Spanish in New York

Spanish in New York: Language contact, dialectal leveling, and structural continuity. By Ricardo Otheguy and Ana Celia Zentella. (Oxford studies in sociolinguistics.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xix, 299. ISBN 9780199737406. $35.

Reviewed by Natalie Operstein, California State University Fullerton

This book is a study in urban sociolinguistics, focusing on the evolving Spanish of Latino New Yorkers. Based on Spanish-language interviews with 140 consultants from six countries (namely, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico), the authors employ the methods of quantitative sociolinguistics to investigate the variable realization of subject personal pronouns with finite verbs (e.g. yo canto versus canto ‘I sing’). They use information about the rate of use of these pronouns to draw conclusions about the extent of continuity between Latin American and New York City Spanish, as well as the extent to which Spanish in New York is being transformed under the influence of dialect leveling and contact with English.

The authors find that of the two types of contact phenomena, contact with English has a greater and more uniform impact on Spanish in New York than interdialectal contact. The overall direction of change is toward the rise in pronominal rates for all the groups examined; specifically, the authors note that established immigrants use more subject pronouns than immigrant newcomers; second-generation speakers use more pronouns than first-generation speakers; and, for some subgroups, higher pronoun rates can be linked to higher proficiency in English.

In the case of dialect leveling, the outcome is found to be more selective and dependent on in- versus out-group orientation with respect to the observed regional divisions. On the basis of their pronominal use, the authors identify two such divisions: Caribbeans (consisting of Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans) and Mainlanders (consisting of Mexicans, Colombians, and Ecuadorians). The Caribbean group, characterized by higher pronominal use, is homogeneous in its pronoun rates across all demographic strata, while Mainlanders are found to be internally differentiated according to gender, education, class, and socio-economic status.

A major theme stressed throughout the book is that of a balance between continuity with Latin American linguistic patterns and change due to language and dialect contact. The authors expressly contradict the claim that the simplification frequently observed in the grammar of second-generation Spanish speakers, including higher subject pronoun rates, is due to incomplete acquisition. Instead, they take the alternative view that simplification in bilingual lects is internal to the system and represents a systematically coherent grammar. The authors briefly discuss a connection between the simplification patterns observed in the data and previous episodes of simplification in the history of Spanish, making their study relevant for diachronic Spanish linguistics.

The book’s major research themes are spread over its ten chapters, and detailed descriptions of the experimental procedures are interspersed with theoretical discussions. The book is enhanced by two appendixes, which provide the questionnaire and coding manual used in the study. Although technically sophisticated, the book is written accessibly and provides details that are relevant to the study of Spanish in New York and also to theoretical questions related to language contact, dialect leveling, and linguistic variation. The book will be of particular interest to sociolinguists, dialectologists, and those interested in bilingualism, urban linguistics, and the history of Spanish.