Dominican Spanish in its spoken form works very fast indeed. A typical Dominican
fires out the words in rapid staccato, causing all but their compatriots to
struggle to understand. “Repítelo más despacio, por favor”, is the polite way of
asking for a second chance. Sometimes, even native Spanish speakers from other
parts of Latin America or Spain find that the Spanish spoken by their Dominican
cousins takes a little while to adjust to, mainly because of the speed of
The origin of Dominican Spanish, like the Dominican people themselves, is
multi-layered. The basis, as for all Spanish dialects in the Americas, is the
Spanish of the 15th century conquistadors, enhanced by subsequent waves of
settlers from Spain, and peppered with the influence of the indigenous Taino
population and the African slaves who were later brought over by the Spanish.
Add to that spicy mix the more recent influence of the United States, which also
left its mark on Dominican Spanish during its two military occupations of the
country in the 20th century, in 1916 and 1965.
Accent-wise especially, Dominican Spanish shares some common elements with the
rest of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but retains some distinctive features in
its vocabulary as well. The tendency to slur consonants (‘colmao’ for ‘colmado’,
for instance) and drop ‘s’s (‘gracia’ for ‘gracias’) is characteristic of
fast-paced Spanish accents like that of the south of Spain, and several other
Latin American Spanish accents, most notably in the Caribbean region.
Unusually for a relatively small country, the Dominican Republic has a rich
variety of distinct regional accents. The unusual ‘i’ substitution for ‘r’ is
typical of the Cibao region (‘poi favoi’ for ‘por favor’ and ‘por que’ ‘poi que’).
The ‘l’ for ‘r’ characteristic is common, especially in the capital where ‘por
favor’ becomes ‘pol favol’, and ‘por que’ is transformed into ‘pol que’. The
reverse happens in the southwest, where ‘l’s become ‘rs, (‘la capitar’ for ‘la
capital’). Linguistic experts believe these to be remnants of the Andalusian
accent. The latter especially occurs in southern Spain as well.
This gives rise to many a political joke, especially when you learn that the PRD
and PLD - the two main political parties - sound practically the same when many
Dominicans pronounce their names.
The syntax patterns in Dominican Spanish have characteristics that stem from the
African influence dating back to the 17th century. The characteristic word order
in questions like ‘como tú estás’ as opposed to the standard Spanish ‘como estás
(tú)’ is the most common. In typical Dominican Spanish, this is pronounced ‘Como
tu ’ta’. Most questions are inverted in this way. For example - ‘que tú crees’,
‘como tú te llamas’, and ‘que tú piensas’.
A small number of words that can be traced back to African languages are also
present, mainly surviving in names for foodstuffs like ‘mondongo’ (stewed tripe)
and ‘casabe’ (cassava bread).
Although the Tainos, who lived on the island when the Spaniards arrived, did not
survive, their legacy is present in many of the words that make up the Dominican
An ‘areíto’ is a traditional celebration. An ‘arepa’ is a corn pudding. ‘Bohío’
means house or hut. ‘Batey’ means ball court, and is still in use as the word
for cane cutter settlements. ‘Chichigua’ is kite, and ‘conuco’ is the Dominican
word for small family farming plot. ‘Guaraguao’ is a red-tailed hawk, and ‘maco’
is another word used for frog in the DR, as well as the standard Spanish word, ‘rana’.
The fermented drink ‘mabí’ takes its name from the Taino word for fruit tree.
Some, like ‘tiburón’ (shark), ‘jaiba’ (freshwater crab), ‘cacique’ (chieftain)
and ‘colibrí’ (hummingbird) have spread further across the Spanish speaking
world, while others like ‘canoa’ – canoe, ‘hamaca’ – hammock, ‘barbacoa’ –
barbecue, ‘tabacu’ – tobacco, ‘jurakan’ (the god of thunder) – hurricane,
‘sabana’ – savannah, ‘maraca’ – maraca, ‘manatí’ – manatee, and ‘iguana’, have
This range of words reflects the Tainos’ lifestyle and beliefs, their particular
type of community organization, the foods they ate and their natural
environment. Countless place names in the Dominican Republic date back from
pre-Columbian times: the Cibao Valley, cities like Mao, Bonao and Nagua, and the
Macorís of San Pedro and San Francisco de Macorís.
When it comes to English, the most famous examples are ‘watchiman’ for watchman
(standard Spanish would be ‘guardian’), ‘zafacón’ for trash can (safety can),
standard Spanish would be ‘papelera’ or simply ‘cubo de basura’, ‘suape’ for
mop, and some say even ‘mangú’ derives from a US serviceman’s verdict when
served the quintessential Dominican breakfast dish, mashed plantains: “Man, this
is good!” This may of course be apocryphal.