Boston’s Spanish-speaking population largely hails from six places: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Guatemala. But as different as their dialects are, they appear to be merging in Boston.
That’s what one Boston University linguistics professor is researching.
In a cafeteria kitchen in Brighton, a group of coworkers is talking about the weekend.
Jose is from El Salvador.
“Estuve con mis niñas, tengo dos niñas, muy lindas. Allí lo pasé en casa con ellas, en el día. Y por la noche pues a trabajar.”
Patricia is from Panama:
“El fin de semana pasado me estaba preparando para las fiestas, decorando la casa, poniendo lucecitas y estrellitas por todas partes para recibir la navidad y el año nuevo.”
Miguel is from the Dominican Republic:
“¿Que hice? Fui a los movies con los niños, le pasé con la familia, todo tranquilito.”
Even though all three are speaking Spanish, the speed with which they talk, the way they pronounce S's, J's and R's, and their use of vocabulary differ. So do their accents and idioms. And it can all be measured. That’s what Daniel Erker is doing at Boston University, as a professor of Spanish and linguistics.
In his lab and office on Commonwealth Avenue, he’s studying large sound waves on a screen.
“What we find is patterns of variation that are specific to individual speakers and individual speech communities,” he said.
“Speech communities” refers to groups of people with a same common language, coming together – in this case, in an urban setting. Erker and his students are interviewing dozens of native Spanish speakers in an effort to understand how their language evolves here in the U.S.
“Different varieties of the same language interacting through speakers, of course, promotes language change,” he said.
When people with a common language move to another country, their language of origin starts to change. Quickly. Especially when you add a new language – English – to the mix. So Spanish is evolving right here in Boston. This research is a continuation of work Erker did in New York, where he found the emergence of unique words, like “carpeta” for carpet.
“You can track across multiple generations these microlinguistic phenomena. So we look at their kids and then we look at their kids’ kids. And what we find is that over the span of usually two to three generations, we find demonstrable shifts, systematic shifts, in the way language is produced.”
This 36-year-old man has just arrived from Puerto Rico and now lives in East Boston.
“¿Cuáles idiomas hablas con tu mamá?”
Español. Ella no sabe inglés.”
Erker’s asking him what language he speaks with various family members.
“¿Hijos? Español. ¿Amigos? Español? ¿Jefe? Depende. Y amigos depende también porque....”
This man speaks Caribbean-style Spanish. Final syllable sounds like S and N are often omitted, and his R’s often sound like L’s. Ideally, Erker will record this man’s speech over time to see how it changes. And the research has practical applications.
"In developing bilingual education, in trying to figure out where and in what context multilingual services must be provided at a municipal level,” he said.
But Erker’s research is prompted by curiosity about how people use a language given social context. Back in the cafeteria in Brighton, the Spanish-speaking coworkers say they’ve already noticed their speech changing since they’ve been in the U.S. The woman from Panama notes that when she goes back to visit, people often hear her accent and ask her where she’s from.