (I’ll call you later).
The translation is far from literal. But if you’re in Puerto Rico, you often hear the very literal te llamo para atrás (I’ll call you after). Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? Well, that’s how the Boricua rolls.
5. Incorrect Sentence Structure
Spanish says you can and should omit the subject pronoun wherever possible. Spanish also says the subject pronoun comes after the verb in questions, if at all you must explicitly use one. Well, both these rules go out the window when a Puerto Rican is asking the question. Take the quintessential greeting for example:
¿Cómo estás (tú)? (How are you?)
Any well-meaning Spanish speaker would frame the question as shown above. The question word first, followed by the verb, followed by the subject pronoun (strictly optional). Not so in Puerto Rico. Here, the subject pronoun is used and comes before the verb:
¿Cómo tú estás?
Sounds awkward, doesn’t it? Look at another example to mellow down the awkwardness:
¿Quién eres tú? (Who are you?)
Again, since Puerto Rican Spanish flips the order of subject pronoun and verb in such sentences, it renders as:
¿Quién tú eres?
How comfortable you feel about this peculiarity is up to you.
Similarly, nothing more is nada más. In the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. In Puerto Rico, the order is flipped in favour of an incorrect más nada. I don’t even know how that came to be! More nothing? Seriously?
6. Just One or More Than One?
Solamente uno is Spanish for just one. Más is Spanish for more. Más que is Spanish for more than. And, by extension, más que uno is Spanish for more than one. Nothing notable here, no? Everything is as it ought to be. Enter Puerto Rican Spanish. And now, más que uno doubles up for just one! I can already sense the grammar Nazis among you shifting uncomfortably. This is blasphemy and if only RAE could, it would consider burning you at the stake for this! See this example:
Solamente queda uno (Only one is left).
The Boricua would say the following instead:
Solamente queda más que uno (Only more than one remains).
The only way to tell whether more than one is meant or just one is to go by how nonsensical the sentence sounds. More than one obviously doesn’t sound like it belongs with only. So the only logical conclusion is it must be just one or only one.
7. More Problems with Más
This one might be a case of literal one-for-one translation from English with amusing results. We already know that más means more. But that doesn’t mean we can just blindly plug it in wherever English uses more. Puerto Ricans do just that, at least in some cases. Take nobody else, for instance. The appropriate way to translate the phrase would be ningún otro. No más there, you see? In Puerto Rican Spanish, it renders as más ninguno. Literal and grammatically incorrect.
Similarly, nothing more is nada más. In the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. In Puerto Rico, the order is flipped in favour of an incorrect más nada. I don’t even know how that came to be! More nothing? Seriously?
And That’s Just Scratching the Surface
That’s right. Puerto Rican Spanish is as rich and as old as any in the New World. So obviously a single blog post is never gonna do justice to it. A thorough study of the dialect and its complete range of vernacular quirks warrants an entire tome. And tomes after tomes have been written on the subject already. That being said, what you just read here was a snapshot of some of the most remarkable aspects of Puerto Rican Spanish. These stand out. There are many, many other features that underscore the dialect. Take the idiom darse cuenta de que (to realize), for example. In Puerto Rico, it incorrectly renders as darse de cuenta que.
Another example is el que más sabe, meaning the one who knows more. Nothing complicated about this structure. But if you’re in Puerto Rico, you hear el más que sabe instead! As you can see, these are some of the very specific examples of non-standard usage in Puerto Rican Spanish and a gazillion of them exist. The more you dig, the more you discover. But unless you’re planning to live there forever, I doubt you really need to go that far. But, if you happen to know of any such quirk that you think isn’t trivial, do let us know! Language learning is only fun when done in collaboration. Take your first step by sharing your thoughts in a comment below.