The New Lesvos English.

Matt Broomfield of the New Statesman reports on the lingua franca developing at Moria prison camp on Lesvos:

But in the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution, tentatively beginning to develop its own unique grammar and idiom. My six months working on the island were a crash course in “Lesvos English” – and in the remarkable ways people adapt and communicate as they attempt to survive a worsening humanitarian crisis.

One striking change is the systematic simplification of vocabulary. To commonly stands in for other prepositions such as at, in or on: not only I go to beach now, but also I stay to beach tonight. The phrase too much is similarly overburdened, doing the work of a lot, very, many, and entirely: the camp at Moria is too much full with too much people. Other examples heard many times every day include after in place of then or next, and finish in place of stop, go home and so on.

The simplified terms of Lesvos English are not random, but show how languages are learned. For example, one of the first verbs all students of a foreign language learn is “to speak” – I speak English, I don’t speak Farsi. Thus speak often does the work of say, tell and ask, as in I speak him why?, he speak me because I am hungry. The sense is clear – why complicate matters any further?

In general, English as spoken on Lesvos displays an “isolating morphology”, meaning nouns and words tend to be used in their simplest possible form: I am sleep to Moria, and not I am sleeping. This is a trait typical of many pidgin languages. […]

Some loan words, such as the universally-used German ausweis for ID papers, were brought to the island by Western activists. Other often-heard phrases are evidently transliterations from Arabic and Farsi, while one common tic is doubling-up pronouns and proper nouns in a sentence to avoid confusion, for example stating Aiwan he go Athens or asking you stay beach you? Reduplication, either for intensification or to create a plural, is a feature of many well-established pidgins.

For a newspaper journalist, it’s an astonishingly good piece of linguistic description; my hat is off to Matt Broomfield. (Thanks, Lameen and JC!)

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    It’s a very good article, and well worth reading in its entirety (so follow the link). And you’re right, it doesn’t contain any of the garbage that journalists usually write about language.

  2. According to Matt Broomfield’s CV, he has a University of Oxford (Wadham College) bachelor’s degree, English Language and Literature/Letters (first-class honours). Although it was Literature in his case, apparently linguistic education isn’t neglected there. I agree his observations are extremely interesting and well reported.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I was also at Wadham, but I’m a bit (let us say a lot) older than Matt Broomfield, so we didn’t overlap.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, interesting, well understood and well written. He uses “transliterations” for what I think must be calques, but that’s easily forgivable. And a little annoying that he doesn’t use quotation marks, but that may be house style, for all I know.

  5. And a little annoying that he doesn’t use quotation marks

    And/or italics, but yes, I’m sure it’s house style.

  6. The phrase too much is similarly overburdened, doing the work of a lot, very, many, and entirely: the camp at Moria is too much full with too much people.
    That’s a usage I frequently heard from Lebanese speaking English (even from speakers who spoke relatively good English), so I assume it’s based on the Syrian / Lebanese Arabic vernacular.

  7. “But in the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution,”

    Oddly he makes no mention of the Orcish substrate.

  8. The difference between “too” and “very” is extremely difficult to explain in simple terms. Just try it on a non-native-English speaker. I have heard “too hot”, instead of “very hot”, so often from these folks that I could almost imagine the distinction does not exist in their own languages. Either that, or it is expressed in some completely different way.

    Actually there are other possibilities. One is that there is some kind of interference between the homonyms “to” and “too”.

  9. “But in the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution,”

    That doesn’t happen in crucibles, only in particle accelerators.

  10. A tiny quibble: normally “Lingua Franca” is used for a preexisting language, not for a pidgin.

    But what a breath of fresh air. Field linguistics by a skilled journalist, readable and interesting to layman and linguist alike.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Stu: That doesn’t happen in crucibles, only in particle accelerators.

    Exactly, And that’s why in a pidgin basically everything is a particle.

  12. A tiny quibble: normally “Lingua Franca” is used for a preexisting language, not for a pidgin.

    Well, the original (Mediterranean) Lingua Franca was a Romance-based pidgin.

  13. I take it back, kind of. A pidgin can be a lingua franca.

    Thomason and Kaufman (1988:170): “The best illustration is Tok Pisin, a long-lived pidgin which, before it began to creolize, had achieved major lingua franca status…”

    Cecil Brown, (Lexical acculturation, areal diffusion, lingua francas, and bilingualism, Language in Society 25:261,1996): “…a lingua franca, such as Chinook Jargon…”

  14. I guess what I mean is: a pidgin can be a lingua franca, if it spreads as a second language to new communities. In its community of origin it seems redundant to call it a lingua franca.

  15. Plenty of languages do not have a dedicated word meaning “too” as distinct from “very” and “a lot”. At any rate, Algerian Arabic certainly doesn’t. If you really want to make a point of the distinction, you can use a paraphrase like kther mel-lazem “more than necessary”, but usually you’d just use bezzaf “a lot, very” and leave it ambiguous.

  16. CuConnacht says:

    In Tok Pisin, “tumas” (< too much) has a range of meanings about like that of "too much" as described here, and "pinis" (< finish) means everything that "finish" is said to mean on Lesvos and perhaps more. Somewhat interesting parallel evolution.

  17. When I taught in Taiwan, my (Chinese-speaking) students routinely used “too” for “very” and “very” for the plain adjective; I think this phenomenon was discussed here at some point, but I’m too lazy to try to find it.

  18. Spanish has demasiado for ‘too, too much’, but it’s used much less than the English equivalents.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    routinely used “too” for “very” and “very” for the plain adjective

    Mandarin hěn means “very” in some contexts, but is most common as a kind of… copula signaling that the next word is an adjective.

    Where English goes for “noun is adjective” and Russian for “noun adjective”, Mandarin uses “noun hěn adjective”.

  20. Yeah, that fits with my vague four-decade-old memory of how it worked.

  21. I did notice that my son had a period where he didn’t grasp the “more than necessary/good”-aspect of “too” when he was 2 years old. It wasn’t always clear if “too hot!” meant he wanted us to cool down or heat up the food.

  22. Lameen says: Plenty of languages do not have a dedicated word meaning “too” as distinct from “very” and “a lot”.

    Maybe it’s an Arabic thing. However, in Croatian, there is the same distinction one finds in English: “too much” = previše; “very much” = puno (generally, but it can be translated in other ways).

  23. To expand on what Y said, “too hot” in Spanish would normally be muy caliente. You’d say demasiado caliente only when being very careful to avoid ambiguity.

  24. in S. Africa with its 13 official languages English is commonly spoken as a second or third or fourth language. The overloaded ‘too much’ construction is used there as well. ‘Finish’ in its many uses is also familiar.
    Fascinating, thank you..

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