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Judeo-Spanish Encounters Modern Spanish: Language Contact and Diglossia among the Sephardim of Los Angeles and New York City


For the past century, Los Angeles and New York City have been home to two of the largest Latino and Sephardic populations in the United States. Interaction between these ethnic groups, therefore, has been inevitable. However, there has been minimal research on the linguistic repercussions that have resulted from contact between these two linguistically similar yet distinct groups. From a sociolinguistic agenda, I explore how Judeo-Spanish speakers in these two metropolises utilize their language and in which domains. Furthermore, my research reveals that, among my informants (n=25), Judeo-Spanish is used as a platform to acquire proficiency in varieties of Modern Spanish.

Aside from conducting sociolinguistic interviews to account for the diglossic distribution among informants, I carry out production as well as perception experiments. These experiments determine which features typically associated with a given variety of language are prone to transference. For the production experiment, informants engaged in conversation with a native speaker of Spanish from either Los Angeles or New York City, representing different varieties of Spanish (Los Angeles Vernacular Spanish and Dominican Spanish, respectively). After reviewing the type of speech produced by the informants, results indicate that informants utilize prepalatals [dʒ], [ʒ], and [ʃ] instead of velar [x] approximately one-third of the time. For the perception experiment, informants listened to real and nonce words in Judeo-Spanish and Modern Spanish and were asked to identify to which language each token pertained or was more likely to pertain. This experiment reveals that, although phonological differences assist the informants in making categorical selections, lexicalization remains the most important property for such categorization. The results of the perception experiment offer insight as to some of the phenomena occurring in the speech production of the informants.

Collectively, the results from these experiments reveal how Judeo-Spanish-speaking Sephardim utilize their language. Exploring theories of diglossia and accommodation demonstrate how informants position themselves in front of another speaker of Judeo-Spanish or Modern Spanish. As informants are often metalinguistically cognizant of the source languages of Judeo-Spanish, lexicalization allows them to determine which features to transfer between languages.

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