By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published October 27, 2023
Languages move and inspire UB doctoral student Kristen D’Alessandro Merii. As early as her teenage years, she remembers her fascination with high school Spanish, how she learned “a little of everything” — music, food, dance, religion — all in one course.
A naturally inquisitive person, D’Alessandro Merii followed her UB bachelor’s degree in Spanish by pursuing a master’s in linguistics at Florida International University in Miami. While there, living in Little Havana, she noticed something about people — mainly Hispanics and others speaking Spanish. Their English wasn’t the same as what was familiar to her growing up in Western New York.
They used different words for common phrases, words that sounded a “little off” to most English-speaking Americans.
“I’m a very observant person, especially when it comes to linguistic phenomena,” says D’Alessandro Merii, now a PhD student in language education and multilingualism in the Graduate School of Education. “And I noticed my Miami friends spoke a little differently than I did.”
Just one example:
“We are going to throw a party for my friend Maria” is what someone from Western New York would say. But D’Alessandro Merii’s friends and others in Little Havana would put their own mark on it.
Their take on that phrase — “We are going to make a party for my friend Maria” — is what D’Alessandro Merii and her fellow researchers started calling “Miami English.”
And these translations that borrowed from a person’s native language — calques, as linguists called them — were all around her and becoming more common.
English Miami, Hispanic Miami. Neighbors younger than she, older than she. It was across the board. There were certain English expressions that seemed to be influenced by Spanish.
D’Alessandro Merii talked to her linguistics professor at Florida International, Phillip M. Carter, who noticed the same thing and enthusiastically encouraged her to study it for her master’s project. Then she and Carter started looking into it further.
“It was really cool,” D’Alessandro Merii says.
Then the project hit academic gold. The pilot study that started with her conversation with Carter became her master’s thesis and was ultimately published in the peer-reviewed academic journal English World-Wide, entitled “Spanish-Influenced Lexical Phenomena in Emerging Miami English.” The study went viral on TikTok.
An article in the New York Times, “‘Get Down’ From the Car. ‘Make the Line.’ Is Miami English a Dialect?” followed other national articles, noting her role as co-author. Carter wrote a widely circulated article in the Conversation that recognized D’Alessandro Merii’s status and academic contributions.
The Times also published the study’s most recent major shout-out, a column by a journalist at the paper who praised and paraphrased her and her study in an opinion piece titled “Two Languages Walk Into a Bar.”
Then there’s the support D’Alessandro Merii has received from other linguists regarding two key elements of the study.
The first is her study’s response to what linguists call “prescriptivism and language purism,” which basically sets up a hierarchy — often white/European-centric — for how people speak. Some languages, according to this attitude, are better than others.
Her study was a statement on “linguistic justice,” as it has resonated with so many individuals, validating their unique variety of English, she says.
“Many are quick to label certain language varieties as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ which comes from standard language ideology,” says D’Alessandro Merii. “Standard language ideology is usually modeled from the white upper class. Under this logic, everyone else who isn’t white and from the upper class speaks ‘incorrectly.’”
Besides being “obviously racist,” D’Alessandro Merii says, it contradicts a firm belief among people who study languages, who know that standard languages actually do not exist and that there’s no hierarchy to which any language is “better” than any other.
“There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ language — it just is,” she says.
“Some students’ language varieties can be stigmatized,” she says. “We need to work as a university to move away from language purism ideology and create initiatives that allow students to use all their languages without stigma.”
The other — to drop a piece of Miami English — “súper cool” part of her research for linguists is the idea that we are potentially seeing an evolving dialect form in real time.
It’s like watching the creation and eventual eruption of a volcano before your eyes. D’Alessandro Merii and Carter can see a distinctive American dialect unfold in front of them. It would be like watching the English dialect of the American South come to life as one watched and listened.
“If you think about how people from New York City, or Midwesterners, or Bostonians speak, all these dialects, these different types of Englishes have developed over time, and that’s been in the distant past. But this is something that has been unfolding right now, in front of our eyes.”
D’Alessandro Merii also notes that her research validates her study group.
“If you study linguistic phenomena like phonetics, that material is really interesting to the linguistics community,” she says. “But sometimes those findings don’t resonate as much with those unfamiliar with linguistic terminology. This study was able to connect with individuals as it describes the ways in which they use their unique vocabulary in this part of the country.
“These words and expressions are very much tied to many individuals’ identities.”
Want more? How about her conclusion that those who are using these calques are proud of them and don’t want to change.
“We found that Miamians and outsiders alike ranked standard expressions more highly than local ones,” according to the original study. “However, our statistical findings showed that Miamians rated local expressions significantly more favorably than a group of non-local participants recruited from outside of South Florida.
“Miamians were especially favorable to expressions like ‘Get down from the car’ for ‘Get out of the car,’” she says.
Miami English, just like all varieties of English, is another example of a language process that is very much a normal part of the human experience, D’Alessandro Merii adds.
“And we should embrace this superpower.”