Influenced by a diverse range of cultures and historical events, Puerto Rico language is a unique tongue. Since the Spanish colonisation of the island in the 16th Century, Puerto Rico language has often been the centre of controversy, and to this day, is subject to discussion by government officials.
The main and official languages of Puerto Rico are English and Spanish. Other languages spoken in some small communities of Puerto Rico include Corsican, Haitian Creole French, French, German, Ladino, Eastern Yiddish, Chinese, Papiamentu, Italian and North and South Levantine. With its fascinating history, Puerto Rico language is unique to the island and clearly distinct from mainland European Spanish.
How Puerto Rico Language Developed
Before its discovery by Spain, Puerto Rico was known as Boriken, by its inhabitants, the Taíno people. The Taíno people originated from the Arawak Indians, and would have travelled to Puerto Rico over the sea. Tragically, the colonisation of Puerto Rico by Spain would bring an end to the traditional Taíno way of life, and loss of the original Puerto Rico language with them. Historical records show that the Taíno, whose name in their own language meant “good people”, generally suffered under harsh treatment during Spanish rule, while illness claimed many lives.
Due to this loss of many Taíno generations, studies into the first Puerto Rico language are fairly limited. Very few vocal samples have been recorded, however, when you take a look at Puerto Rico language, and indeed world languages, as they are used today, it is possible to spot numerous words which have Taíno roots. Huracan (hurricane), hamaka (hammock) and Tabaco (tobacco) are three words which are in daily use, while many Puerto Rican place names are from the Taíno words.
Many plants and animals also take Taíno names – such as the Colibri (hummingbird) and boniato (a sweet flavoured starchy tuber). The sound of the Taíno vocalisation can be heard in the sometimes nasal pronunciations used in the Puerto Rico language. Today, much work is being done to revitalise the Taíno language and bring it back into use, helping the people of Puerto Rico to discover their Taíno heritage.
The arrival of Spanish colonists in Puerto Rico of course meant that the Spanish language was introduced to the island. During the 15th and 16th centuries, large numbers of Spaniards, mainly from the Andalusia region travelled to Puerto Rico. The Andaluz accent is recognisably different from the Spanish spoken in other regions in Spain – even the untrained ear will note a habit of dropping “d” sounds from words, so habladobecomes hablao and comprado becomes comprao.
Another significant Spanish influence came from Canarian Spanish, many of whom also migrated to Puerto Rico during this period. Experts in languages state that Canarian Spanish is the closest language to Puerto Rican Spanish, while it has been noted that the intonation of the language is similar to the way Taíno is spoken.
As mentioned previously, when the Spanish first arrived in Puerto Rico, they used Taíno people as slaves. Although some Taíno escaped to the mountains, the majority sadly lost their lives working under Spain’s rule. This left the Spanish with a problem – they no longer had enough labourers. The way the resolved this was to import slaves from elsewhere, particularly Africa. The influence of African slaves in Puerto Rico is very much evident in the culture, music and art of the island, and has also left its traces in the language.
The majority of the slaves taken to Puerto Rico were from the Gold Coast, and there are records of more than 31 tribes represented by slaves on the island. There are many words which are used in the Puerto Rico language which originated with these African tribes : mofongo – a traditional soup, malanga – a type of vegetable, mango– a tropical fruit and rumba – a dance. Certain vocal rhythms notable in Puerto Rican Spanish also find their roots in African – up and down intonations, and cutting off of consonant sounds for example.
Some African slaves also spoke what was called Bozal Spanish. First recorded in the Iberian Pensinsula during the 15th Century, Bozal was a mixture of Portugese, Spanish and native tribal languages, and was used by African born slaves who struggled to speak European languages. Speakers of Bozal sometimes interchanged l and r in words, a pattern which can be seen in Puerto Rico language today.
Spain’s rule of Puerto Rico came to an end when the United States took control of the island in 1898. The military government strongly promoted the idea of Americanization of the Puerto Rican people by encouraging them to learn and speak English. In 1900, the Foraker Act declared civil government in Puerto Rico, which was the beginning of decades of disagreement as to what the official language of the island should be.
The Language Law of 1902 took steps towards a dual language system, to be used in schools and government offices, however in 1904, Ronald Falker made moves to implement what was known as the Phillipine Plan. The main aim of this was to make English the sole language of Puerto Rico. Teachers were encouraged to learn English properly, with additional training plans put in place and an annual English exam to ensure their skills were sufficient
By 1911, the Puerto Rican people began to fight back against the suppression of their language, with the Puerto Rican Teachers Association successfully achieving an end to the teacher exam system. Over the years, various politicians promoted plans to make either English or Spanish into the official language of the island, which had caused continual controversy.
Today, English is taught as a compulsory second language in all schools, although it was estimated in 1996 than only 20% of Puerto Ricans speak English, and those that did tended to live in urban areas. There still remains some resistance to English, as traditional Puerto Ricans believe that to lose their language is to lose their cultural identity.
The United States influence can also be seen in Puerto Rican Spanish. Many Anglicisms can be heard, when words are borrowed from English – such as “shopping” and “hot dog”. Another quirk is the use of a Spanish word, which has a different meaning, but sounds the same in English – for example bloques for blocks. The term Spanglish was invented by Puerto Rican Salvador Tio in 1940, to describe this use of two languages blended together. Now used by many authors and poets, the first Spanglish novel was written by Puerto Rican, Giannina Braschi in 1998, with the title “Yo-Yo Boing”.
To conclude, Puerto Rico’s rich history and the fact that speakers of different languages often had to find ways to communicate has developed a language which has multiple roots but its own unique style. Although English may be a vital language in terms of Puerto Rico being a part of the United States, Puerto Rican Spanish will always be the true voice of Puerto Rico.