If there is a Tampa accent, it shares something with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 definition of obscenity. He couldn’t quite describe it, but said, "I know it when I see it."
In the case of Tampa’s supposedly distinct dialect, deep-rooted natives say they know it when they hear it.
Describing it is tougher, but certain things come up repeatedly if you ask around enough.
First, they say it’s not so much a Tampa accent, but a West Tampa accent, often by way of Ybor City. And it’s not everyone, or even most people who have it, but a small, dwindling group of people.
"I call it the ‘Tampa Whine,’ " said Nikki Guerriere, 44. "It is a sound between Southern and Cuban and Spanish and only people who are from West Tampa, old West Tampa, have it."
People say it has something to do with Italian, too, and are quick to bring up Tampa’s uniquely melded Italian-Cuban-Spanish history stretching back to the city’s cigar-rolling heyday. A 2006 story in this newspaper, a tribute to the writer’s late father, a Tampa native of Italian-American descent, described his speech as "that Tampa lilt, a combination of Cuban, Sicilian and Florida Cracker, all rolled into one accent."
"Sandy Claws," "sangwich" and "thee-ay-tur" with three very distinct syllables are all supposed characteristics. Many say there’s something similar to New Orleans going on.
Those possibly in possession of Tampa accents include former Tampa mayor Dick Greco, 84; former governor Bob Martinez, 83; former judge E.J. Salcines, 80; and comic and former Hillsborough County sheriff’s spokesman Jack Espinosa, 87. Others say local radio fixtures Tedd Webb (born Henry Ruiz), 69, and Mark Beiro, 67, have it, and so supposedly does Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, 77.
That’s not to mention many aunts, cousins and grandmothers, per an unofficial survey taken in a Facebook group for Tampa natives, that got hundreds of impassioned responses.
Even those who can’t quite put it into words say they can identify people as being from West Tampa.
"It’s very recognizable," said Mario Nunez, host of the Tampa Natives Show. "I was in a place getting my hair cut the other day and I heard this woman talking. I said, ‘She’s from West Tampa or something,’ and sure enough I was right. … Go to El Gallo De Oro on Armenia for lunch. You’ll hear it."
Tampa native Cynthia Montesino Alicea, 71, said it’s so easy to pick up, even after 20 years living in St. Petersburg.
"I recently introduced myself to a new participant in my seated dance class for seniors," she said. "I immediately had to ask where she was from because when she said her name was Josephine, and a non-Hispanic surname, I knew she was from Tampa. I was right."
Salcines, however, dismissed the Tampa accent simply as the accent of folks who learned English as a second language, even though many say second and third-generation natives who spoke English first have it.
Greco, whose grandparents were from Spain and Sicily, and who speaks English, Spanish and Italian himself, said he’d never thought about a Tampa accent.
"Maybe we sound a little more Southern than most," he said. "But not real Southern, like from Georgia."
Linguists, also, are not really convinced of Tampa’s uniqueness.
University of Miami professor Andrew Lynch has looked at how the influx of Cubans and other Spanish speakers has changed how English is spoken in Miami. That’s the Miami accent.
But he doesn’t believe the Spanish or Italian influence in Tampa was significant enough to affect speech. Unlike Miami, where Spanish has long been the language of the majority, he said English-speaking Anglo whites have always been "prevalent and predominant."
Camilla Vasquez, a linguist at the University of South Florida, is doubtful, too.
"We can’t know for sure without doing a real study of it, but it doesn’t seem likely enough to warrant that," she said. "Part of it may be that people really want there to be a Tampa accent, because they want their own unique culture, so they perceive it."
Many Tampa natives still identify strongly as Italian-American, Spanish-American, Cuban-American and very often all three. Ybor City’s La Gaceta newspaper is still published in Spanish, English and Italian, and there are multiple Facebook groups for Tampa natives to share, specifically, "Spanish, Italian and Southern" recipes.
A 1993 study by a University of Tampa professor found that a Sicilian dialect had survived and was still spoken in Tampa, even though it was no longer spoken in Sicily. Many Tampa Italian-Americans grew up believing "backhousa" was Sicilian for bathroom. The word actually stemmed from the older generation’s attempt to pronounce "back house," a form of outhouse.
After listening to recordings of Greco, Martinez and Miranda, Vasquez didn’t detect anything unique.
But sociolinguist Phillip Carter at Florida International University, who also worked with Lynch researching Miami’s linguistic situation, came to the defense of those who hear the Tampa accent.
"What makes a dialect?" he said. "Is it something that linguists uncover, or is it something the people think? If the people say there’s a dialect, then maybe there’s a dialect."
Everyone has some kind of accent, linguists say, even newscasters — theirs just aren’t as detectable to the untrained ear.
So is there a Florida accent? We can say with certainty that Southern accents do exist in Florida and in Tampa.
Linguists who have studied African-American Vernacular English throughout the U.S. say that accent evolved directly from the Southern dialect.
Fred Hearns, 69, who grew up in Tampa and leads black history walking tours in the city, said it was hard to identify anything specific to Tampa because so many people come from elsewhere.
"Those of us raised here, of course, this is the South, and we sound Southern in general," Hearns said. "I can tell an accent from New York. I have cousins in Brooklyn, and I can tell the difference."
There are also some words believed to be particular to a black Tampa dialect, such as "kranking" to describe dancing. Twin sister TV writers JaNeika and JaSheika James, who moved to Tampa in middle school, said they wrote dialogue for a character on Empire as "ready to flex," specifically as a nod to Tampa — "flex" meaning "leave."
African-American Vernacular English is an example of an ethnic accent, but ethnicity is only one of an array of factors that influence how we talk. Wealth, class, geography, family and education all play a role.
The Atlas of North American English lumps all of Florida in with the South, though that study detected some notable weirdness. Floridians were likely to pronounce both "pin" and "pen" as "pin." That’s a very Southern accent thing to do. On the other hand, many Floridians have the cot-caught merger, where "caught" and "cot" sound identical — those with a true southern accent don’t do that.
Accents in Florida also depend on where you are in the state, and how much that region has been affected by the mass, ongoing migration of people from the Midwest and Northeast. Before the 1920s, many who came to Florida were from elsewhere in the South, leading to Southern accents all the way down to Miami.
As the low cost of living and the spread of air conditioning made it bearable, Florida’s coastal areas and southern tip were inundated with Northern accents that diluted Southern ones. These days, you’re more likely to hear a Southern accent around Tallahassee, outside of urban Jacksonville and farther south into the state’s rural interior.
Plant City and rural Hillsborough County will surely have more Southern accents, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear the South in the mouth of an older native of South Tampa whose family goes back generations. That’s because a person’s accent and dialect is influenced by the people in their home, Vasquez said, but even more by their peers, such as the people they go to school with.
A New York Times map based on 350,000 survey responses from 2013 shows three distinct regions in Florida of people who use "y’all" or "you guys" or something else. From West Palm Beach south, y’all is rare. From about Gainesville north, its common. Tampa is squarely within a big strip that goes right across the state and through Orlando, where y’all is 50/50.
To confuse things even more, a fair number of Tampa natives said they’ve gone elsewhere in the South and were asked if they’re from New York.