Speaking English in Spanish Harlem: The Role of Rhythm

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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This study investigates how community change is reflected in language, by examining the English of 28 Puerto Rican-identified native English speakers across two generations. Prosodic rhythm, which has been shown to differentiate Latino Englishes from other American English varieties including contemporary African American English, is measured here using the Pairwise Variability Index (Low, Grabe and Nolan 2000). Results indicate that New York Puerto Rican English speakers in East Harlem maintain syllable-timing (a substrate influence from Spanish) across-the-board, even when contact with African American English is evident at other levels of the grammar. PVI scores are higher for younger speakers (indicating more stress-timed speech) than for older speakers (indicating more syllable-timed speech) and younger speakers show a more even spread of PVI scores than older speakers do. Age differences appear to be linked to social factors like ethnic integration of housing, Spanish usage and social networks. Finally, results point to men showing more similar, syllable-timed speech, while women show more variation when it comes to speech rhythm. The results of this study shed light on how contact between members of different ethnoracial/linguistic groups who live in close proximity may produce dialect change, and also reveal the ways in which speakers negotiate their own linguistic identities as part of a community in transition.

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