Podcast episode 25: Interview with Felicity Meakins on contact linguistics

In this interview, we talk to Felicity Meakins about Pidgins, Creoles, and mixed languages. We discuss what they are, and how they are viewed in both linguistic scholarship and in speaker communities.

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References for Episode 25

Bakker, Peter, Daval-Markussen, Aymeric, Parkvall, Mikael, & Plag, Ingo. (2011). Creoles are typologically distinct from non-creoles. Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages, 26(1), 5-42.

DeGraff, Michel. (2005). Linguists’ most dangerous myth: The fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism. Language in Society, 34(4), 533-591.

McWhorter, John. (2001). The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology, 5(2/3), 125-166.

Mufwene, Salikoko. (2000). Creolization is a social, not a structural, process. In I. Neumann-Holzschuh & E. Schneider (Eds.), Degrees of restructuring in creole languages (pp. 65-83). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Meakins, Felicity. (2013). Mixed languages. In Y. Matras & P. Bakker (Eds.), Contact Languages: A Comprehensive Guide (pp. 159-228). Berlin: Mouton.

Meakins, Felicity, Hua, Xia, Algy, Cassandra, & Bromham, Lindell. (2019). The birth of a new language does not favour simplification. Language, 95(2), 294-332.

Transcript by Luca Dinu

JMc: Hi, I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:20] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:24] Regular listeners will recall that in the last episode, we finally concluded our look at European linguistics from the 19th to the 20th century, and were planning to continue our story in America. [00:36] The North Atlantic is well known for being a stormy sea. [00:40] During our passage from Europe to America, we were blown off course and will now make a short detour over the next few episodes via the topic of contact linguistics. [00:51] To introduce us to this topic, we’re joined today by Felicity Meakins, who’s Professor of Linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia. [01:01] Felicity is an expert on contact linguistics, having described several Australian contact varieties, and having made a number of important theoretical contributions to the field. [01:12] So Felicity, can you put us in the picture by telling us what contact linguistics is? [01:19] What does it mean to say that languages are in contact, and are some languages more in contact than others? [01:26]

FM: Thanks, James. [01:27] Yeah, so contact linguistics is the study, I guess we would like to say, of languages in contact, but in fact, it’s a bit disingenuous to think about languages being in contact, because, of course, speakers are the agents of languages. [01:42] But to even think about languages being in contact or speakers being in contact, too, is a bit of a funny metaphor. [01:50] So really, when we think about language contact, we’re thinking about bilingualism, we’re thinking about languages being in contact, in a sense, in a bilingual or a multilingual individual’s brain, and we’re starting with those processes, the way that words slide between languages, we talk about these as borrowings, but again, it’s a bit of a tricky metaphor, the way that grammars come into contact and the kinds of influences that grammars within a bilingual’s mind might have. [02:18] So when we’re talking about languages in contact, what we’re really thinking about is the individual, bilingual individual, and the kinds of processes that are going on in their mind. [02:26] But of course, then, that individual exists in a society. [02:30] They talk to other people, so we’re also very interested in contact linguistics in the kinds of contact processes that are perpetuated between speakers, what kinds of uptake, new structures, new lingo that comes in that’s, you know, words that are borrowed and that sort of thing, have within communities. [02:48] So it’s not just about the individual. [02:50] It’s also about that individual and how they interact within other speech communities. [02:54]

JMc: So would you say that the way that you describe the bilingual individual means that they have separate languages contained in their mind, and how do you think that the way that you’ve conceptualized contact linguistics in this respect relates to recent work in areas like translanguaging, where there’s this notion that the bilingual individual is not someone who has one or more languages contained in different regions of their brain, but has a selection of resources that they can deploy in different speech situations? [03:24]

FM: Yeah, so going back to the first part of that question about whether people have languages compartmentalized in different parts of their brain or different ways of thinking about that, I guess we have that question about language itself. [03:36] So if we go back to Fodor’s idea of modularity of mind — and of course, this taps into a lot of generativist ideas (for instance, Chomsky and others) about the idea that, for instance, language and cognition are separate parts of the mind — we can also think about bilingualism in a similar way. [03:54] So do people have two or more languages that are somehow interconnected within a kind of neurological network, or whether these things are separated — these are all questions that people are exploring. [04:05] One of the ways that people explore these ideas is through what you’ve called translanguaging, which has been a more recent term, but many of us, particularly in the typological literature, have been referring to as code-switching for a long time. [04:17] So this is, yeah, the individual bilingual or multilingual speaker who switches between languages, they might do that between sentences, so they might start a conversation in one language and switch to another language. [04:29] We call that alternational code-switching, but some speakers actually even switch within sentences, and we call that insertional code-switching. [04:36] So that’s where you plonk a word from one language into the grammar of another language, so those are really common ways of code-switching. [04:46] And in more recent times, the literature’s shifted to talking about translanguaging, and we think of this as a more fluid process, but again, questions about whether that involves languages being separated within the mind or not are really interesting. [05:00]

JMc: But I guess the term ‘code-switching’, you know — which has its origins in cybernetics, I guess, you know, in the cybernetic notion of code — implies that there is a whole language as a as a defined unit that can be clearly identified, which is perhaps precisely the problem when you’re talking about language mixing and contact languages? [05:19]

FM: Yeah, absolutely. [05:22] So, for instance, if you look at the mixed language literature — so mixed languages are bilingual languages which we generally understand as being derived from code-switching in the first place, so I can talk about different forms of mixed languages, but one of the questions that comes up in that literature is whether a mixed language is different from code-switching, so whether it’s an autonomous language system, and by an autonomous language system is a sort of Saussurean idea — we’re thinking about whether changes in components of that language are reflected in components of the ancestry language or not, whether that language as a system is really evolving on its own accord. [06:02] So yeah, that definitely goes back to whether or not we’re compartmentalizing languages in the mind or whether we’re really thinking about these in a more sort of fluid way, so that might be the sort of idea that you’re thinking about. [06:17]

JMc: Yeah, and do you think that this idea of a mixed language is a construction of the linguist who is researching the language, or is it something that the speakers of the language, do they think of it, do they conceptualize the languages they’re speaking as mixed languages themselves? [06:34]

FM: Yeah, look, that’s a really excellent question. [06:36] So to answer that from a linguist’s perspective, mixed languages were something that I guess the linguistics literature only really started realizing maybe in the ‘80s, so the work of Sarah Thomason and Terrence Kaufman in their really classic 1988 book, and then of course Peter Bakker had the really nice monograph A Language of Our Own, so this is the monograph about Michif, and this was really when mixed languages really started coming on the radar as being contact languages in their own right. [07:10] So of course, a lot of us, as linguists, we’re really pushing against people saying, “Well, this is just code-switching. [07:16] This isn’t mixed… You know, this isn’t a mixed language. [07:18] This isn’t really what we call in Saussurean terms, again, an autonomous language system.” [07:24] So, in a sense, as linguists, we’ve been tasked by other linguists to demonstrate that these really are separate languages, but, of course, speech communities think about them in different ways, and there’s different reasons for that. [07:36] So I work a lot on a mixed language called Gurindji Kriol. [07:38] This is a language that’s spoken in Northern Australia. [07:41] It’s a combination of Gurindji, which is a traditional language of Australia, and Kriol, which is a more recent English-based Creole language. [07:50] So before I started working on this language a couple of decades ago, people would just generally call it, you know, quite derisive terms like sort of ‘rubbish Gurindji’ or, you know, just sort of saying that younger generations weren’t speaking Gurindji properly. [08:04] So the way of speaking that younger generations have didn’t have a label, in a sense, and Salikoko Mufwene, actually, who’s a creolist, really cautions against linguists and contact linguists from labelling languages and contact languages. [08:20] And so I have had this in mind, but it has been quite a useful thing for the community to say, “No, as younger generations we speak a different kind of Gurindji. [08:29] Kriol is mixed in. [08:30] It’s done in really systematic ways in terms of word choice, in terms of grammatical structure, and for us, we’re going to call this language Gurindji Kriol.” [08:40] And so for instance, in the Australian national census now, you can say, “I’m a speaker of Gurindji,” you can say, “I’m a speaker of Kriol,” or you can say you’re a speaker of Gurindji Kriol. [08:49] So in a sense, the speech community now recognizes that as a language in its own right, but yeah, there are real differences often between what speech communities think and what, you know, how linguists label languages. [09:00]

JMc: And taking the variety of Gurindji Kriol as an example, what sort of image does the language have? [09:07] In what way is it used now? [09:09] Is it something that is purely used for conversation, or are there sort of efforts at standardization, if I can put it that way, where there’s an effort to develop a standard orthography and where it’s used in official signage or correspondence or to write literature? [09:25]

FM: Yeah, so Gurindji Kriol is still a part of the larger language ecology, so the Gurindji community themselves are really aware that it’s only older generations that speak the hard language, the old language, Gurindji, and there’s a lot of grief associated with that, and with that grief, Gurindji Kriol isn’t valued as much. [09:47] It is valued much more by younger generations in the last couple of decades, but so Gurindji itself has an orthography. [09:54] It’s got a spelling system. [09:55] It’s got a dictionary. [09:55] It’s now got a grammar that we released last year. [09:59] Gurindji Kriol itself, we’ve been writing about the language in scientific papers and this sort of thing, but within the community, there isn’t a standard orthography for it. [10:08] It’s really just used among the community, among, you know, people under the age of 45 or 50. [10:14] But having said that, this is starting to change, so we had a wonderful project that started last year that was based around termites. [10:22] So termites are a much-maligned insect variety. [10:26] You know, we usually think of them as eating up houses and that sort of stuff, but they’re very valued by Gurindji people. [10:32] They’re used extensively in bush medicine practices, and the resin from termite mounds is used to stick spearheads, for instance, to wooden shafts and that sort of thing. [10:40] So we had a project around this. [10:40] We have produced a book with the Karungkarni Arts Centre there. [10:46] The book has been written in hard Gurindji, so in the traditional language. [10:49] It was then translated into English, and then we had extensive conversations with the community about actually including the third language, which was Gurindji Kriol, and so there was a lot of discussion about this, about what it meant for the community in terms of how much it values the language or not, but this will actually be the first book that’s produced within the community that actually has Gurindji Kriol as one of the languages of literacy, I guess. [11:14]

JMc: So that’s a very interesting point about how the community feels about their language. [11:17] Could you say something about how this feeling that the loss of hard Gurindji represents a loss of culture, so this feeling that maybe Gurindji Kriol is a degenerate form of hard Gurindji, how that sort of idea relates to efforts that are widespread across Australia, and in other countries that have suffered from settler colonialism, to revitalize or revive traditional Indigenous languages? [11:46] Because I guess you could make the argument that reviving a traditional language, so a language that has been lost from use in in day-to-day speech altogether, represents this idea that you’re trying to bring back something that has, you know, a cultural artefact that has been completely taken from you, but I guess in Gurindji Kriol, a new language has developed, like a new way of being a Gurindji person has developed. [12:15]

FM: Yeah, that’s right, so Gurindji Kriol sits on the cusp of tradition and modernity. [12:22] It both represents the continuity of traditional Gurindji culture, as well as a nod to the modern world, and the modern world for Indigenous people in northern Australia is Kriol (spelt with a K), which is an English-based Creole language. [12:37] Nonetheless, Gurindji is a really important part of the community — and by that, I mean traditional Gurindji. [12:44] So people are aware that in no longer speaking the traditional language, there are really important cultural aspects that are also not being practised. So, for instance, Gurindji has got an incredible system of cardinal directions. [12:58] There’s at least 32 different ways of saying north, and, you know, multiply that by four, so we’ve got north, south, east, and west. [13:05] Gurindji people don’t use left and right, so if they’re talking about the, I guess, position of the Vegemite in relation to the flour — let’s make this nice and Australian — you know, people talk about the Vegemite being to the east of the flour on the shelf instead of to the left or right, for instance, and so this is a really complex system that is underpinned by the trajectory of the sun but is really absolutely in operation regardless of whether it’s day or nighttime. [13:32] So younger generations who speak Gurindji Kriol absolutely have a sense of cardinal directions, use them. [13:38] They’re absolutely anchored in the world as well, but they don’t have this incredibly complex system as well, so they use terms like ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’, and ‘west’, but they’re not inflected for the 32-plus forms that we know that hard Gurindji has. [13:55] So there are certainly ways that the traditional language as it’s no longer being spoken in this really rich form, there are, you know, sort of cultural effects. [14:05] And, you know, another part of the system that we might think about and what we have in Australia, which are called tri-relational kinship terms, so this is where you have highly complex morphology which reflects the relationship of the speaker to the person who’s listening, and also to the referent. [14:21] So you have a three-way relationship that’s encoded in single kinship terms, and that kind of kinship structure is exceedingly important in all First Nations communities across Australia. [14:32] The tri-relational kinship system is incredibly complex, and it is something that’s really on the wane. [14:38] So again, it’s something that there’s a lot of anxiety about these really important systems, whether it’s spatial awareness or kinship, where there are changes going on, and some of those changes are still captured in Gurindji Kriol, but not in quite the same ways. [14:52]

JMc: So if we can zoom back out again to broader questions of contact linguistics, can I ask you, are there different kinds of contact varieties? So linguists frequently talk about such things as Pidgins, and Creoles, and mixed languages. [15:09] These terms have come up in your answers to the previous questions. [15:12] How are these different kinds of contact variety defined? [15:16] Do they exhibit specific structural properties, or do these labels describe certain kinds of sociolinguistic situations? [15:24]

FM: Yeah, so there has been a debate for a long time about whether we define contact languages according to typological, or structural criteria, or socio-historical criteria. [15:36] Most of us have landed on socio-historical criteria. [15:40] So, for instance, Pidgin languages we consider to be really nobody’s first language. [15:46] They’re languages that are born out of a need to communicate between disparate groups but where there’s also disparate power, so colonial situations, for instance, whether it’s, say, in Australia where people have remained on country but have been colonized in particular ways, or whether you’ve got West African slaves, for instance, being brought to the Caribbean. [16:05] Sometimes those Pidgin languages start being learnt as the first languages of mostly Black communities, different kinds of Black communities, whether it’s in the Caribbean or Pacific or other parts of the world where there are European colonial masters, although I accept that’s gendered [16:23] language, actually. [16:25] So in those situations where children start learning the languages, and over a number of generations, those languages complexify, and they become the first languages of communities, that’s when we start thinking about them as being Creole languages. [16:36] So they generally have a lexifier, which is a European language (particularly English, French, Portuguese, German, even, in Papua New Guinea, has been a lexifier language), and then a number of substrate languages, which influence the way that the structure of the semantics, the sound system, the phonology, and some aspects of grammar are then structured. [16:55] And those languages which then complexify are called Creole languages. [17:00] So those are sort of socio-historical definitions. [17:03] Mixed languages differ because they’re usually born out of situations where there are bilingual communities, so there might be language shift going on. [17:12] This is the case with Gurindji Kriol, which is a complex situation, because there’s a pre-existing Creole, right? [17:16] So this is like a second degree of language contact. [17:19] So in this particular situation, you’ve got language shift from Gurindji to this English-based Creole language, but you’ve got a community that were highly bilingual at the point where this mixed language was produced, but you get other situations like Michif, which I was talking about before, which is a Cree-French mixed language where you had French buffalo hunters who were the men, and then they were married to Cree women, and so this mixed language came about from that kind of socio-historical situation. [17:48] So the mixed languages come out of quite, you know, literally mixed situations, but we prefer to talk about socio-historical criteria to, you know, typological or structural criteria. [18:00]

JMc: And do you think there’s enough similarity between these different socio-historical situations to be able to come up with a category like Pidgin, or Creole, or mixed language? [18:10] So is there enough similarity between the experience of people living on country in Australia with British white settler colonists coming in to Africans who have been transported from West Africa to the Caribbean to work on plantations and so on? [18:26]

FM: Yeah, I think there is, because what’s at the core of this is a power differential, and a power differential and also, say, numbers of humans. [18:36] So what you have is a very small number of people who are, you know, absolutely in power (these are the European colonists), and then a large population of non-European people who speak different languages who are in a much less powerful situation. [18:54] So I think that’s the real commonality between, say, a situation of slavery, for instance, that we saw in the Caribbean where people were displaced, and Australia where we would still call it, actually, a situation of slavery, although slavery had been officially abolished at this point, but it’s still slavery, but where people are still largely on country or displaced, but not to a large extent. [19:15]

JMc: Okay. [19:17] So let me ask you as well: Over the past 20 years or so, there’s been much controversy over so-called Creole exceptionalism, and this is a cluster of ideas and approaches in linguistics that try to treat Creoles as in some way a special type of language different from ‘normal’ languages (in inverted commas). [19:36] I guess this issue feeds back into the previous question about how contact varieties are defined, so do you think there is, for example, a Creole prototype that can be identified on structural grounds, and what do you think the postulation of a Creole prototype tells us about the researchers? [19:53] You know, why would they want to imagine such a thing, and why do they pick the particular parameters that they choose to define the prototype? [20:02]

FM: Yeah, so I guess the most recent instantiation of that has been John McWhorter’s 1998 Creole prototype, so that was based on three different features. [20:14] So the idea of that is that Creoles lack inflectional morphology, they lack tonal contrast, and they lack non-compositional derivational morphology. [20:23] And we don’t really have to think too much about two and three. [20:26] It’s really that the thing that linguists have mostly focused on is that lack of inflectional affixation. [20:31] So the idea with this, really, is that the Creole prototype, and therefore Creoles, are actually simpler, morphologically simpler forms of language. [20:40] So Michel DeGraff, who’s a Haitian linguist, has really taken exception to this, and this is where the label, sorry, ‘Creole exceptionalism’ comes from. [20:51] So he had a seminal paper that came out in 2005 called ‘Linguists’ most dangerous myth: The fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism,’ and this appeared in Language in society. [21:02] And so he really called out the field of linguistics for continuing to postulate exceptional and abnormal characteristics in the diachrony or synchrony of Creoles as a class, and he went further, and he was saying that this is really still rooted in the racial essentialism that underpins European colonial expansion, and it’s really perpetualizing the marginalization of Creole languages and their speakers. [21:29] So that’s the kind of background to that debate. [21:31] The thing that really, I guess, it comes down to is whether or not Creole languages have inflectional morphology, and bearing in mind that a lot of lexifier languages are pretty poor — like English, we’ve got, you know, an inflectional s in agreement, our third-person singular agreement system, we’ve got a past tense in -ed — it’s not a whole lot to go on with. [21:52] But yeah, if Creoles have less morphology, then we’re talking about simplification processes and, of course, simplification really, quite reasonably, tweaks the antenna of people when we’re talking about languages which are majority spoken by Black people. [22:08] So that debate has gone on for a bit. [22:10] What’s happened more recently is that there have been phylogenetic approaches to try and, I guess, scale up the data that’s thrown at this debate. [22:19] So there was a very well known paper that came out that was written by Peter Bakker and a number of authors in 2011, and so they really used a lot more Pidgin and Creole languages in this analysis. So, for instance, John McWhorter’s 1998 survey was based just on eight Creole languages; Peter Bakker’s paper was based on a data set of 18 Creole languages, and then they had a second set of analyses that actually ramped this up a lot more and used a lot more Creole languages in it. [22:50] And what they did was, they used features that had been coded in different kinds of databases. [22:55] One of those was the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Linguistics. [22:59] The other database that was coded up was from John Holm and Patrick’s Comparative Creole Syntax, so they coded up a whole bunch of features and then compared these and used phylogenetic NeighborNet models to see whether Creoles clustered differently based on typological structural features, as opposed to non-Creoles. [23:22] They found clustering, but one of the main criticisms of this paper is that they’re using features that are already identified as perhaps Creole features, so they’re features that we as creolists are kind of interested in, so there’s a sort of circular argumentation to this. [23:37] And many of us have criticized this approach saying what we need to be doing is taking a large database of language features, whether this is from the WALS database, or whether this is from the new Grambank [23:49] database that’s coming out of Jena, and then randomly sampling features from both languages that have been labelled Creole languages based on socio-historical factors and also non-Creole languages, and then seeing whether we get clusters of features. [24:05] And, you know, I’m interested in this question, but what I want to see is the methodology done well, and I think we haven’t really seen that happen just yet, so as of yet, the jury is out, really, on whether we want to be saying that Creole languages have particular structural or typological features that can categorize them as a separate class, or whether really we want to be leaning on those socio-historical features as the way that we categorize contact languages. [24:32]

JMc: And do you think that the sort of circular reasoning that has been happening in these studies so far, do you think that it’s just poor methodology, or do you think that it’s that people are blinded by an ideology about simplicity, as DeGraff may argue, or do you think there’s even sort of evil intentions in trying to cast Creoles and Pidgins as inherently defective? [24:57]

FM: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. [25:01] I think to answer that, I’d say that linguistics is relatively new to the use of biological methods, so we have been doing this for a while in historical linguistics. [25:11] We’ve been using phylogenetics to create language trees and NeighborNet models for a little while, but I think we still have a little bit to learn from biology. [25:22] So biology has this idea of an ascertainment bias, and an ascertainment bias is where, for instance in linguistics, specifically choosing language features that have been noted for their complexity and simplicity in a particular way. [25:37] So biology is already at a point where they’re interested in particular questions, but what they do is, they randomly select features. [25:44] And I think this is something… [25:46] This is a methodological issue that we really have to think about in linguistics, so this is work that I’ve been doing with biologists Lindell Bromham and Xia Hua, who are at the ANU in Canberra, and we’ve been taking into account, for instance, the idea of the ascertainment bias. [26:03] So we’ve been thinking about the idea of morphological simplification as, for instance, the preferential adoption of simpler elements, like if you’re borrowing, say, prepositions over case morphology, or the simplification of more complex language features, so for instance syncretism of case in language shift scenarios — but the way that we’ve gone about this is to select language features simply on the basis of the fact that they vary, and then we’ve gone through and categorized all of those features and their variants according to morphological complexity, and we’ve used established criteria in the morphological literature, and then we’re asking the question, is there a preferential, you know, for instance, adoption of simpler variants over more complex variants? [26:49] And I think this is the way to get around things like ascertainment bias. [26:53] So I think, you know, as linguists we’re still quite young in using biological methods. [26:59] We’re still not necessarily learning the lessons that biology has also learnt. [27:05] Inadvertently, we’re then perpetuating, for instance, racial stereotypes of Creoles being simpler languages because Creoles are spoken by mostly Black people of different kinds. [27:16] This then feeds into racial stereotypes which are really, you know, just not helpful. [27:22] And so I think that’s how that process is working. Michel DeGraff, of course, would have stronger things to say about this, though, and I absolutely acknowledge those, as would Salikoko Mufwene. [27:33]

JMc: Okay. [27:34] Well, thank you very much for answering those questions. [27:36]

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