Boston has seen a dramatic increase in its Hispanic population since 2000, over 25 percent according to census records. That’s left an obvious and significant mark on the way locals speak English — but the city’s Spanish is also evolving, according to forthcoming research from Boston University linguist Daniel Erker.
Erker’s paper focuses on pause fillers, those tiny unconscious blips of sound, “um” or “uh” in English. What he’s found is that, as the city’s Spanish-speakers study English and come into contact with different varieties of their own language, filled pauses are evolving — part of what Erker thinks could be a new Bostonian Spanish, a way of speaking that’s consistent across nationalities but distinct from the Spanish spoken in Miami or New York or Chicago. Erker’s research, although still preliminary, suggests how much this phenomenon could resemble regional dialects in English — while making another argument for the power of the humble pause filler.
Pause fillers were long dismissed as stumbles or informal ways of stalling for time. Over the past few years, though, linguists have become far more interested in their subtle and varied functions. Pause fillers — which University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman says should be more appropriately called “hesitation phenomena” due to their wide-ranging applications — can be used to hold a place in conversation, to interrupt, to introduce a thought, or even to communicate something about what’s being introduced. Liberman uses the example of former New York mayor Ed Koch’s radio talk show. Koch would often introduce himself, “This is Ed, uh, Koch.” This wasn’t a verbal stumble or a sign that Koch was forgetting his own surname. “The only point was to emphasize what came after,” i.e., Koch’s last name, Liberman said.
Across many languages, pause fillers often bear a broad family resemblance: French has “euh,” Welsh “ym,” Russian “ah.” Most of the Germanic languages use versions of “um” and “uh,” according to Liberman, who has studied the preference for “um” over “uh” among women and young people across those languages. Spanish-speakers, meanwhile, most frequently fill pauses with “eh” or “em” or “ah.”
The “schwa” sound that you hear when you say “uh” or “um,” and which is written in the phonetic alphabet as an upside-down “e,” is the most common vowel sound in English — but it doesn’t exist in Spanish at all. After looking at 1,600 pause fillers used by a group of 24 native Spanish-speakers from across Latin America, Erker concluded that the longer they’d been in Boston, the closer their “eh” approached the schwa of “uh”/“um,” stopping along the way at “ah,” a sound that’s phonetically in between “eh” and “uh.”
“The folks who have lived 100 percent of their life in Boston almost never use ‘eh,’ ” Erker said. “They have abandoned that category and shifted to either ‘ah’ or ‘um.’ ” In other words the pause filler — a stutter or hum you barely hear — is introducing an entirely new and unfamiliar sound into a Spanish-speaker’s sound vocabulary, changing the sound of their speech and their range as an increasingly bilingual speaker. Erker thinks that “filled pauses are . . . a gateway for the schwa to enter.”
They may also serve as an important tool in second-language learning. “Using a pause filler that is similar to the pause filler that native speakers around you are using is a very good step in the direction of producing local-like speech,” Erker says. “If you don’t do it,” — i.e., if you’re walking around Boston saying, in English, “eh” instead of “um” — “you sound like you have an accent.”
Of course any time two languages come into contact, the sound systems begin to merge — linguist Gillian Sankoff, also of University of Pennsylvania, notes how the French sound written as /zh/, not native to English, has entered the language through loanwords like “garage” and “azure.” What’s different about Erker’s research is that he’s able to track changes in the way people are speaking Spanish — like the increased use of English-sounding “ah”s and “um”s — that are happening right this instant. And the pause-filler research, which Erker will present at the Linguistic Society of America in January, is just one step in the broader project of trying to figure out what happens “if you have folks from El Salvador and the Dominican and the highlands of Colombia who . . . are all of a sudden in Boston . . . and interacting with each other linguistically in a way that creates the kind of circumstances that can produce massive and fast language change.”
Every day, newly minted English-language learners migrate to Boston, interact with one another, speak English with locals — and Erker can record them, instead of relying on memories or written records of language contact from decades or centuries ago. In tracking the divergence between British and American English, for instance, he says, “We don’t have any audio recordings where we can say, this person was 15 years old in 1680 and this is the way they produced their vowels and consonants.” Today, however, “we can, with Spanish in the United States, have the opportunity to track language change in real time.” And, um, that change is going on even when you least expect it.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.