My students often joke that I speak four different versions of Spanish and English: their prestige versions, a southern Dominican dialect, and an English a friend likes to call “urban vernacular Dominican-inflected Spanglish.”
While I teach prestige English and Spanish I have a deep-rooted love for my dialect and “non-standard” English. They are my default, the languages of my childhood; when I am frustrated, angry, passionate, enthusiastic, they wrap me in the comfort and familiarity of their expressiveness.
A friend recently gave me a book called “Cómo hablamos los dominicanos: un enfoque sociolingüístico” by writer and researcher Orlando Alba—and it has deepened my love for my dialect more. The book tells us much we already knew, but I think there is a certain amount of pride in knowing that the Spanish we speak, which is so often considered inferior by both outsiders and ourselves, is worthy of study.
This myth of inferiority leads people to believe that Dominican Spanish is unintelligible even to other hispanoparlantes. This is patently untrue; each Spanish-speaking country has its particular slang that can be incomprehensible to foreigners—I experienced this in Cuba—and though some words might be unfamiliar, the building blocks of the language are much the same.
THE DOMINICAN DIALECT
Perhaps due to the isolated nature of island development we seem to continue use of words that are considered obsolete or archaic like mata for plant and bregar for to struggle/toil. Alba muses that it is possible that nowhere else in the Spanish-speaking world are so many dated words still used. It might even be the source of the Dominican use of the word guapo, which in many countries means handsome but in the Dominican Republic means angry or braggart (from the “obsolete” verb guapear).
However, we also speak a dialect that is constantly changing and making space for new words like parqueo for parking lot and bipear for paging someone on a beeper or leaving a missed call on a cellphone in order to get someone to call you back.
It would be impossible to condense every little nuance of the Dominican dialect into a blogpost, so here are just a few things that might help aid the listening comprehension of our dialect.
Dominican Spanish is characterized by
- A removal of the final d between vowels (cansa’o, asopa’o,)
- removal of the “s” at the end of words syllables and in syllables followed by consonants.
- words that begin with “h” being pronounced like a Spanish “j” (jambre instead of hambre, jarto instead of harto)
- Some “r” being pronounced as an “l” or “i” depending on the region (cualto o cauito for cuarto)
- inverted syntax for questions (an example with the above points: ¿cómo tú ta? for ¿cómo estás tú?)—This is credited to African influence
ROOTS & INFLUENCES
The Dominican Republic was settled by people from the Canary Islands and the Andalusian region of Spain. This Spanish is characterized by slightly different pronunciation and more Arabic words than that spoken in other parts of Spain.
A testamente to the resilient nature of our native people, our dialect has retained a large number of Taíno words. Similarly, African slaves brought elements of their languages which have also been absorbed. A more recent surge in anglicisms (words rooted in English) can be credited to past US occupations of our country as well as its location inside the American sphere of influence.
While the Dominican dialect is different enough to render it recognizable by ear it is still similar enough to other spoken Spanish variations to be completely understandable.
SOCIAL CONTEXT & STIGMA
The book, “Cómo hablamos los dominicanos” addresses a statement I hear a lot, both as a Spanish teacher and a Dominican—that somehow Dominican Spanish is bad or wrong. It’s not, it’s just different. In it, our dialect carries a history of colonialism, revolt, occupation, the violence of assimilation, resistance.
Alba speculates that the belief in the inferiority and incorrectness of the Dominican dialect might be one of the reasons that Dominicans see the world outside of the Dominican Republic as inherently better. Which in turn, may have something to do with, along with other sociopolitical and historical factors, why so many Dominicans leave the island.
One of my favourite quotes from the book is “Languages cannot be corrupted, they simply change, evolve, to be able to fulfill their purpose…And therein lies the beauty.”
To learn more words that don’t mean what you think in the Dominican Republic, click here.
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