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Contact Languages: A Wider Perspective Edited by Sarah G. Thomason. Creole Language Library 17. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1997. Pp. xiii + 506.

Assuming pidgins and creoles have held center stage in contact linguistics primarily because of their role in Western history, Thomason provides “12 case studies of lesser known contact languages,” a number of which are in decline, to expand language contact typology (2). These nicely illustrate several important principles:

  1. 1. Contact varieties are best defined in terms of their history, not in terms of inventories of shared features.

  2. 2. The linguistic results of language contact represent acts of identity (Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985).

  3. 3. Bilingual mixtures differ from pidgins and creoles in that they were created by bilinguals, not language learners.

  4. 4. Pidgins and creoles can emerge from contact situations with only two languages when there is withdrawal of/from the target.

The 12 case studies include 3 on pidgins (Hiri Motu, Pidgin Delaware, and Ndyuka-Trio Pidgin); 2 on creoles (Kitúba and Sango); 5 on bilingual mixtures (Michif, Media Lengua, Callahuaya, Mednyj Aleut, and Ma’a); and 1 each on Arabic-based pidgins and on creoles and prior pidginization and creolization in Swahili. In addition to presenting a structural description, which considers the source of grammatical structures, authors were asked to provide information on circumstances of use, linguistic status, and origin (distinguishing between documented and inferred conditions) of the varieties they discussed.

Tom Dutton’s chapter describes Hiri Motu. When compared to Motu, Hiri Motu is characterized by reduced morphology, greater structural regularity, and fewer grammatically encoded semantic distinctions. Dutton argues that Hiri Motu developed because the Motu, desirous of keeping strangers and visitors at a distance, withheld access to Motu proper. The foreigner talk register was later pidginized due to colonial “instrumentalities of law and order” (21). As with most contact varieties, “sourcing” is complicated by inadequate early data and by the complexity of the contact situation, including the number of possible source languages (26). Especially intriguing are features that cannot be traced to any source language. An appendix compares Hiri Motu, Simplified Motu, two Hiri trading languages, and Papuan Pidgin English. [End Page 324]

Ives Goddard’s essay discusses Pidgin Delaware, which facilitated Delaware/European contact during the colonial era. Interestingly, like Hiri Motu and Mobilian Jargon (Drechsel 1997), Pidgin Delaware seems to have enabled the dominant population to keep in-comers at bay. Many of the structural features of Pidgin Delaware can be traced to Delaware. An interesting exception is kabay ‘horse’, attested in a 1689 source, which Goddard suggests was “not introduced directly from [its] language of origin” (77). Evidence from Negerhollands, a Caribbean Dutch lexicon creole, points to Dutch as its source.

George Huttar and Frank Velantie’s concisely written chapter describes Ndyuka-Trio Pidgin, which “arose [around 1760] for purposes of general communication, especially trade” (99). Stable during the 100 years of its documented history, it is now in decline. Ndyuka-Trio phonology reflects both contributing languages; there is also evidence of phonological innovation. Its syntax “closely follows that of Trio” (105). 1 The lexicon comes mostly from Ndyuka and Trio, with “a somewhat larger [contribution] from the former” (113). An appendix provides vocabulary for a second trade jargon used between “Bushnegroes and Indians” (101).

Jonathan Owens’s chapter considers “all the varieties of pidgin and creole Arabic known to date” (125). One of the most useful points that Owens explores is the role of psychosocial distance in the formation of two creoles in southern Sudan. Although some of his phrasing characterizes the creators of these creoles as reactive (e.g., “the prestige target . . . cannot be learned by the subordinate groups, for whatever reason,” 143), this seems not to be his intent. His hypothesis that these creoles were “expressions of social class” (145) has much merit. Also of note is Owens’s maximally evenhanded criticism of a proposal that pidginization/creolization was central to the development of early Arabic dialects.

Salikoko Mufwene’s article on Kitúba provides insight from a linguist and native speaker. His discussion of Kitúba’s ethnographic status in Zaire is especially rich. Researchers who work with languages of the African diaspora will be interested in this chapter because of the role speakers of West African languages played in Kitúba’s formation.

In her comprehensive grammatical analysis of Sango, Helma Pasch catalogs retentions and losses and identifies innovations due to both grammaticalization and imperfect second-language acquisition. Arguing that Sango emerged via pidginization, Pasch attributes its low degree of lexical retention from its original lexifier to Sango’s greater prestige.

The chapter by Derek Nurse also addresses the question of prior pidginization. Nurse concludes that, while for some time conditions have been “conducive to the emergence of pidgin forms of Swahili” (291), a [End Page 325] number of Swahili structures often associated with pidginization/creolization are better accounted for by areal diffusion of historical changes prior to Swahili’s emergence.

Peter Bakker and Robert Papen’s detailed description of Michif appropriately draws heavily on the authors’ knowledge of Cree and French. Michif tends to preserve Cree lexicon, phonology, morphology, and syntax in the verb phrase, while French phonology and syntax dominate in the noun phrase. The authors propose that the originators of Michif were balanced bilinguals living in multilingual communities and suggest that the NP/VP division represents a resolution of typological conflict between the polysynthetic structure of Cree and that inflectional structure of French.

Pieter Muysken’s lengthy chapter on Media Lengua also discusses Quechua, Spanish, contact between the two, their respective influence on Media Lengua, and two related contact varieties. Muysken describes Media Lengua as relexified Quechua. Its phonology, morphology, and syntax are essentially Quechuan; its stems and the semantics of grammatical subsystems “have been restructured under the influence of Spanish” (391). 2 Media Lengua is spoken by acculturated Indians in Ecuador who identify with neither the pure indigenous nor the pure colonial cultures. Structural differences between Media Lengua and other Spanish/Quechua contact varieties lead Muysken to call for further study of these varieties and of the processes which led to their formation.

Muysken’s second chapter focuses on a second mixed language, Callahuaya, used only in ritual curing ceremonies by the oldest itinerant healers from northwest Bolivia. Formed in an area that has undergone successive waves of resettlement and cultural assimilation, Callahuaya has a vocabulary drawn from a greater number of source languages than the other mixed languages discussed in the volume.

Thomason’s two chapters also consider mixed languages: Mednyj Aleut and Ma’a. Both chapters revisit issues related to the languages’ origins that Thomason has discussed elsewhere. Especially interesting is the way in which she uses tenets from historical linguistics and language contact theory to build her arguments.

Like Michif, Mednyj Aleut’s unique structure appears to be a product of bilingualism and typological conflict. Pointing out that both the Russian and the Aleut parts of the language are “fully elaborated” and that “the Russian features are incorporated into an Aleut base” (462), Thomason reasons that the originators of the language must have been fluent bilinguals with greater competence in Aleut. She also reasons (quoting Golovko [End Page 326] 1994) that the language stabilized because of “the aspiration of a group of people (i.e., the creoles) for a separate identity” (463).

Thomason’s second chapter addresses Ma’a, a mixed language with Bantu grammar and a basic lexicon of Cushitic origin. Ma’a, though unintelligible with Bantu Mbugu and hence linguistically distinct from it, nevertheless functions “sociolinguistically as a register of Mbugu” (473). Thomason argues that Ma’a resulted from gradual Bantuization within a multilingual, culturally conservative speech community.

In content, this collection of essays is a treasure trove of data. The discussions of mixed languages are especially welcome. Physically, the volume is well bound and printed on good stock with few typographical errors. The margins are a bit narrow for note taking, however. Rhetorically, the volume would have benefited from greater cohesion across chapters. Authors’ styles vary considerably, and abbreviations differ across chapters both in form and in location. Additionally, as most authors seem unaware of the contents of other chapters, the editor might have alerted readers to points discussed elsewhere in the volume. A consolidated bibliography would also have increased cohesion and might have reduced the cost of the volume.

Robin Sabino
Auburn University


1. Interestingly all three pidgins, Hiri Motu, Pidgin Delaware, and Ndyuka-Trio Pidgin, have marked word orders suggesting that when SVO word order appears, as it does in the Caribbean, it is not due to putative universals.

2. One of my students, Roby Colvin (pers. com., 10 Oct. 1998), reports that Spanish forms have replaced the Media Lengua plural pronouns documented by Muysken in the 1970s and that Spanish is now spoken in the area between Latachunga and Riobamba.


Drechsel, Emanuel J. 1997. Mobilian Jargon: Linguistic and Sociohistorical Aspects of a Native American Pidgin. Oxford: Clarendon.
Golovko, Evgeni V. 1994. “Copper Island Aleut.” Mixed Languages. Ed. Peter Bakker and Maarten Mous. Amsterdam: Inst. for Functional Research into Language and Language Use, U of Amsterdam, 113–21.
Le Page, Robert B., and Andrée Tabouret-Keller. 1985. Acts of Identity: Creole-Based Approaches to Language and Ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

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