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7.11: Languages in Contact

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    7.9.1 Languages in Contact, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    The last section, at least the last required section for this chapter, is languages in contact, and this is one of my favorite sections. In part, there's a little bit of history in here, which that's why I like it. However, it’s also because it really encapsulates what it means to be a human being and use language. Very rarely does a single person, certainly in the modern era, only surround themselves with people in their own speech community. Whether is mass media or trade or travel or anything else, we are constantly in contact with different dialects and different languages. Let's talk about what happens when two languages come together.

    I'm going to start off by setting the scene. Picture it: You have this group called the Lasinki. The Lasinki leave their home island of Lasinkia and they go off to find a new home. About a month later, they finally land in a different place; they call it Walonkia. There are indigenous folks in Walonkia, but they speak a language that has nothing to do with the language of the Lasinki; they're completely different languages. Initially, things are good, the Lasinki and the Walonkians are trading and they're conversing. But then, things turned sour and the Lasinki end up conquering the Walonkians, and in doing so, the Lasinki become the group that are in power. They impose a number of elements of their way of life onto the Walonkians, and this includes the language. On the side, the Walonkians will speak their language to each other when the Lasinki are out of earshot, like at home or perhaps in a small gathering of fellow Walonkians. However, when they're in public they're forced to speak Lasinki.

    We know the situation; what happens linguistically?

    It's a three step process. When the two groups are doing okay, they're the see each other as equals and their trading, they're using what we like to call a lingua franca. That term is something you may have heard of before, but let me put a linguistic spin on it. Specifically in linguistic terms, a lingua franca is a trade language. There's no shift in power; the two groups see each other as equals, therefore it is just a little bit of this and a little bit of that, with a lot of gesturing and not an exact language. I think of a lingua franca when I think about my dad whenever he goes into a place that he doesn't speak the language. He loves traveling; he's gone throughout parts of Latin America and parts of Europe. He's a salesman and he likes to go into markets to buy things. He never brings an interpreter nor a translator; he always goes by himself. He will phrase it that he uses ‘the language of trade’, which means he's using a lot of gestures. If he knows a little bit of the language—like I have taught him a little bit of Spanish and a little bit of talent of Italian—so that when he's gone to some of these places, he can say, “What is that?” It may not come out perfect, but he knows a little bit. That would be like a lingua franca.

    The second that the Lasinki come into power they conquer the Walonkians, and they come into power and they impose their language on them, then you have a shift in the paradigm. At that point, they are no longer equals politically; you have the Lasinki higher in society and you have the Walonkians lower in society. Because there is that difference, that strata difference, the Lasinki become the dominant or superstratum language, the Walonkians become the substratum language. When they start mixing, you get what is called a pidgin. It must be said, a pidgin is not a native language; it only comes about for a single generation, that initial change in situation. However, it is systematic; when you force two groups to combine their languages, there ends up being a systematic reordering and combining of those languages. Always when we see a pidgin, we see a very strong reduction in everything: we see fewer consonants, fewer vowels, we see fewer puzzle pieces or morphemes. Those morphemes now take on different roles, well more than what they used to. There are patterns, but there's slipshod, meaning there isn't a strict word order or strict set of inflections that are being used. There's a lot of play going on, a lot of multiple roles doing multiple things. Lexical entries undergo the same systematic shock; a lexicon can mean a wide variety of things. For example, a bottle can be anything that holds liquid, whether it's something like a water bottle or a baby bottle or a giant jar or jug.

    The second that you have a new generation learning that pidgin then that becomes a creole. A creole is basically a standardization of that pidgin. As each child is born into that society, they learn this pigeon and subconsciously start putting order to the chaos. This happens regularly, and what is really interesting is that within two generations of a pidgin forming, you have a fairly stable creole. While there is more stabilization in an early creole, there can be still be quite a bit of linguistic flexibility. You can have a lot of possible meanings tied to one specific morpheme for up to 10 generations, it can happen or it can just change and be done.

    There's a very interesting debate that's been going on for some time, and not just among linguists. Anthropologists have gotten in on this debate regarding at what point does an early creole standardize, as it were, becoming more regular and, dare we say, become a language. There's a lot on this topic, and I don't have nearly enough time to get into it, but suffice it to say that in its earliest stages know a creole is not a language. There are still too many possibilities that are in play, too much manipulation and not as much standardization. However, what happens if you have a creole that has been spoken for five generations or more, that has become much more stable and has become much more regular? At what point does it stop becoming a creole—a ‘lesser than’, if you will—and starts becoming a language? There are different camps in this arena: there's one camp—and I will openly admit that I’m part of this camp—that says that once you get a creole that has been spoken for about four or five generations, it's pretty much a language. The reason is because you have regular rules, a growing lexicon, a system of derivation, and, perhaps most crucially, you have native speakers for multiple generations. A child hears not just their parents talking in this creole, but their grandparents and maybe great grandparents at that point. You probably have a language. Certainly, if we're talking about a creole that has been around for 150, 200 years—and we do have those—then we're probably talking about a language.

    There is a sizable number of linguists and anthropologist who say, even at that point, it's still a creole and not a language. Their rationale is that because there's too much variation, the grammar can get played with a little bit more, meaning that there's a lack of standardization at times. This argument is changing in favor for those of us who believe that after a certain number of generations a creole is really a language, and it gets back to that point of variation. The fact that when we talk about dialects, we're talking about variance—and I’ll go back to the African American Vernacular English. There aren't one or two dialects of that; there could be upwards of 20 or 30, maybe even more dialects and sub dialects of African American Vernacular English. Who are we say that a creole is no different? In many ways, if we really want to look at the objective landscape of a creole, most would have to agree that there's quite a bit of regular derivation and regular evolution of these creoles.

    I'll give you some examples of what I’m talking about when I say long-term creoles, in the table below.

    You see Hawaiian Creole, Haitian Creole, and Sranan. Hawaiian Creole and Sranan are both English-based creoles; that means English was the predominant super-stratum language, and then the indigenous and other languages were the substratum languages. Hawaiian Creole, of course, has the Hawaiian language as the substratum. Sranan is spoken in Suriname, South America, so the Arawak languages that were spoken in that area and form the substratum base. Haitian Creole as a French-based creole that has some Taino and other Arawak languages, but mostly, it is a number of central and western African languages that make up the substratum. Exactly because of the Slave Trade, because Hispaniola—the full island where Haiti is—was a processing center for a number of slaves. As a result, a lot of the substrate languages that we see for Haitian creole come out of central and western Africa.

    In this table, I have the verb ‘to walk’ in third person singular.

    A table of verb morphology in Hawaiian Creole (English-based), Haitian Creole (French-based) and Sranan (English-based).

    Yes, we're using the masculine pronoun here. Realistically, the data still suggest that this is going to be the case for masculine or feminine, especially with Sranan and Haitian, but there is change here too. I've given you the grammatical explanation of the verb conjugation, and I’ve also given you the gloss, which describes exactly what verb denotes. Notice ‘he walks’: He walk, Li maché, A waka. We see ‘walk’ in that conjugation—Hawaiian English is using it with no change, same with Sranan, and Haitian Creole has a simplified pronunciation of il marche.

    Notice that any tense, aspect, or mood that we would use an auxiliary for in English, you have it in Hawaiian creole, but you have modified or simplified versions, in some cases, and the same in Sranan. If you know, French, you will recognize some of the same thing here in Haitian Creole.

    All three of these creoles have been in existence for over 200 years. At what point do they stop being creoles or lesser-than and start becoming languages? The best example of that is Haitian Creole. While it does have a couple of different variants, depending on how much French versus how much other substratum languages are being used, by large Haitian Creole has a standard mainstream form. It's the language of the Haitian government and the Haitian media, and it has been this way for over 100 years. Haitian Creole has existed for 250 years. Additionally, you have a full written version; it is taught in schools and has different dialects. So again, at what point is it no longer ‘not a language’? At what point have we graduated it to become a language?

    For those of us who believe that Haitian Creole is probably a language at this point, you could also argue the same for Hawaiian creole. Although it is dying out in favor of English, as you would imagine, but also Hawaiian. There is a concerted effort that has been going on over the last 40 years to reinvigorate the Hawaiian language. It is still considered an endangered language. The University of Hawaii in Manoa on Oahu is leading the charge and has been for 40 years on preserving Hawaiian. You still have Hawaiian creole, and they are still showcasing it so that it may continue to grow, but Hawaiian creole is being less favored, compared to Hawaiian English (the American English spoken in Hawaii) and Hawaiian, which is pretty interesting.

    There are creoles around the globe; these are some of the areas that we see a number of creoles. Not shockingly we're talking about places that have been heavily colonized. It is interesting that creoles are not just based in English and French; we have Dutch-based creoles, especially in some of the Pacific Islands and as well as in the Caribbean. We have creoles in Latin America, which is not a place that most people think of. When we talk about that region, Belize would probably be the biggest example. Belize has an English-based creole, with the superstratum being English and the substratum languages are not the indigenous Maya languages of the region and some of these African languages from Central and Western Africa—because Belize was another processing point, as well as an escape point, for slaves. We also have Spanish-based creoles that are mixed with a number of indigenous languages, especially throughout the Andean region of South America. Additionally, the one that nobody thinks of is Portuñol, which is a creole of Spanish and Portuguese and depending on which side of the border, whether you're in Brazil or Paraguay, depends on which is the dominant language.

    If I say ‘creole’, many people think of Jamaican Creole or Patois, as called in Jamaica. Here's another great example a creole that has been around for over 200 years—close to 300 years even—and is part of the mainstream. It is part of the government, the schools, and the media. Of course, when we're talking about music and culture from Jamaica, you can't not talk about Patois. I love Patois because it's a great example of trying to document from an early stage how a Creole came to be. This is a graphic taken from a lesson that you can find on on the Internet for how to speak Patois.


    You have the standard English on the right side and then you have Patois on the left side and for most speakers of English that looks very foreign but if I say it, maybe it'll be a little easier.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    A ya so mi diyah, dung eena J.A. A jus'a kotch off, onda di coc'nut tree. Lawd di breeze sweet. A gwine nyam a likkle food, an'lik mi watas. When belly bus, mi hol a sleep. A mawnin' time mi ago a foreign. But wha- fe-do, nuh fret up yuself. I and I soon foward back a yaad. Dis ye island life it irie bad caan dun'.

    A bit of translation and correlation:

    • Here I am down in Jamaica: dong eena J.A
    • Just relaxing: a jus' a kotch off.
    • Under the coconut tree: onda di coc'nut tree.
    • The weather is great; lawd de breeze sweet. 'Lord the breeze is sweet'.
    • I'll get something to eat: a gwine nyam a likkle food. 'likkle', 'little'. Food. You got going, gwine.
    • and have a few drinks: an' lik mi watas. Lick as in to lick it up.
    • When I feel full; when belly bus; 'when belly bust',
    • I'll take a nap; mi hol a sleep. 'Going to my hole to sleep.'
    • In the morning; a mawnin' time.
    • I'm going abroad; mi ago a foreign, so 'going foreign'.

    And you can go on from there.

    What I love about creolization and this process that languages go through as they connect and combine—especially as we start to document this and how it changes over time—is that you get a little window into the past. You can start seeing how maybe some of these standard or mainstream languages that we talked about—English, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, Swahili, Arabic, Hebrew—how maybe they came to be when they got confronted with other languages. It's important to realize that, as we stop focusing so much on hierarchical evaluations and when we just step back and observe language, creoles and especially well-established creoles, really are languages.

    If we talk about creolization and we talked about languages in contact, the other piece of this puzzle is bilingualism. Many of you are bilingual—in my case, I’m a learned bilingual. I learned Spanish and I learned Italian, so I’m multilingual in my case. Many of you may be natively bilingual or natively multilingual, meaning you learned all of your languages while you were a child. It's important to understand that being bilingual is not a bad thing; it's not going to make you stupid or unintelligent, and it certainly does not mean that you're not capable of anything. I say that because that mentality still exists to this day, even here in sunny California, in the United States—in this progressive area, it still exists. It also existed and has existed well from time in memorium. The reality is quite different, and we have started to change that narrative, beginning in the 1980s. Now, it is getting even stronger, because we can prove that bilingualism is not a bad thing. Rather, it's probably the best thing you could do.

    Codeswitching, which frequently gets lumped in with so-called ‘poor language skills’, in fact is nothing of the sort. We're increasingly showing that those who code switch actually have a really strong grasp of more than one language in multiple areas. Code switching is something we do when we go back and forth between two languages, and we do it for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's just what happens to fly out at that moment; other times there's a reason for it. For example, I like to talk about this phrase that we have in Spanish: the ganas, which is part of a longer phrase, tener ganas, ‘to have ganas’. If you are a native Spanish speaker or a learned Spanish speaker, like myself, you've heard that term and you know that term. There isn't a good translation for it into English. It gets translated as ‘motivation’, sometimes it's ‘the will to do something’, if you have the ganas to do something, you want to do it. However, it's not really that. It's every fiber of your being wants to do it; or, if you do not have the ganas for something, every fiber of your being does not want to do it. How do I translate that? well I don't a lot of times if I’m talking to someone who speaks Spanish, even if somebody just learned a little bit of Spanish and that's what I’m feeling, then I’ll just say, “I just don't have the ganas to do it today.” Or if it's something I really want to do, like, I have a lot of ganas for this, I’ll just switch it.

    Education is both a hindrance and a motivator with respect to bilingualism. It is formal education that has been the main arena that most children have been forced to not be bilingual anymore, and some of you may have experienced some of that in your own lives or in your family's lives. Certainly, that was the case in my family with respect to Italian, and it was the case of my husband with respect to Japanese, and there are many similar stories. Yet, what we have shown over the last 40 years of research is that if you have a strong bilingual education system, the children that come out of that system not only are they very strong in two different languages, but they have critical thinking skills that far surpass anything that a monolingual student will have. What is more, if you are talking about one or both of those languages being related to the heritage of the child, then that is a huge positive boost for the child; they start to see pride and then feel that pride in their respective backgrounds. This is where that discussion on Ebonics also comes into play. It was so important to have educators recognize that the children who spoke Ebonics or African American Vernacular, that the worst thing you could do was to tell them they were dumb because they couldn't speak proper English. Rather, if you showcase them and said, “This is one dialect; let's get good at that. Here's the other dialect you need to know; let's get good at that,” and then showcase when we use the different dialects with which groups of people with which context—when you do that, there's a lot of pride that comes in to the child. They grow up being a stronger person culturally. We've seen this now with African American Vernacular English and we have seen it in other areas as well. There have been studies recently about diglossia education with respect to Appalachian English. While for a number of generations people eschewed their Appalachian past and were ashamed of it, now people are starting to be proud of their culture and their history, at least as far as being proud to be a speaker of that dialect.

    I know for me, I’ll sometimes start sentence in Spanish, y termino en español.

    Codeswitching Llama Meme.jpg

    This is pretty much what we all do when we codeswitch; those of us who are multilingual, we do this all the time. There's nothing to be ashamed about; it’s just what happens when you have two cultures, two languages, and a lot of positive vibes.

    7.11: Languages in Contact is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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