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Grammar as a door to the past

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, have published a new large-scale database and atlas of key structural properties of the mixed languages ​​of the Americas, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. The work was carried out as part of a project carried out jointly with colleagues from the University of Giessen and Zurich with the participation of more than 80 other researchers from around the world.

For the most part, the above languages ​​originated as a result of colonial contacts between traders and colonialists from Europe and the local population, among which there were many slaves. The Atlas of Pidginand Creole Language Structures, published by Oxford University Press and also available on the Internet, contains an in-depth comparison of syntactic and phonological schemes in 76 languages. Although most of these languages ​​contain words borrowed from the languages ​​of European (and sometimes Arabic) colonialists, their grammatical structures often have their roots in the African and Pacific languages, which were originally spoken by representatives of the indigenous population, as clearly shown in the new atlas.

Based on the model of the highly accurate “The World Atlas of Language Structures”, the Leipzig scientists, together with their colleagues, have formed an association of linguists who specialize in 76 pidgin and Creole languages, which have arisen from close linguistic contacts over the past few years. centuries. “Language scientists often work separately, but in order to see the big picture, we needed to put their findings together and create a set of comparable data,” explains Suzanne-Maria Michaelis of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. For several years, she and her colleagues have worked with experts on 25 languages ​​of the Americas, 25 African languages, and 26 languages ​​of the Asia-Pacific region. The result of this large-scale work was an atlas of 130 maps illustrating the selection of grammatical features, more than two dozen maps with sociolinguistic data, as well as a significant number of maps showing the types of sound segments used.

Many maps reveal striking similarities between Caribbean languages ​​(such as Jamaican and Haitian Creole languages) and the languages ​​of slaves forced to labor for European colonists since the 17th century. Since a huge number of slaves of the colonies of the New World were brought from Africa, the Caribbean languages ​​are similar in many ways to the African ones. Philip Maurer of the University of Zurich: “[The similarity] cannot be easily traced back to words, as they usually sound like Spanish, French or English, but a closer look at grammatical features such as the tenses or verb species leads directly to African and Asian languages ​​”. For example, in Jamaican the past tense of action verbs does not require any special tense indicator, as it happens in English: “The men dug the hole” in Jamaican looks like “Di man-dem dig di huol”. This feature is widely traced among the languages ​​of West Africa. A number of African grammatical traits can be found even among the many colloquial varieties of English by African Americans in the United States.

“Grammatical structures have the potential to preserve more ancient historical conditions, and therefore, they can serve as a door to the past of humanity. However, it is very difficult to compare them across many languages, ”notes Martin Haspelmat of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “Finding comparative principles that would enable specialists with different research approaches to compare very different languages ​​was a particularly difficult task.” However, with the help of the new database, as well as the atlas built on its basis, scientists will now be able to approach the solution of various issues in a more systematic way.

Although some similarities between African and slave languages ​​have been noted for a long time, the Atlas of the Structures of Pidgin and Creole Languages ​​provides more systematic evidence for much more structural features. Suzanne-Maria Michaelis: “The influence of indigenous languages ​​is strikingly noticeable also in Asia and the Pacific, ie in territories whose historical Creoles were rarely taken into account. ” For example, in the Portuguese Creole version of the Sri Lankan language “Ilike it” (the English version, in which the subject is the subject of the action – “I”) literally translates as “To me it is liking” (the subject is the object of the action, which corresponds to the version of the Russian language “I like THAT”), which is a typical feature of the South Asian language.

Oxford University Press published the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Languages as a book, along with the three-volume Survey of Pidginand Creole Languages. Most of the structural information of the atlas is also available in an online format hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Additional materials, such as a detailed bibliography and sample sentences in languages, are only available online.