Can you tell a Mexican accent from a Cuban one?

On a recent-ish episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, actor Paul Rodriguez talked a little bit about language. He was describing a show he was in and how one of the reasons it didn’t work out was because of the backgrounds of the actors in it. He said:

I knew there were problems at the beginning. First of all, to white America we all sound the same. But to Latinos, we know the difference between a Puerto Rican accent and a Cuban accent and a Mexican accent. And they cross-casted, you know – they put – my father was Joe Santos, an Italian, then my mother was Katy Jurado, Mexican, so it didn’t work but the attempt was good.

The part that really struck me is when Rodriguez says, “we know the difference between a Puerto Rican accent and a Cuban accent and a Mexican accent.” Think about it for a second. The entire family in the show was supposed to be from Mexico. Could you imagine someone saying that all European accents sound the same? Or that they can’t tell the difference between accents? Between (Hollywood’s stereotypical version of) an Irish accent and a German accent?

If you can tell the difference between a French person speaking English and a German person speaking English, then you should be able to tell the difference between Southern American accents. Right? But can you? I’m trained in linguistics and I don’t know if I could. But I would notice if Hollywood tried to pass off Arnold Schwarzenegger as being in the same family as Penélope Cruz. Something to think about.

Carmen Fought, a linguist who has studied this topic, says that we still do not know the relationship between Chicano English and, for example, Puerto Rican English. Chicano English is a term used to cover the varieties spoken by Mexican Americans in the southwest US, while Puerto Rican English is the variety spoken on the east coast of the US by people of Puerto Rican ethnicity. There are sure to be similarities, but we don’t yet know the differences. Fought also says that we don’t know much about the regional differences inside Chicano English. I would love to hear more people like Rodriguez – people who are familiar with these varieties – speak about them more. How do they know a speaker’s background is Mexico or Puerto Rico or Cuba? It’s all very, very interesting.

References

Fought, Carmen. 2014. “Chicano English”. Languages and dialects in the U.S.: Focus on diversity and linguistics, ed. by Marianna Di Paolo & Arthur K. Spears, 115–125. New York: Routledge.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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