The Letter R and Boricua Identity

Last week, the Senate in Puerto Rico–which is dominated by the pro-Commonwealth, anti-statehood faction–passed a Spanish-first law which solves absolutely nothing in the convoluted scheme of things. It does not solve PR’s debt, or corruption, or lack of energy self-sufficiency, or the mass migration out of the island.

The move was purely political and symbolic. It does not really change language dynamics on the streets or in business or in the courts. It didn’t go as far as to make English un-official, and it frankly serves as a way to push back against the advance of the statehood movement and to accentuate the language issue, in the hopes of avoiding the annexation of the islands as a state of the union.

It provoked laughter in me, because it seemed like a portion of the population in the powerless island is playing at being sovereign, imagining itself as the nation that some want it to be. The Spanish-first law does not give Puerto Rico any more autonomy over its own affairs, or remove it from the territorial clause of the US Constitution, which it operates under and from which it can not be removed, except through statehood or independence. Even the wording on the Constitution of the Commonwealth, in its preamble, mentions that American citizenship is one of the determining factors of Puerto Rican identity.

In other words, it’s a completely sterile, useless law for all purposes, and an act of playing politics by toying with a non-issue rather than dealing with real issues by providing real solutions by the same political class that brought Puerto Rico into the fiscal mess that it finds itself in.

It’s undeniable that language policies are a place where identity politics are played out, however it’s extremely difficult for government to effectively legislate culture and language. Language change, evolution, and preservation can only take place in the daily speech and lives of the people, and these are things that evolve and change organically.

Also, in this regard, Puerto Rico already has done phenomenally good at preserving its own identity without the need for government intervention, and in spite of it. During the first half of the 20th Century, in the first decades of US hegemony on the island, there were very aggressive efforts to assimilate the population via the public school system, which was in English only. The efforts failed and today, only less than 6% of Puerto Ricans speak English only at home. Everyone else is firm in their use of Spanish.

The efforts to Americanize Puerto Ricans have had significant effects on the peculiar brand of Spanish spoken in the islands, however. No population of Spanish speakers incorporates as many anglicisms (words derived from English) as the island does.

In recent years, among youth in the San Juan metropolitan area there has been a tendency, which has now been noticed by many linguists, of using the rhotic R in many expressions and words. The rhotic R is one of the identifiers of North American English, and it does not exist in Spanish.

The problem stems from the sheer amount of English loan-words in the islands’ Spanish, as well as the prevalence of English first names in the population. It’s understandable to pronounce car-wash, marlin (the fish), Shirley, with it … But now, the rhotic R is being also used in words like margen, Armando, Robert, tormenta, in gay slang in words like fierce, and many other words.

My former college roommate from PR used this rhotic R constantly. I didn’t actually think much of it until I came across articles by linguists and observers of linguistic trends on the subject. This is how languages evolve over long spans of time: changes creep in slowly and are sometimes barely recognized.

The letter R in Puerto Rico is already extremely peculiar. The islands are the only ones where Spanish is spoken with an unvoiced velar fricative R sound, which is similar to the one used in the French-language. Puerto Rico seems to be, as far as I know, the only Spanish-speaking country or territory that uses this R sound, although Brasilian Portuguese uses it and some have argued that the use of velar fricative R is a natural evolution for Romance languages.

What this means is that instead of the familiar, rolled “erre” (we call it, in Spanish, “la doble erre”) that we associate with Spanish, Puerto Ricans may pronounce words like carro, arriba, arroz with an R sound more like the way the French use it, but softer and less guttural (kaxo, axiba, axó).

Many Spanish-speakers from other lands abhor this peculiarity of Puerto Rican Spanish, but the locals take pride in it and even have an expression, when something or someone is very patriotic or peculiarly Puerto Rican, that he or she is “as Puerto Rican as the erre“. It has come to be an identity signifier, and carries, again, political and tribal connotations. It serves as a way to be unapologetic about being Puerto Rican.

Another effect English has had, other than the vast amount of English-derived vocabulary that Puerto Ricans use daily, is the change in some of the syntax. For instance, Puerto Ricans are the only Spanish speakers that use the double negative. This is very atypical in Spanish, but is used in the English spoken by African Americans. During the first Great Migration of Puerto Ricans, many lived in New York among African Americans and learned to speak an English heavily influenced by their English, later taking these forms of speech back to their Spanish-speaking communities.

This is why, like Black people, Puerto Ricans may say things like “yo no necesito ningún novio” (I don’t need no boyfriend). The double negative is entirely unnecessary in both languages, and in Spanish the pronoun “yo” is also unnecessary because the conjugated verb gives context and does away with the need for a pronoun, but the expression is quintessentially Nuyorican and it stuck, so that our history of constant back-and-forth migration is now written in our popular expressions.

Which raises the question of what will happen to island Spanish now that, with the current mass migration into Florida and elsewhere, there are more Puerto Ricans in the states than on the Commonwealth … particularly when, within one or two generations, people will start migrating back to the islands again and bringing innovations with them like they did after the Nuyorican experience. The only certainty is that languages evolve, and Puerto Rican Spanish is no different. No legislative effort will impede that.


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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4 Responses to The Letter R and Boricua Identity

  1. Think Always says:

    You guys are getting hit hard with austerity from what I’ve read. It’s really disgusting to me how the U.S. has continued the colonial program there and on other islands.

    90% of Americans don’t even really know we have colonies, or understand what it means. They don’t know about the exploitation of your economy by pharmaceutical companies and creditors, and now the U.S. economy in general with the emigration of young people, valuable to your economy.

    I remember once I met someone on Twitter who was from Puerto Rico. At the time I was uneducated on this, and assumed she was from another country, but no, not really.


  2. Think Always says:

    Btw, I’m gonna try to friend you on FB if you don’t mind. I like connecting with like minded people on there. I am Zach Van Houten.


  3. Pingback: The “Cédula de Gracias” Angle | The Autarkist

  4. Pingback: The Future of the Spanish Language in America and in Puerto Rico | The Autarkist

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