Tessa Wong reports for BBC News on Kristang, a creole spoken by a community of people of mixed Portuguese and Asian ancestry in Malacca and Singapore:

Until two years ago, university student Kevin Martens Wong had never even heard of his ancestral tongue, let alone spoken it.

The Singaporean linguist was researching endangered languages when he stumbled upon Kristang in a book. As he dug deeper, he realised it was the language of his maternal grandparents. […]

A unique creole of Portuguese and Malay, with elements of Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Hokkien, it was spoken by at least 2,000 people across the Malayan archipelago at its peak in the 19th Century, according to Mr Wong.

But today there may be as few as 50 fluent speakers left, along with more in Malaysia where the language is also in decline.

The main reason for its decline is that its own community has come to see it as economically irrelevant. […]

But Mr Wong and a group of language enthusiasts hope to change things.

Their group, called Kodrah Kristang – “Awaken Kristang” – holds weekly free language classes. They aim to build a critical mass of fluent Kristang speakers who can pass it on to future generations. […]

But reviving a dying language is not easy. One main challenge is that Kristang is mostly a spoken language and has rarely been recorded.

There is no standardised spelling or pronunciation system […]

Kristang does not have words for basic concepts such as apple, nurse, station or camera. “But we do have several words for genitalia,” deadpans Mr Wong.

To solve this problem, his group invented new words with mash-ups of Kristang’s root languages. […]

Some of these linguistic inventions can take on a poetic bent – a camera is “pintalumezi” or “light-painting machine”, while grammar is “osulingu”, or “bones of language”.

The group has also organised visits to the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, started work on a dictionary and textbook, created free online audio courses, and even done YouTube covers of pop songs in Kristang. […]

“One day we would like to see Kristang be recognised by the wider community,” says Mr Wong.

“There are no economic reasons for it to come back. But it’s part of our shared historical fabric and heritage.”

Good for them! And to head off the usual complaints about pointlessness, nobody is forcing these people to pointlessly try to revive their economically pointless language, but I don’t see that their efforts in that direction are any worse than, say, taking up needlepoint or canasta. Thanks for the link, Paul and Trevor!


  1. I’ll nitpick the article’s claim re Kristang: A unique creole of Portuguese and Malay, with elements of Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Hokkien, it was spoken by at least 2,000 people across the Malayan archipelago at its peak in the 19th Century.

    Another closely related creole, Batavia Portuguese / Mardijker was spoken by much larger numbers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Malaccan Portuguese creole was one of the sources of the Batavia Portuguese creole that developed under the Dutch after they took over Jayakarta/Batavia in 1619. Malaccan slaves brought to Batavia after the Dutch conquered Malacca in 1641 may have provided the largest body of speakers, supplemented by creole-speaking free traders and craftspeople migrating from Malacca; but there were also other Portuguese creole speakers brought from eastern Indonesia as well as South Asia.

    The Batavia creole was generally named Mardijker after the Dutch designation for freed slaves from mid-17th century. In 1673 there were over 5,000 Mardijkers among the 27,000 people inside Batavia’s walls; with about the same again living outside the walls, there might have been around 10,000 using Mardijker creole as their first language. Many more were fluent in it as the city’s lingua franca until it was gradually replaced by Malay during the 18th century (the early VOC Dutch were practised in Portuguese as the main trading language of the Indian Ocean).

    From Ronald Daus, Portuguese Eurasian Communities in Southeast Asia: “An opinion poll conducted in 1713 revealed that only 3 percent of the Mardijkers in Batavia could understand Dutch. Even the wives of high officials being surrounded by Creole [sic] servants, babysitters and cooks used to speak pidgin Portuguese during official receptions. They called each other names such as “dirty old hag” and much worse. Some governor generals attempted to restrict the use of the Portuguese language by imposing partial bans during military exercises or by severe reprimands, but these measures were largely ignored. It became a tiresome routine for the Dutch administrators to remind people of the anti-Portuguese edicts.”

    I assume the Malaccan Kristang and Batavia Mardijker versions were mutually comprehensible for much of the 17th century and perhaps later. But the two diverged as Mardijker took on numerous Dutch words and also some Javanese vocabulary. It was moribund by the early 20th century.

  2. I wonder if Kristang and Macanese are mutually comprehensible…

  3. @Ook … Macanese … Exactly what I came to ask about.

    Wikipedia distinguishes Macanese Portuguese (a dialect) vs Macanese Patois Patuá, a creole with a substrate from Malay (aha!), Cantonese (no surprise), Sinhalese (huh?). It seems to be in as a parlous state as Kristang — ~50 speakers remaining in 2000.

    ” In the 17th century it [Patuá] was further influenced by the influx of immigrants from other Portuguese colonies in Asia, especially from Portuguese Malacca, Indonesia, and Portuguese Ceylon, that had been displaced by the Dutch expansion in the East Indies, and Japanese Christian refugees.” Is there nowhere that European colonialisation hasn’t completely stuffed around?

    When I visited Macau (briefly as a tourist, early 1990’s, still under Portuguese government), ‘official’ Portuguese was everywhere (signage was bilingual). But the Chinese spoke better English than Portuguese. (Not that they needed to speak anything other than Cantonese.)

  4. @Ook: Likely.

    Naki di Ipoh, jenti Kristang mpoku, tapi na Malaka teng tantu jenti-jenti Kristang kweli-tudu chadu papia isi linggu. Jenti Makau papia nos-sa Papia Kristang sama ku yo-sa. Na Malaka agora teng ngwa padri keng ja beng dali Makau. Eli, ki-ora eli reza na greza, papia Kristang ku the congregation; tapi nala na Malaka nte tantu Jenti Makau.

    (Here in Ipoh, Creoles are few, but in Malacca there are many Creole people, and they are all clever (enough) to speak this language. Macao people speak our Papia Kristang the same as I (do). There is now in Malacca a priest who came from Macao. When he prays in church, he speaks Kristang to the congregation; but there aren’t many Macao people in Malacca.)

  5. Well, of course nobody needs to speak anything but Cantonese. Why, with that language alone you could travel around the world and never fail to meet people to speak to!

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe a new Kristang translation of the Tao Te Ching would help elevate its status and prominence?

  7. The referent of “its” there is intriguingly ambiguous.

  8. Re: Sinhalese in Singapore, see:

    I think I’ve met a linguistic anthropology grad student at NYU who is doing research on this group, but I’m having trouble finding him. Will update.

  9. @Deb … in Singapore

    Thanks. but those appear to be chiefly Tamils. Whereas the influence on Macanese Patuá is said to be Sinhalese.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I realized that my prior comment was ambiguously-worded after typing it but just before clicking on the “Post Comment” button, but decided to let the ambiguity stand, so as to make it more intriguing.

  11. Status and prominence of Kristang and Tao Te Ching are greatly elevated by discussion on Languagehat

  12. Calling Kristang a “unique creole of Portuguese and Malay” makes it sound as though it, and creoles in general, are mixes/blends of two or more languages. This is quite simply untrue: lexically, in most creoles, the bulk of their vocabulary derives from one language; in the case of the minority of creoles whose vocabulary is more mixed this is typically a consequence of later changes to the lexicon of an earlier form of the creole through borrowing, not of a lexical mixedness (allegedly) found in the creole from day one of its birth. Things get even more ridiculous when mention is made of “elements of Chinese languages such as Mandarin”: at the time and place of the birth of Kristang Mandarin was wholly absent, and thus what Mandarin elements are found in Kristang must have entered the language recently.

    The difficulty, I think, is that creoles are often spoken by racially distinctive or mixed groups, and thus there is a tendency to regard these groups’ languages are being just as “mixed”, linguistically, as their speakers are, racially. As a creole scholar once pointed out, quite correctly, when a native speaker of (more of less standard) English or French arriving in the West Indies cannot understand the English or French-based creole language spoken by local people who are typically of at least partial African origin, it is difficult for said standard speaker not to conclude thereby that the linguistic distinctiveness of creole languages must derive from African languages. However, most creolists agree today that while African languages have certainly had an impact upon West Indian creoles, their status as separate languages does not derive directly from said impact.

    As for J.W.Brewer’s suggestion, my assumption was that “its” referred to Kristang. But it seems to me that Kristang, or indeed any creole language, might be the perfect language to translate the Tao Te Ching or indeed more broadly Classical Chinese literature into: Classical Chinese, with its isolating syntax and lack of clearly differentiated word-classes, is very creole-like, and this linguistic similarity might make a creole a much better tool to render Classical Chinese literature today than any of the standardized languages of Europe.

    I can see it already…(“Introduction to Classical Chinese thought and literature. 3 Credits. IMPORTANT: For students who lack reading ability in Classical Chinese, 3 credits of Advanced Tok Pisin, Papiamento or Haitian Creole are a prerequisite.”).

  13. Isn’t it quite a coincidence?

    Maybe Old Chinese was actually a Creole language?

  14. SFReader: People have wondered about that.

    (Added: McWhorter, Tying up loose ends: The Creole Prototype after all (Diachronica 28, 82, 2011) argues that OC is not as simple as Sampson presents it, and does not pass the criteria for a Creole. As with everything on the subject, I doubt his will be the last word.)

  15. @ Etienne at the time and place of the birth of Kristang Mandarin was wholly absent Indeed. The article that @minus273 linked to says “The variety of Chinese from which the items have been mostly adopted appears to be Cantonese, although various others, such as Hakka, Hainanese and Hokkien are spoken in Malacca.” I’d guess that even to this day Mandarin is absent.

    That article also says “By far the largest proportion of lexical items in the language is traceable to Portuguese,”. Next in order “The Dutch contribution to the lexicon amounts to about 30 words,” “Malay words are constantly being adopted into the language, ” “The Chinese contribution is rather smaller” — i.e. smaller than Malay.

    … might make a creole a much better tool to render Classical Chinese literature… How about a creole of West Frisian substrate with Norman and Romance adoptions?

    If only we could figure out what creole Boodberg was rendering in. I guess that same substrate.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Maybe Old Chinese was actually a Creole language?

    It wasn’t quite as isolating as it looks when written down, having several derivational pre- and suffixes that have been reconstructed in the last 30 years; more are still being discovered.

    The most impressive case that comes to mind is a character that has two related but distinct meanings and two pronunciations in modern Mandarin: shuài and lǜ. In recent reconstructions, this lǜ is derived from *rut-s, while shuài is derived from *s-rut-s, all perfectly regular.

  17. But it seems to me that Kristang, or indeed any creole language, might be the perfect language to translate the Tao Te Ching or indeed more broadly Classical Chinese literature into

    A tantalising speculation, but is the grammatical nature of a language the most important determinant of translatability? Would haiku or Murakami Haruki be more easily translatable into Turkish than into English?

    I’ve heard (and it might have been mentioned at LH at some point) that the Manchu translations of Chinese literature are much more accessible than the Chinese originals. That is because the Manchu translators had a good (perfect?) understanding of the meaning of the Chinese, but had to break it down into more understandable concepts in order to translate it into Manchu.

  18. I am willing to bet that English translations would be even more accessible

  19. Bathrobe: In answer to your question, I think that structural similarity between languages can help ease the translator’s task greatly, especially when part of the problem involves rendering ambiguity: Classical Chinese has plenty of ambiguity, much of it due to its lack of clearly-defined word classes: a creole can also exhibit a great deal of ambiguity, for the same reason, and thus rendering Classical Chinese into a creole does not force a translator into as many choices as rendering Classical Chinese into any of the standardized languages of Europe (or into Manchu, as you pointed out). And if the existence of such translations upgrades the sociolinguistic status of creoles, well, who could be opposed to that?

  20. I have entertained the thought of translating from some North American language into Hebrew. Classical Hebrew can look willfully archaic with an analytic language like English, even for 19th century novels, but I surmise that its compactness would work well with a more synthetic one; at least the work would be pleasing to the translator.

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