Poster of `Diálogos de la Lengua` sponsored by Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española

Poster of `Diálogos de la Lengua` sponsored by Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española

The vernacular language of Puerto Rico is one of the basic components of the island’s culture. Given its capacity to survive over time, this language has also become a significant part of the collective identity. The Spanish spoken by Puerto Ricans includes all the forms of expression inherited from standardized Spanish as well as those unique traits found exclusively in local usage. The cultural syncretism that has been historically present in Puerto Rico has also been an important factor in the adaptation and transformation of the Spanish language, most specifically through a process known as creolization.

Spanish during the First Centuries of Colonial Rule 

One thing is the Iberian Spanish that was transplanted to Puerto Rico during colonial times, quite another is the Spanish spoken on the island today. Any attempt to understand Latin American Spanish must include a distinction between the formative phase and present-day realities.

It is important to note that the Spanish language that arrived in Puerto Rico in the 16th century was not standardized in terms of usage, but rather an amalgam of distinctive “ways of speaking” influenced by region, age, and sociocultural levels. In the 16th century, after a long formative period that began in the Middle Ages, different regional variants of old Castilian began to appear in the Iberian peninsula, first to the north of Burgos and then gradually extending to the south, east, and west. The letters and official documents written in Puerto Rico during this period provide evidence of early Iberian linguistic variants, both in terms of geographical origin as well as social stratification. Logically, the first accounts of Puerto Rico would be written by Spaniards; however, it was not until 1582 that we find a document produced by a criollo or native-born writer. This text, which is known as the Memoria de Melgarejo, already shows certain characteristics of adaptation in the language typical of a period of profound linguistic change, reflecting competing forms, both old and new.

The complex history of the Spanish of the island, from the 16th through the 19th centuries, is marked first by its coexistence with indigenous groups, and then by the successive waves of various peoples of African origin. While the first group quickly disappeared, the second eventually underwent a process of Hispanicization. Spanish was thus transformed and enriched by the inclusion of loan words from these primary sources, to which new meanings, rhythms, and tones were applied.

In the 19th century a new literature with its own unique flavor, referred to as costumbrismo, coexisted with the formal discourse found in letters, accounts, legal and administrative records, etc., which continued to be produced during colonial times. Classic examples of the popular language that was typical of costumbrismo are found in the novel El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso, and the character José, a slave born in Africa, in the dramatic work La juega de gallos o el negro bozal, by Ramón C.F. Caballero, from which the following excerpt is taken:

Nasaria, mio chinita,
la pena me ta muriendo,
y tú siempre ta riendo,
sin cuedate tú de mí.

Although literary texts are not an accurate reflection of speech, they nonetheless exhibit certain traits of spontaneous local expression –whether urban or rural, general or more specific in nature. Writers have always formed and developed their characters through a distinctive use of language, and Puerto Rican authors are no exception. It is obvious that costumbrismo provided an indirect source for the island’s popular language by the beginning of the 20th century. A more scientific understanding of the language would not appear until the second half of the 20th century with the results of dialect research. Current advancements in modern linguistics have enabled us to recognize that language is divided into regional variants. Thus, the Spanish of Puerto Rico, with all its particular traits and tendencies, has been identified as one such variant.

First dictionary of Puerto Rican vocabulary, Second Edition published in 1937 by Augusto Malaret

First dictionary of Puerto Rican vocabulary, Second Edition published in 1937 by Augusto Malaret

The language of Puerto Rico is a linguistic variant of modern Spanish, distinguished by its innovation. First and foremost, it is useful to identify the reasons or causes of this characteristic as one of its most important traits. This section will explore the particular factors of the language’s innovative nature.

In order to understand the theories proposed by scholars to explain the innovative character of Puerto Rican Spanish, we must first refer to the Caribbean Spanish base, a controversial subject that has been interpreted in the 20th Century primarily from two points of view:

a) The theory of Andalusianism, which defends the importance that the innovative Andalusian dialect had on the linguistic leveling of Caribbean Spanish during the 16th century, and
b) The Creole base theory, which proposes a creolizedbase for the region’s present-day Spanish.

In support of Andalusianism, we now have demographic data of the 16th century Spanish migration to the West Indies gathered by Boyd Bowman. These data indicate that the Andalusians comprised a significant majority during the early phases of colonization and that they had great social prestige in the region—when Spain’s presence in the Americas was limited to these islands and prior to the colonization of the continent. The triumph of the usage and attitudes of a particular group of people in a community can be determined by two favorable sociolinguistic factors: the number of individuals of that group and their occupations. The documentary research of modern Hispanic philology is discovering today an Andalusian base in the process of linguistic leveling in the West Indies. According to a third conciliatory hypothesis, an initial standardization of the Andalusian origin could have taken place, being later reinforced by African influences.

The Spanish of Puerto Rico (I): Pronunciation and Syntax

The characteristic traits of Puerto Rican Spanish at all linguistic levels can be understood within the framework of innovation that typifies the Caribbean region. Modern dialectal research focuses on various specific phenomena (e.g. the loss of the sound “s” at the end of a word, the cases of aspiration, or the neutralization of final “l” and “r” syllables) as “stages within a process of change.” This standpoint allows us to identify the similar events shared by different dialects in a common region, the Caribbean region in our case, and the stage in which theses dialects exist in relation to this shared process.

The innovative nature of the Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico is also found in the language of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, but the way in which these three dialects or linguistic variants have developed is not the same. The Spanish spoken in the Dominican Republic, for example, has almost completely lost the pronunciation of the final “s” sound, while in Cuba and Puerto Rico it is more common to hear aspiration of the final “s” sound.

An important distinguishing factor between dialectal variants pertains to the degree of acceptance or rejection given to a specific phenomenon within each language community. The same phenomenon can be valorized in different ways, and this valorization by society, not the presence of the phenomenon itself, can create a distinguishing trait, which eventually manifests itself in usage or non-usage of the phenomenon. Social rejection can, therefore, block the process of adaptation or change within a given group. Rejection may also be due to completely non-linguistic criteria. Comparative dialectology and sociolinguistics are two fields that are currently devoted to identifying:

a) the exclusive traits of a dialectal variant,
b) the typology and extent to which phenomena are shared with other variants, and
c) the degree of social acceptance that these phenomena may have within each variant.

Tesoro Lexicográfico del español de Puerto Rico

Tesoro Lexicográfico del español de Puerto Rico

The lexicon of a language community and other cultural manifestations provide a living testimony of its history. The lexicon:

a) transmits concepts from diverse origins,

b) documents the adoption of new forms to a wide-range of fields,

c) confirms the historical presence of disappeared human groups,

d) demonstrates the language’s vitality in its inexhaustible ability to recycle forms and meanings and roves, as is evidenced by the common speaker, and the dynamic nature of the language’s endless process of shifts, loans, and forgotten words.

Puerto Rico’s geographical location, which has favored a wide range of ethnic and linguistic exchanges and influences since colonial times, explains the richness of its Caribbean Spanish.

The Iberian lexicon transplanted to Puerto Rico not only adopted words from native languages (indigenisms), African languages (Africanisms), as well as from English and other languages (e.g.: Gallicisms), but also adapted to the new Caribbean reality through the process of creolization of the language.

Although the vocabulary of the transplanted language was greatly enriched with the adoption of indigenous and African vocabulary, it was however, the slow process of adaptation that made possible creative and innumerable semantic changes that fostered an increased lexical inventory by adding depth and nuance to the island’s linguistic legacy.

Because of the relationship that travelers have had with the sea on long and continuous journeys many seafaring terms have been adapted. This process is one that Puerto Rico shares with other regions: amarrar or to tie (fasten a boat to port with a maroma or a rope) has been generalized “to tie anything”; caleta (a diminutive of cala or small bay) which originally referred to “a small boat used to enter coves” came to signify “the street that leads down to the sea”; halar or to pull (to pull an oar while rowing) was used for the pulling of anything in general; rancho or (each one of the divisions in a ship”s crew) came to be “hut or house”; volantín (a type of string with one or more pieces of bait for fishing) was transformed into “paper kite,” and finally embarcar (to embark) which acquired the meaning “to trick/to fool,” provides living testimony of the many risks one encountered while traveling.

Along with the seafaring terms, the country’s Creole spirit found a way to put humor into new synonyms and expressions: labioso for talkative, lambío for barefaced, bojote for a small and stout individual, juma for drunkenness, aguzado for sharp or clever, raspacoco for shaved head. While some words and sounds such as “¡umjú!” and ¡bendito! were used to express mistrust and commiseration, metaphoric expressions abound, such as those that link hope to a “green grasshopper” (saltamontes) and bagpipes with a “cock”s wattle” (barba de gallo).

The section devoted to Puerto Rico’s lexicon introduces the cultural elements of the lexicon and explains how they have given the language a character of its own. The article also explains the present-day tendencies of the evolution of Puerto Rico”s lexicon.

Poster about Simposio Internacional sobre Bilinguismo

Poster about Simposio Internacional sobre Bilinguismo

It is not possible to discuss the Spanish of Puerto Rico without referring to the linguistic situation of Puerto Ricans in the United States. This is due to the number of Puerto Ricans in the US which is equivalent to thepopulation residing on the island, the contact between both groups, the constant temporary visitors added to the number residing on the mainland, and those who are continuously coming and going for professional or academic reasons.

Although this reality, which was favored by the political relationship Puerto Rico maintained with the United States, was understood for much of the 20th century, interest in these transplanted communities has increased dramatically in recent decades. This is due to various factors as well as to new situations governing the process of immigration in general. The exodus that occurred from the countries of Latin American to the United States, for example, would place various Spanish-speaking communities in ongoing proximity with the English language. The official solution to a range of social problems that might be triggered by this process was to seek cultural assimilation.

Among the evident difficulties faced by displaced groups, communication was one of the most important. Therefore, in an effort to identify the most urgent problems, the public education system welcomed with enthusiasm experimental bilingual projects. Linguistics, which had already shown interest in situations of languages in contact, took advantage of the living laboratory offered by the Hispanic communities to study the:

a) personal and collective attitudes toward both languages,
b) concept of bilingualismand its typologies,
c) relationship between family support and learning success,
d) level of knowledge of the native language and its effects in bilingual education,
e) level of personal identification with the vernacular language, and
f) behavior of the different groups in the same situations.

Studies dealing with the Spanish spoken in the United States have benefited from this research, and linguists have focused on Hispanic communities in order to specify concepts that are now fundamental to the study of languages in contact: transferences, influences, calques, loan words, code switching, and interlanguage.

The Spanish of the Puerto Rican communities in the United States has begun to become more generally understood in recent decades, and this section offers an overview about the current situation.

Publication regarding use of language policies in Puerto Rico (1998)

Publication regarding use of language policies in Puerto Rico (1998)

The situation of languages in contact is an evident reality of today’s world. Aside from the established linguistic relationships that occurred in frontier or border areas, such as with Portuguese in Brazil or French in Haiti, Spanish has undergone situations of contact with various indigenous languages in many countries of Latin America (the Mayan language family in Central America, Quechuaor Aymará in Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador, and Guaraní in Paraguay, etc.). For more than 50 years, English from the United States has also coexisted in the immigrant communities of Hispanics established on the mainland. It is important to point out, however, that Puerto Rico’s political status has created a unique environment for contact between Spanish and English.

These two languages have co-existed for more than a hundred years, and although English had been the language of instruction for almost half a century, the island has not been transformed to an English-speaking country. Spanish continues to be the first language of Puerto Ricans and the instrument for daily and formal communication.

This situation of language contact, nonetheless, represents an exclusive and distinctive feature of Puerto Rico, both in the broad view of the language as well as in relation to the rest of the Caribbean region. It is therefore essential to consider and closely study this characteristic.

For a long period of time, most of the usage in Puerto Rican Spanish that departed from the accepted norm was explained as deriving from the influence of English. Later, when the general processes of linguistic change were better understood, and when comparative dialectology began to discover the same phenomena in other regions, the subject had to be reconsidered with the recognition that more in-depth studies were needed.

New research has slowly begun to more carefully distinguish traits that may have been adapted from external influences—in this case, English—from those generated by the internal systems of the language itself, following its own tendencies to evolve. New analytic methodologies now subject phenomena to rigorous investigation before qualifying them as Anglicized structures or phenomena that have resulted from contact.

The influence of English in the lexicon is most evident in the use of foreign words that can be easily identified since they have not been adapted into the language system. This explains why “Anglicisms” that may pass inadvertently are nonetheless manifestations of the English influence on the syntax, as are the word combinations used in discourse, and the various influences that have shaped meaning.

Only through a thorough and non-purist approach to language instruction, as well as an increased linguistic awareness by the speakers, can these problems be recognized. The worst enemy is not contact with another language, but being taught in a deficient manner and then subjected to critical or unusual linguistic situations. Only through rigorous and correct teaching can these problems be identified, not only those found in concrete and unacceptable usage that occur within the language, but also in the deep linguistic deficiencies that may pass inadvertently such as the lack of vocabulary or unsatisfactory knowledge of the basic structure of the language and its expressive registers.

Palabras de Puerto Rico, published by Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española

Palabras de Puerto Rico, published by Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española

During the Spanish colonial period, language instruction in Puerto Rico tended to follow rules of grammar that had been handed down from the Renaissance. In general, education was a luxury, one that was in reach for only a privileged few. By the 20th century, language instruction had undergone few changes; however, from all existing accounts, it appears that beginning in the 19th century, Iberian Spanish was given greater emphasis as the only correct model to be used. So much can be seen in the considerable number of texts that have been preserved from that century.

As late as 1919, a school text appeared (published in Ponce under the title Ortofonía, Isaias Rodríguez, El Día publishers), which provided various pronunciation exercises so that children could distinguish between such words as abrazar/abrasar, acecinar/asesinar, gayo/gallo, etc. There was no recognition that, by this time, the Spanish spoken on the island had already formed its own innovative character with its own unique traits (e.g., seseo– the phonetic equivalence given to s and z; and yeísmo– the phonetic equivalence given to y and ll). Some of these traits had been spawned originally in medieval Iberian regionalisms, while others were the result of the process of Creolization.

With the arrival of the 20th century came another major obstacle: the introduction of legislation that would make English the official language of the country’s school system. According to this law, teaching would consequently cease to be solely conducted in Spanish. Since it took effect in 1905, this regulation underwent various revisions during the first years of the century, but it was not until the 1940s when it was entirely repealed. During these years, Mariano Villaronga, Commissioner of Education under then governor Luis Muñoz Marín, finally initiated the educational reform that reinstated Spanish as the official language of instruction during the 1949-50 academic year.

The separation of Spanish from instructional communication on one hand and institutional neglect, on the other, were influential factors that could have placed the Spanish of Puerto Rico in an irreversible state of oblivion. Nevertheless, it was the people of Puerto Rico who resolutely preserved the native language. In 1991, Puerto Rico’s loyalty to its language was recognized by other Spanish-speaking nations and it was granted the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters.

Presently, there seem to be no real threats to maintaining Spanish as the principle means of communication within the island’s school system. Current dangers reside in the failure to use appropriate instructional criteria and continually experiment with programs and methods, and failure to provide adequately trained teachers methods and teachers, all of which are in urgent need of being brought up to date.

El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso, a literary work in `costumbrismo` genre

El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso, a literary work in `costumbrismo` genre

A special relationship between politics and language began to emerge in Puerto Rico in the early 20th century, with the Act of 1902. The specific motives for this legislation were formed during the early years of U.S. military occupation, between 1898 and 1900. Once this law was applied, instruction of English was used as part of a massive literacy campaign. This followed the recommendations of then U.S. Commissioner of Education, W.T. Harris, to the Puerto Rico Board of Education under the administration of military governor Victor S. Clark.

Along with this first attempt to Americanize the country, a federal court was created, the implicit official language of which was to be English. Thus the language of the new sovereign government became entrenched within the two bastions of national culture: education and law.

The Act of 1902, which was rescinded by Article 4 of the Act of 1991, was in force for much of the 20thcentury. The five sections of this law essentially provided for:

a) the indistinct use of both Spanish and English (Section 1),
b) the employment of translators and interpreters, as deemed necessary (Section 2),
c) prohibition against annulling any public or private document, regardless of which of the two languages it was written in (Section 3),
d) the word written in the preceding section was mean to include any type of text (Section 4), and lastly,
e) municipal police offices or courts are to be excluded from this law (Section 5).

The “indiscriminate use of both languages,” as set forth by the Act of 1902, did not mean that Spanish and English were both to be considered official languages, but it did leave the door open for public and legal use of either one of them to the detriment of the other.

The Jones Act (1917-1952) agreed that the language used by the members of the Legislative Assembly should be Spanish, which strengthened, without finally resolving, the proposal made by José Padín in 1934 favoring instruction in Spanish during the first eight years of school.

Since 1949, even with the Act of 1902 still in force, instruction in Spanish has no longer been threatened. At the end of the 20th century, then Governor Rafael Hernández Colón approved the Act of 1991, which annulled the Act of 1902 and proclaimed Spanish as the only official language of Puerto Rico.

In 1991, a referendum was also held by the government for the Legal Establishment of Democratic Rights, with only a YES or NO vote being accepted. Approval would transform these rights into constitutional clauses. The fifth democratic right provided that “every consideration regarding status should guarantee, under any circumstances, our culture, [our] language and our own identity….” The majority of the votes were for the NO option and this set the stage for the opposition pro-statehood party, which won the elections the following year.

The Act of 1993, which partially amended the Act of 1991, explicitly stipulated that both languages (English and Spanish) be recognized as official. Thus it cannot be argued that the Act of 1993 replaced the Act of 1902, since the latter made no special provision for the official status of both languages.


Author: Dra. Mar Vaquero 
Published: September 15, 2014.

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