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  • A history of Afro-Hispanic language: Five centuries, five continents
  • Ricardo Otheguy
A history of Afro-Hispanic language: Five centuries, five continents. By John Lipski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. x, 363. ISBN 0521822653. $120 (Hb).

As early as the fifteenth century, when Columbus was still trying unsuccessfully to convince Queen Isabel of the merits of his project, Africans were already a strong presence in what was then the largest city in Spain, Seville. The local Andalusian Castilian vernacular that these African bilinguals acquired started the long saga of lexical and structural contact between Spanish and Sub-Saharan African languages that was to last for nearly half a millennium, and that is the subject of this thoroughly researched, encyclopedic volume by one of the leading authorities on Spanish linguistics. As with his previous Latin American Spanish (Lipski 1994), which has become the obligatory first stop for anyone doing research on Spanish dialectology, A history [End Page 416] of Afro-Hispanic language is destined to become an indispensable tool for those conducting basic and advanced research on bozal Spanish (as the language of African-born bilinguals was called) and on the substratum footprint left by the millions of Africans who, first as part of the traditional patrician slave system, and then as cogs in the brutal plantation machine, acquired Spanish as their second or third language in Spain and Latin America.

As in matters maritime, in commercial practices too Spain was at the onset of the modern era following the innovating Portuguese, who had a head start on the slave trade and whose language had consequently mixed earlier with the languages of Africans. Portuguese traders were the source of those early Africans in Seville, who (like Columbus himself) had thus been exposed to Portuguese before setting out to learn Spanish. It was, for centuries, almost always thus: Spanish as the true second language of the Africans, but preceded in almost every case by the intervening language of a transitional experience before they reached the Hispanic world. Because the Spanish colonies used millions of slaves, but the Crown and its representatives for the most part neither captured nor traded nor transported slaves, the Spanish authorities unwittingly exposed Africans not only to Spanish but, depending on the period, also to Portuguese, French, English, or Dutch, or to either nascent or fully developed African West Coast pidgins and creoles, or to several of the above, thus creating the bewildering complexity of Afro-Hispanic hybridization that Lipski elucidates so cautiously but firmly in this volume.

As L points out, no form of Black Spanish appears to exist today with anything like the focused shape of US African American Vernacular English. And in many Hispanic locales where Africans and their languages were once a powerful presence, as in Buenos Aires and the River Plate area, and in Bolivia and the Peruvian Andes, time and demographic pressures have obliterated their mark. L’s book, which is strong and revealing with respect to these areas, is therefore in many cases of strictly historical interest. But when in the nineteenth century the flow of African arrivals was turned by the deadly engine of the plantation system into a torrent of humanity, the Africanization of societies and languages in several parts of Latin America, especially in the Spanish Caribbean, became a significant and permanent development, of considerable social and linguistic relevance still today.

L tackles head-on the serious challenges of theory and interpretation produced by the need to tease apart the sometimes simultaneous effects of imperfect second-language learning, contact-induced transfer, pidgin and creole formation, and the influence of all of these on one another. In the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, for example, L shows the need to take into account first the substratum effects of the African vernaculars as well as the subsequent transfer of features from Haitian and Papiamentu; and since these two creoles possess traits that (naturally, because they too have African roots) are similar to those of the original African languages, tracing the source of colonial and present-day Spanish characteristics in these areas becomes a challenge that is daunting indeed. L is a skeptic on whether bozal Spanish ever reflected...


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