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Monday, 30 July 2007

What is a mixed language?

Since about 1984, when the 10th Edition came out, I have been an avid reader of The Ethnologue, a resource that lists, categorizes, and describes every language known to science--all terrestrial, by the way.

Every edition--which comes out approximately every four years--lists more languages than the one before. The main reason for this is that formerly listed languages are constantly being examined and determined to actually consist of two or more languages closely related, but distinct enough for each to rate its own listing.

In addition to the usual Language Family taxonomy (which has also grown and evolved over the years), several languages are also listed in group headings such as Gypsy Languages, Creole Languages, Pidgin Languages, Jewish Languages, Deaf Languages, and Mixed Languages. One category, listed as a Language Family, should also be listed here, which is Artificial (made-up) Languages. All 3 of the ones currently listed could also be listed under Indo-European Languages--although there are more recent ones, not yet listed, that couldn't. More specifically, these 3 (and, to some extent, all others) are all based on Latin, so they could even be further described as Romance Languages.

Here, however, we encounter a problem of classification: What about languages that trace their immediate ancestry back to two different language families? The artificial language Esperanto, for example, borrows just as heavily from the Germanic family as from the Romance. So, some have pointed out, does English. Why then is English listed in the a Germanic Family, then, when only about half of its basic vocabulary (and almost none of its technical vocabulary) comes from its Germanic parent Anglo-Saxon?

The answer could be that the definition of a Mixed Language has never been nailed down. Linguists encountering a tribal language that combined grammatical elements of one language family with vocabulary of another were quick to list it as a "mixed language," never realizing that their own native tongue did exactly the same.

The main gypsy language spoken in England, Angloromani, has undergone an interesting transformation over the years. Listed in the Ethnologue until 1988 as a Indo-Aryan language akin to all the other Romani tongues, it was suddenly found in the 11th Edition to be a Germanic Language more closely related to English than any Germanic language of the Continent. What gives? Merely because Angloromani is replete with English-derived nouns and sentence structure, an expert had reclassified it as a form of English. This classification was perpetuated clear through to the recently released 15th Edition, which wisely compromised by assigning Angloromani to the Mixed Language category.

This phenomenon is sure to continue. Take Pennsylvania Dutch, a Mennonite dialect of German that is now at least 35% English and grows more so with each passing generation. Even stereotypical Pennsylvania Dutch phraseology like "throw the horse over the fence some hay" is usually now heard only in ethnic jokes. The language is changing because all Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, monolingual as they typically are their first few years of life, are educated in English, and they find it impossible to resist slipping words, phrases, and even whole sentences of that language into their everyday conversations.

Guess what: It's the same exact thing as happened to English itself, some 800 years earlier. All education in England was conducted in French and Latin, with the result that words from those two languages so overwhelmed the native language of Englishmen that they ceased to speak it altogether in its pure form. So English itself is a mixed language of Saxon and French.

But how about French? Well, it was the result of cosmopolitan Franks learning Vulgar Latin. Frankish was a Germanic tongue that left its heavy footprints all over the result of the mixture with Vulgar Latin. Add to that the influence of Norse, and you have the Norman French that became the language of Norman England for several centuries until it was subsumed into the new mixed language of Middle English.

Vulgar Latin--what was that? Well, it was somewhat of a mixture of educated Latin and the Celtic dialects native to Gaul, which was later overrun by the Franks.

You can see how this goes on. Latin itself bears a lot of influence from Greek; Greek from Hebrew; Hebrew from ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian. No language that is spoken by people educated in another language can long remain pure.

Take Maltese, for example. Originally the Arabic tongue spoken by Muslim conquerors in the 700's, it suffered a long and unrelenting pressure first from the Norman French spoken by the counter-invaders of the 800's, but then from the Italian spoken by Malta's greatest trading partner once it was wrenched once and for all from the Caliphate. Then the English took possession, and for the last two centuries all linguistic development has tended in their direction. Today, a native of either Italy or Arabia respectively, fluent in English, could read a Maltese publication with quite a high level of comprehension--depending on whether the subject matter is technical (Italian/English) or conversational (Arabic/Italian). A mixed language--or just a dual vocabulary?

So what exactly is the difference between a language that is merely influenced by another, and one that is actually a mixture of two distinct languages? It's still hard to say, but expect this category--still limited to only 9 languages in the 14th Edition of the Ethnologue but up to 21 by the 15th--to keep growing as linguists come to grips with the reality of the situation. Maybe, someday, even English will make the list.

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