From contact to contactless: on hybrid languages

Everything is about contact these days, or perhaps about trying to avoid it while trying to maintain it, if you follow. Anyway, what about language, Tiger? What happens when two peoples who speak separate languages butt up against one another? A new hybrid language forms: a contact language. Like the linguistic equivalent of a mule or a liger. The Atlantic looks at how we’re losing these rare and wonderful beasts.

When groups of people who speak different languages come together, they sometimes inadvertently create a new one, combining bits of each into something everyone can use to communicate easily. Linguists call such impromptu tongues “contact languages”—and they can extend well beyond the pidgin and creole varieties that many of us have heard of.

The origin stories of these linguistic mash-ups vary. Some are peaceful, such as when groups meet for trade and need a lingua franca: Nigerian Pidgin English, for example, allows speakers of some 500 tongues to communicate. But others were born of tragedy and violence—like Haitian Creole, Gullah Geechee, Jamaican Creole, and many others that arose during the Atlantic slave trade, when West African peoples combined several tongues with English, creating everyday languages often used among enslaved people.

Today, many of these contact languages are lost. Only 200 or so remain—and scores are at risk of extinction. Linguists and anthropologists who traditionally have focused on more formal languages are paying increased attention: studying contact languages with greater intensity and working with Indigenous groups, international agencies, independent nonprofits, academics, and others to preserve them.

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