Ricardo Otheguy

Professor Ricardo Otheguy

Linguistics Professor Ricardo Otheguy analyzes New York Spanish, which gave us the street name Loisaida Avenue (Lower East Side).

In English, the Big Apple slogan “I Love New York” is simple. But in Spanish, there are two choices: “Yo amo a Nueva York” or “Amo a Nueva York.”

Researchers say the presence or absence of one little personal pronoun—”yo,” or “I” —may say plenty about the Spanish-speaking New Yorker declaring his or her admiration for the city. Those who have been in New York a long time tend to use more personal pronouns than do more recent Latino arrivals, researchers say. So do those coming from the Caribbean, as compared with those from mainland countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.

Ricardo Otheguy, a linguistics professor at The Graduate Center and director of the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society, and Prof. Ana Celia Zentella of the University of California, San Diego, have studied the use of these subject personal pronouns.

“We have discovered that Spanish usage is becoming more like English usage,” says Otherguy, “and that in addition, Spanish in New York City is under clear dialect leveling pressures, meaning that the different ways of speaking that immigrants from different places bring to New York tend to become more similar over time.” This may reflect “the growth of a new New York Latino identity,” he said.

Otheguy and Zentella conducted 300 hours of oral interviews with 142 people and extracted 60,000 conjugated verbs, tallying the subject personal pronouns, which are used far more extensively in English than Spanish and are heard more in some Spanish-speaking countries than others.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, established that the New York City speakers could be divided into Caribbeans and those from mainland countries, and that while pronoun use increased for both, Caribbeans—particularly Dominicans—used significantly more overt pronouns.

“In the course of one generation,” Otheguy says, “the pronoun rate increased significantly. Those classified as New Yorkers—they were either born in the city or came here on or before age 3—use more pronouns than those who are classified as newcomers—they were either born in Latin America, came to the city at or before age 17 and have lived here for five or fewer years.”

The Otheguy/Zentella study is one of several that analyze aspects of Spanish as it is spoken in the city. The data also is being used to study words that Spanish speakers in New York City borrow from English. “Every language has these loanwords,” Otheguy says. “In English, for example, fiancé is a loanword from French, patio is a loanword from Spanish and frankfurter is a loanword from German.”

In New York City Spanish, there are many loanwords from English, but they do not conform to the usual 50/50 masculine/feminine balance, he says. “What is interesting is that while the regular Spanish words continue to be about half masculine and half feminine as they are in Spain and Latin America, the loanwords tend to enter the Spanish language as masculine,” he says. “That’s why on the streets of New York it is el subway, el lunch, and, even if the person referred to is a woman, el baby-sitter.”