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THE NEW YORK TIMES
In Simple Pronouns, Clues To Shifting Latino Identity
By JANNY SCOTT
December 5, 2002
New York City has long been a laboratory for the study of language, a petri dish in which dialects mingle and collide, where linguists have lurked incognito in department stores, luring unwitting natives into blurting out revealing phrases like, say, "Fourth Floor."
For many years, scholarly interest in New York language focused on indigenous varieties of English, the most notorious being Noo Yawkese. But as the city's demographics have shifted, scholars have turned their attention to such things as Spanglish and the nature of New York Spanish.
Now a team of linguists is studying the consequences of the collision of Spanish dialects in New York, looking not only at how that contact is affecting the Spanish spoken but also at what the outcome might suggest about the evolution of Latino identity in the city and beyond.
If they find dialects converging, they say, it may signal the rise of a New York Spanish and perhaps signify an eventual convergence of identities too. If they find the dialects unchanged, it might imply that the contact between different groups is fueling an urge to remain distinct.
"The question is what does this say about the unity of Latinos in the next generation?" said Ana Celia Zentella, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego and one of the researchers in the New York study. "And what do these language accommodations mean for the future of Spanish in New York in particular and in the United States in general?
"When you think that the United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world and New York has more Spanish speakers than 13 Latin American capitals, you begin to appreciate the dimensions of the linguistic and cultural hybridity that's taking place."
Oddly enough, what the researchers are studying is a linguistic feature that may look insignificant at first glance: the use or nonuse of subject pronouns. But it is one of those tiny details in science, like the finch's beak in the study of evolution, that occasionally illuminate something profound.
The use of subject pronouns in Spanish has long been of interest to linguists. (There is an entire book on so-called subject expression among Spanish speakers in Madrid.) In English, the subject of a sentence is always expressed; in Spanish it can be, and often is, left out.
For example, where an English speaker would say "We sing," a Spanish speaker could say either "Nosotros cantamos" or simply "Cantamos." Linguists say Spanish speakers from the Caribbean tend to use a lot of pronouns; people from Central and South American countries use them less.
"What makes New York City interesting, and why we grabbed this issue, is that New York contains people from areas that differ with respect to this feature," said Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a researcher on the project.
"It's interesting to compare Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans with the Mexicans, who use few pronouns," he said. "And communities are different in their exposure to English. The Mexican community in New York is new; the Puerto Rican community is well settled."
The language of New Yorkers has often attracted attention. In a seminal piece of field work back in 1962, the sociolinguist William Labov stationed himself in department stores, asking directions, and elucidated the class differences in the way New Yorkers pronounce that inimitable after-a-vowel R. (The clerks serving the more affluent shoppers in upscale Saks said "fawth flaw" far less frequently than their peers at a discount store.)
But the city has changed. Latinos are more numerous and more diverse. They make up 27 percent of the city's population. And while nearly three-quarters of New York Latinos in 1990 came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, that group's share has dropped to 57 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans in New York City tripled during the 1990's to nearly 187,000, according to the 2000 census. The number of Ecuadoreans rose by nearly 30 percent, to 101,000. Other large groups include Colombians, Peruvians and Central Americans.
"Language is a window into people's views of themselves vis-a-vis the dominant group and vis-a-vis the other groups that they're often lumped with," said Professor Zentella, who, with a Puerto Rican mother and a Mexican father, grew up knowing that words like frijoles and habichuelas expressed more than beans.
"People will often use their particular regional variety of Spanish as a flag, emblematic of their national origin," she said. "But there are other times in which they refer to Spanish as the unifier of a much larger, disparate group of people across different class and ethnic and national backgrounds."
Professor Zentella describes herself as "an anthropolitical linguist" who studies what happens when people from different groups converge. Among other things, she has studied Spanglish, which she sees as "a way of making a graphic statement about having a foot in both cultural worlds."
She has also studied forms of pronunciation that are stigmatized, assumed by others to be lower class and therefore incorrect. "Some things get tagged as markers that then carry a lot of social weight," she said. "That's how groupness is conveyed through language."
Professor Otheguy has spent years studying the influence of English on New York Spanish, exploring the significance of English phrases that end up being translated word for word into Spanish, and of so-called loan words that are borrowed from English to express ideas that may not be expressed in Spanish.
For example, he said, early Spanish-speaking settlers in New York were mostly from the Caribbean, so they took "the winter vocabulary of English," creating words for things like steam, coat and boiler words that are spoken rather than written but that resemble their English counterparts.
"Many times the loan takes place even though there is a word that's usable and perfectly accessible to the people who borrow the English word," he said. "So it isn't simply a matter of filling a gap because the gap ain't there. The person knows a Spanish word and uses both of them."
So far, Professors Otheguy and Zentella and graduate students working on the pronoun study have interviewed some 120 Spanish-speaking New Yorkers, including 20 each who were born in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, or whose parents were born there.
Each group of 20 includes a range of people from different social classes, degrees of education and exposure to English. Some have had a lot of contact with others from their place of birth; some have had relatively little. They have lived in New York for varying lengths of time.
None were told the precise nature of the research, just that it entailed documenting the experiences of Latino immigrants in New York. They were asked about their background, their childhood, their experiences anything to get them to relax and keep talking.
Every interview was then transcribed, with every verb that could have had a pronoun highlighted in boldface. Each verb has been coded as to whether a pronoun was used and each interview is being analyzed to identify what factors predict pronoun use and how they differ between groups.
Findings are expected next year.
If linguistic behavior is an indication of identity, a merging of dialects might suggest a merging of identities, Professor Otheguy said. It could suggest that Latinos in New York are thinking of themselves less as members of national groups than they did in the past and more as members of a broader community.
But people also use language to distinguish themselves from others.
"So the possibility may be that the contact with other Hispanics does not create a sense of Hispanic fraternity but just the opposite," he said. "It creates a sense of wanting to be not mistaken for Mexican or Cuban. `I want to be Ecuadorean.' So that's the alternative."