Michelle Antelo was born and raised in Miami but has never lived anywhere else. After learning Spanish at home from her Cuban parents, she always thought her English, which she learned at school, was up to American standards.
But, as many Miamians have learned, her way of speaking stuck out around people from places other than Miami. When Antelo was a cheerleader in high school, her Broward County teammates told her she sounded different.
“They would always do that thing that people ask you to do when you’re from another country--like, ‘oh, say toilet,’ and I’ll be like, ‘toilet,’” Antelo remembers. But she never thought she had an accent.
Over generations, Miamians have certainly developed a distinct way of speaking, influenced by various waves of immigration. This accent, which experts call the Miami dialect, can make Miamians stand out--and even attract a certain stereotype.
Lisa Jeffrey: Accent Coach
Accent coach Lisa Jeffery works with people who want to learn to speak with a standard American accent--to switch their Miami pronunciation off, temporarily. Most of her clients come for professional reasons.
The Miami accent, with its Latin rhythm, Spanish-influenced vowels, and its heavy “L,” strikes non-Miamians as “cutesy-wootsy.” Jeffery says that people associate this accent with the public image of Miami.
To test her theory, Jeffery asks people what Miami would be like if it were a person.
“Would it be a male or a female? The answer is always the same. ‘Oh, a female.’ And what would Miami look like? She would be hot. With the short skirt and the vivacious Latin accent,” Jeffery explains. “Now, that is perfect for girls going to party on South Beach because it is so cute. It’s the cutest in the country, I’d say. But once they get jobs and become professionals, it’s not so popular.”
In addition to the pronunciation features that pervade their speech, Miamians tend to pepper their sentences with “likes” and end them in “upspeak,” making statements sound like questions. These features can make speakers seem unconfident and overly cute--in short, unprofessional.
Having an accent can have a significant effect on the way someone is treated. A 2010 study by the University of Chicago found that Americans are less likely to trust people with accents that sound foreign. To people from other parts of the country, a Miami accent might sound foreign.
With Miamians, it's often not just pronunciation, but also vocabulary, that stands out, Jeffery says. Some colloquialisms common in Miami that aren’t exactly correct according to the Queen’s English--such as “supposably,” “irregardless,” and “libary”--can be grating to employers. There’s even a distinct body language associated with it, with Miamians rolling their eyes or craning their necks as they try to think of a word.
People with accented speech can even be held to a higher standard of speaking correctly, Jeffery explained. When accented speakers say “gonna” or “wanna,” it is more noticeable than when people who speak with the general American accent use these terms. She tells her clients to catch their contractions, and learn to speak more correctly than the typical American does.
Her clients include businesspeople, lawyers, broadcasters and actors. Sometimes employers refer their new hires to Jeffery or call her directly. Having an unusual accent can be especially limiting for an actor’s career.
Cedric Dumornay: Actor
One of Jeffery’s clients, Cedric Dumornay, is an actor who lives in West Palm Beach and works in Miami. He was asked to reduce his accent after he was discovered by Disney. A producer in Los Angeles told him that, with his Miami accent, he would be typecast for Caribbean or Hispanic roles.
Dumornay has been taking lessons from Jeffery for two years to learn to speak with a standard American accent. He says he gets more roles now, and doesn’t get the kind of different treatment that people who speak with an accent tend to get in social situations.
Learning to speak without one’s native accent takes a lot of repetition--and, above all, sheer will. If a client doesn’t really want to shed the accent, it simply won’t happen, Jeffery says.
But people who pursue accent training never lose their native accent entirely, Jeffery says. Instead, they learn to code-switch. They keep the Miami accent, and they develop the ability to put the standard American accent on when they choose to.
But having an accent isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and not all Miamians feel they have a reason to lose it. Antelo, who’s also an actor, says having a distinctive accent can be a benefit, by making her stand out in a casting office.
“[The fact] that they can see I have some kind of culture to me makes me more interesting, just by me opening my mouth. I think it’s like putting seasoning on a steak,” Antelo said. She has no plans to reduce her accent.
Miami Accents is a project of WLRN-Miami Herald News interns Karelia Arauz, Julia Duba, Isabel Echarte, Patience Haggin and Gabriella Watts. The project editor is Alicia Zuckerman.