Unserdeutsch.

This (an anonymous post on deutschland.de) is quite a story:

“Du geht wo, Du essen was?” Anyone who speaks German will doubtless understand this question despite its somewhat clumsy grammar. It is in fact German, however – or more precisely “Unserdeutsch” (i.e. Our German), a creole language that is at risk of dying out. A language is described as creole if it emerged from several different languages. “Unserdeutsch” is now spoken by fewer than a hundred people – most of them elderly – in Papua New Guinea, and is the world’s only German-based creole language. Unlike most creole languages, which evolved in the context of trade on plantations or in ports, “Unserdeutsch” is the result of a secret language invented by missionary school children during the German colonial period in Papua New Guinea in around 1900.

The mothers of the missionary school children belonged to one of the local tribes, while their fathers were colonial officers from Germany, seafarers from Australia or migrant workers from China. In the Catholic Herz-Jesu-Mission Vunapope near Kokopo, today’s provincial capital, the children would be taught by the nuns in standard German. Outside school, they would mix the German they learnt in the classroom with the languages of their parents, the result being “Unserdeutsch”. The German phrase “Um drei Uhr hole ich dich ab” (meaning “I will pick you up at three”) became “Drei Uhr i komm aufpicken du”, “i” being a mixture of the German “ich” and the English “I”, while for simplicity’s sake the children only used “der” or “de” as the definite articles.

Professor Craig Volker from the Divine Word University in Madang (Papua New Guinea) only discovered “Unserdeutsch” by chance in the 1970s. Together with the linguistic experts Professor Péter Maitz and Professor Werner König from the University of Augsburg, he is studying “Unserdeutsch” more thoroughly. During the course of a three-year project, the linguists are documenting the at-risk language, systematically describing its structure and reconstructing its history and evolution. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is providing 367,000 euros in funding for the project. “Anyone who speaks German can understand Unserdeutsch fairly well because the vocabulary is largely the same”, explains Professor Maitz.

I wouldn’t have believed that “a secret language invented by missionary school children […] around 1900” could still be in use, even if not exactly flourishing. If you’re curious, the Wikipedia article has a short but respectable bibliography. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Surely i ‘1sg’ is Southern German / Austrian rather than English. “Wer a Jud is, bestimm i!”

  2. David Marjanović says:

    I can’t imagine it ever was a secret language; it’s a resounding failure at that in the presence of anyone who knows Standard German.

    i

    Could also mean people simply gave up on the ich-Laut, which probably doesn’t occur in the local languages.

  3. ““Du geht wo, Du essen was?”

    Except that it would be “du gehen wo”, this is the kind of German produced by many older Turks here who never bothered. I imagine German learners from anywhere will speak like that for a while at least – bypassing conjugations, declensions and “gender”, essentially.

    Recently I mentioned the vague idea that things used to be simple and are now complicated, in connection with language and cognition. There is an equally vague idea that things used to be complicated and are now simplified – an example of that might be this “reduction of German to the basics”. With a hint that English arose from German in that way.

    Whether either of these vague ideas appeals to an explainer as an explanation of something, tells us perhaps at least as much about the explainer as about what he is trying to explain.

  4. The german spoken in suthern Brazil isnt much difrent – OK, conjugations ar usualy stil thare, but declinations ar neerly all gon. It is quite mixd with portuguese (german structure, but most nouns ar in portuguese, offen germanized). But it is not a uniform language, and offen the base language is not hochdeutsch, it is a german dialect, since menny immigrants came in the 19th century, wen hochdeutsch wasnt much consollidated.

    Ich > i: Yeah, they simplified it as the suthern germans and austrians did.

  5. “the world’s only German-based creole language”

    Doesn’t Yiddish fit into that category as well?

  6. Jim (another one) says:

    “I wouldn’t have believed that “a secret language invented by missionary school children […] around 1900” could still be in use, even if not exactly flourishing.”

    Never underestimate the usefulness of a cryptolect.

    ““the world’s only German-based creole language”
    Doesn’t Yiddish fit into that category as well?”

    I guess there’s a line thin between creoles and substratum effects.

  7. Eli Nelson says:

    No. The quoted material doesn’t give the standard definition of a creole language used by historical linguistics. In fact, creoles are not defined as languages that “emerged from several different languages.” From what I understand, they are defined as languages that emerged from pidgin languages. A pidgin is a simplified language (I believe that usually, the lexicon is mainly from one source language, not several) that is not spoken natively by anyone but is used for communication purposes between people who have different first languages. When children are taught a pidgin and grow up speaking it as one of their first languages, it develops into a creole. The Wikipedia page on Yiddish has some discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Yiddish#Yiddish_is_a_Creole_language.

    It seems that the consensus is that Yiddish never went through a pidgin stage, so it would not be a creole. It is just a Germanic dialect with a lot of borrowing from Hebrew.

  8. Creoles don’t always grow out of pidgins, though that is a common case, and there are at least two ways in which they can do so: abruptly from a mere jargon or early-stage pidgin, or gradually from a pidgin that has been extended to many domains. The common factor in creole languages is having a radically restructured stage in their past. Yiddish is no more a creole than Jewish English, or even Afrikaans or Kréol Réyoné (despite its name), which are basically all products of imperfect learning of English, Dutch, and French respectively.

    First chapter of Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles by John Holm, defining creolistic terms and explaining the limitations of the definitions. He starts with “descends from jargon or pidgin” as a definition of creole and then points out how that doesn’t cover all the cases.

  9. Or to parody Uncle Al:

    We are not descended
    From jargon or pidgin:
    Our word-stock is blended,
    Our grammar’s a smidgen.

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