The New York Latino English Project Page

New York Latino English (NYLE) is a term for native varieties of English characteristic of Latino New Yorkers. Not all Latinos in New York speak NYLE—nor are all NYLE speakers Latinos—but it is a form of English originating in and centered on that community.

How NYLE came to be

NYLE is the linguistic product of Latin American immigration to New York starting in the second half of the 20th Century and continuing into the 21st, and in particular the shift from Spanish to English. In shifting to English, Latinos follow the pattern of virtually all immigrant groups, but NYLE exists because unlike most of those other groups, the English many Latinos speak remains distinct from other New York varieties. Whereas particularly Jewish features (called Yinglish) are quite limited both in scope and usage, and Anglo Caribbean Americans largely lose their distinct creoles in the second generation, Latinos seem to have developed their own variety. The particular construction of race in the US offers an explanation as to why this different behavior takes place. The US has a long history of racial dialects, which in New York historically opposed local forms of Black and White speech. But Latinos are not generally seen as either White or Black whatever their skin color. Since they do not consider themselves White or Black, they do not want to "sound White" or "sound Black." Maintaining this difference is mainly accomplished by preserving certain features of Spanish in the English they speak. However, NYLE does not exist in isolation, and a listener may notice the influence of local African American and European American English (i.e., so-called Brooklynese) as well as Spanish. Some NYLE speakers sound more Black, some more White, and some more Spanish. Understanding the resulting patterns and exploring their social significance make studying NYLE particularly fascinating.

What NYLE is not:

NYLE is not "Spanglish," whatever is meant by that term. It is not "code switching," meaning changing backing and forth from Spanish to English. Some NYLE speakers cannot not even speak Spanish.

NYLE is not "learner English," in other words English learned as an adult or adolescent that is not native. A NYLE speaker does not have a "foreign accent" or speak with errors that come from incomplete learning of the language. It is a native variety of English, although it is what is called a "contact variety." It has been influenced by contact with another language, much in the way that Irish English contains features traceable to Irish (Gaelic).

What does NYLE sound like?

The best way to hear some extended NYLE, if you can't spend time on some New York streets, schools, or subways is seeing Raising Victor Vargas, a great movie about Dominican Americans on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Last time I tried the film clips and trailers didn't work on that site, but you can listen to the following short segment of an interview, which I recorded, in which a Queens teenager tells about how some guys stole some bootlegged CDs from a van in front of his building on September 11th, 2001.

Distinguishing Characteristics

As I wrote ealier, NYLE is characterized by a mix of African American English and local European American English with features from Spanish.For instance, as my collaborator Peter Slomanson discovered, one of the key features is an initial l that seems more Spanish than English. It is called a light l, and it is pronounced with the tongue bunched more forward in the mouth than in other varieties of New York English. This feature will be described in our article, “Peer Group Identification and Variation in New York Latino English Laterals” in English World-Wide to appear in Volume 52 (2) late in 2004.

Listen to the two NYLE examples of the word "like" with a light l and compare it to two non-NYLE speakers, one European American, one African American. The difference is subtle, but it can be made out:

    Light NYLE 1

    Light NYLE 2

    Dark NY European-American

    Dark NY African American

    Relationships with other forms of Latino English

    Almost all recent research on Latino English in the US has been done in the Southwest, particularly California. NYLE differs in two respects from these forms. First, NYLE speakers come from a much wider variety of national heritages than Latinos in California. Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico are the five largest sources of immigration to New York (in that order)—and that is why the flags of those countries can be found at the top of this page—but all Latin American countries are represented, as they are here. By contrast, in the Southwest, Mexico dominates. A recent source on that variety is Carmen Fought's book Chicano English in Context (2003). Another way NYLE differs from its West Coast equivalents is the strong influence of African American English on NYLE. This phenomenon was first studied by Walt Wolfram in some research he did way back in 1968. Believe it or not that is the last published study on NYLE until Peter's and my paper.

    The NYLE Research Project

    No dialect is monolithic, and NYLE is no exception. The tradition of research on variation in dialects was started by Bill Labov (great website!), who discovered that language variation reveals a lot about the social situation of speakers and about nature of the linguistic system. The NYLE research project uses the particular social context in which NYLE has arisen and is spoken to reveal information about both these areas of human life.

    The focus of my research is in a small high school in Queens, in which I recorded over a hundred speakers in two years of spending one or two days per week hanging out and talking to students and teachers. I am a former teacher myself in the school, although three years passed between my time there as a teacher and as a researcher. (Shout out to all the teachers and kids in that school!)

    People divide themselves up into different types, some of which are mutually exclusive and some of which overlap, and some of which are embedded inside others. So we have males and females, gays and straights, Latinos, Whites, and Asians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, young-old, middle class, working class, low income, and on and on. Stanford Sociolinguist, Penny Eckert discovered of the importance of what are called peer cultures, in influencing the speech of teens. Since then, much attention has been paid to adolesents in general and their peer cultures in particular. Carmen Fought and another sociolinguist, Norma Mendoza-Denton, have examined the roles of peer cultures, particularly gang-affiliations on Mexican American English.

    In the NYLE project, peer cultures examined so far are Hip-Hop, Skater/BMX, Computer Geek, and this research led to some side work on Hip-Hop, particularly rap as literacy. Gangs seem less important here. There is a clear association of Hip-Hop with a greater number of African American features. No surprise there, but what is interesting is that the Latino Hip-Hoppers do not assimilate totally to African American speech; they retain some NYLE features. Similarly, Skaters and Geeks use more European American features, while also maintaining NYLE ones. Still, the strongest NYLE features seem to be those who do not affiliate with any of these broad peer cultures, but are what I call "Family Oriented."

    However, data is in its preliminary stage of analysis, and more peer cultures will be examined as time goes on. In fact, if you are a New York high school student and would like to participate, let me know. I can always use help in gathering data from a real insider (you don't have to be Latino).