Cuban Spanish

Cuban Spanish

Of all the regional variations of the Spanish language, traditional Cuban Spanish is most similar to the Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands. Cuban speech patterns are a result of Canarian migration, which in the 19th and early 20th Century was heavy and continuous. Much of the vocabulary unique to Cuban Spanish comes from the different historic influences in the island. A few words are of African origin, especially with respect to voodoo religious practices, and some Cuban music and food. Cuban Spanish has different features than those found in other dialects, especially in the pronunciation of certain consonants in relation to their syllabic position.
Cuban Spanish dialect

Phonological Differences

It must be noted that by listing specific features of Cuban Spanish, there is no implication that (a) every feature is always exhibited in the same manner or (b) every speaker of a particular dialect utilizes every dialect feature.

  • One of the most prominent features of Cuban Spanish is the aspiration of the syllable-terminating /s/, rendering the /s/ phoneme into [h].

Take for example, the following sentence: Esos perros no tienen dueños. (“Those dogs do not have owners”.)
Phonologically in Cuban Spanish, it would sound like: [ˈesoh ˈperoh no ˈtjenen ˈdweɲoh]

  • An example of a weak consonant is the intervocalic (between two vowels) /d/. The pronunciation of several prominent Spanish dialects has an approximant allophone in this position, represented by [ð] (similar to English /th/ in the).
  • In Cuban Spanish the intervocalic /d/ is often deleted altogether if the remaining vowels can form a diphthong. In the following example the pronunciation of pescado and condado the /d/ would be deleted as /ao/ is a diphthong. However this would not occur in the production of nadar or madera, as /aa/ and /ea/ are not diphthongs.

Standard: [pesˈka.ðo] [konˈda.ðo] Cuban: [pehˈka.o] [konˈda.o]

  •  Use of the diminutive -ico and -ica instead of the standard -ito and -ita is also seen in Cuban Spanish. But this use is restricted to words with -t in the last syllable: plato (plate) becomes platico instead of platito. The word cara (face) becomes carita which is also seen in standard Spanish.
  • Asimilation/Gemination. When located in syllable-final position (implosive position), /r/ and /l/ become assimilated to the following voiced consonant speech sound that starts the next syllable (explosive position), as in: “Carmen y Carlitos se curdean con chispa'e tren” [kám-men-i-kal-lí-to-se-kud-dé-an-kon-chíh-pa-e-trén]
    • Speech sound /g/ in syllable-final position may also become assimilated to the next consonant speech sound, e.g. “magnífico” [man-ní-fi-ko]
    • Speech sound /k/ may be rendered /g/ (velarization) at the end of a syllable when followed by consonant speech sound /t/. Thus, the word “doctor” is rendered [dog-tód]. Traditionally, gemination is a hallmark of western Cuban speech.
  • Loss of speech sound /d/ when occurring at the beginning of a syllable, as in: “El dedo de David” [ed-dé-o-ea-bí] “David's finger.” The intervocalic /d/ and /b/ are fricative and at times barely heard.

Syntax and Morphology

There are few differences among Cuban dialects, which primarily involve intonation and vocabulary, but syntax also plays a part. The most salient features of Cuban Spanish syntax and morphology, which are shared with other Caribbean Spanish varieties, are as follows:

  1. Placement of second person singular pronoun “tú” before instead of after the verb in question format. This differentiates Cuban from Mexican Spanish. Examples: “¿Qué tú crees?” and “¿De dónde tú eres?”
  2. Usage of “le”and “les” instead of “la” and “las” when preceded by “se.” Utterances like “A Juana se le ve en la tienda todos los días” - instead of “se la ve”, since “la” is the direct object pronoun
  3. Use of “decir a” to denote the beginning of an action.
  4. Use of “para” instead of “en” to indicate location.
  5. Use of “lo cual” to mean “but” or “while”.
  6. Negative construction with “cómo” with affirmative meaning. “¡Cómo que no!” is a Cuban variant of ¡Cómo no! as in “¿La saludaste? ¡Cómo que no!” (“Did you say hello to her?” “You better believe it!/Of course I did.”)
  7. Use of “coger” before a verb as reinforcement. This is not as prevalent today, but is still heard among the elderly and uneducated people.
  8. Use of indefinite “uno” by women instead of “una” to mean indefinite “one”.
  9. Placement of adjective “más” before negative indefinite pronouns nada and nadie. Example: “más nada/más nadie/más nunca” instead of standard “nada más/nadie más/nunca más”.
  10. Adjectives used as adverbs. Examples: “clarito” instead of “claramente,” “feo” instead of “mal,” “fuerte” instead of “fuertemente” and “rapidísimo” instead of “rapidísimamente”
  11. Adjectives originated in English as used in Miami Cuban Spanish. Many speakers of Miami Cuban Spanish transfer English-language meanings to Spanish-language cognates or use inappropriate English calques or loanwords as follows:
English Source English Calque Meaning New Spanish Meaning Original Meaning
Conservative conservative N/A N/A
Shocked choquead upset, moved in shock, outraged
Involved envuelto committed wrapped, mixed up in
Summarized sumarizado condensed, resumed N/A
English Loanword English Source Spanish Meaning
flonqueado flunked same
friqueado freaked out same
taipeado typed same
cuitear to quit same
frizar to freeze same
baquear to back same


Pragmatic rules vary depending on language and culture. The following are potential verbal and nonverbal sources of miscommunication for Hispanics/Latinos:(*Note: These are overgeneralizations of the larger Hispanic population and are not specific to Cubans*)

  • Hissing to gain attention is acceptable
  • Touching is often observed between two people in conversation
  • Avoidance of direct eye contact is often a sign of attentiveness and respect; sustained eye contact may be interpreted as a challenge to authority
  • Relative distance between two speakers in conversation is close
  • Official or business conversations are preceeded by lengthy greetings, pleasantries, and other talk unrelated to the point of business

Mainstream American View

  • Hissing is considered impolite and indicates contempt
  • Touching is usually unacceptable and usually carries sexual overtone
  • Direct eye contact is a sign of attentiveness and respect
  • Relative distance between two speakers in conversation is farther apart
  • Getting to the point quickly is valued

Problems in Learning English

Pronunciation and Spelling

Cuban Americans may have difficulty hearing the differences in consonants at the end of words. They may also have difficulty pronouncing these consonants. Particular consonants which might be troublesome include:
    •    English [r]
    •    [th] sounds at the beginning of English words
    •    the distinction between [b],[v] and [w]
    •    the distinction between [y] and [j]

English has many more vowels than Spanish and therefore, Cuban Americans learning English may have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the difference between vowels. For example, they may have difficulty hearing the difference between bit and beet, bait and bet, bet and bat, would and wooed.
Spelling may also be problematic for Cuban Americans. In Spanish, many of the words are spelled much like they sound. However, in English, words are not always spelled the way they “sound” and there are many spelling conventions that must be learned.


There are several grammatical structures that may be hard for Cubans who are learning English to master. Most of these are problems that all learners of English find problematic, for example the use of the auxiliary verb do in English questions and negatives. Spanish speakers may have trouble with English personal pronouns like I, you, or it because of differences in grammatical structures between English and Spanish. Another area of difficulty for Spanish speakers is the English articles a, an, and the. Spanish has parallel articles, but they are used in different ways from the English articles.

A Case Study

This is a fictitious case that was created to be used as an example. Esteban is a 6 year old boy who moved to the United States about 1 year ago from Cuba with his family. His parents are monolingual Spanish speakers and Spanish is the only language spoken in the home. Esteban is learning English in school, but his teachers report that he is not learning English as quickly as expected. Esteban was referred to the school speech language pathologist who noted that he deletes final consonants, doesn't use plural /s/, and uses /b/ and /v/ interchangeably. The speech pathologist now needs to determine if this is a difference or disorder.
After analyzing Esteban's speech using independent and relational analysis, the SLP needs to take into account the features of Cuban Spanish. “Errors” should only be counted when they are in conflict with the Cuban dialect. To account for dialect features of Cuban Spanish, the SLP could consult available information on Cuban Spanish dialect and sample an adult speaker in Esteban's linguistic community to seek out any other dialect features not commonly noted in published descriptions.


Final Consonant Deletion- English pronunciation is likely to give Cubans particular problems, in particular hearing the differences between consonants at the ends of words, and pronouncing these as well. Esteban may not hear the final consonants and that is why it appears that he is “deleting” them. For example, “bat, bad, bag”, he may not be able to hear the difference in these sounds or produce them so he is deleting them instead. The SLP should do more probing to determine if Esteban can learn - teach-test-retest.

Plural /s/- One of the most prominent features of Cuban Spanish is the aspiration of the syllable-terminating /s/, rendering the /s/ phoneme into [h]. The SLP may not hear this aspiration at the end, although Esteban may be marking the plural. Example: “bees” pronounced as “beeh”

Uses /b/ and /v/ interchangeably- This distinction may be difficult for Cuban speakers to hear. The SLP may want to contrast with minimal pairs “bet, vet, ban, van” or teach-test-retest to determine if Esteban can be taught to hear the difference and produce it.



Original Contributors: Jaclyn Patrick and Katie Baker, Winter term 2007

Resources and References