In the Strand today I saw a book by Carol Myers-Scotton called Contact Linguistics. The book is written in a rebarbative theoretical jargon that (for instance) replaces “clause” with CP, which stands for some gobbledygook phrase that thankfully eludes my memory, but it includes brief sections on three “mixed languages” that I had been unaware of and that sound fascinating.

The first is Michif, described in this online article as follows:

The Michif language is spoken by Metis, the descendants of European fur traders (often French Canadians) and Cree-speaking Amerindian women. It is spoken in scattered Metis communities in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and in North Dakota and Montana in the United States…. It is spoken outside the French-speaking part of Canada and the Cree-speaking areas of North America…. Michif is a rather peculiar language. It is half Cree (an Amerindian language) and half French. It is a mixed language, drawing its nouns from a European language and its verbs [and grammatical structure—LH] from an Amerindian language.

The second is Medny Aleut (also called Copper Island Aleut), probably now extinct or close to it, which has Aleut lexical items embedded in Russian grammar; the third, and best known, is Mbugu (also called Ma’a), which has Cushitic vocabulary and Bantu grammar. More such languages are dealt with in this 1994 collection of papers.

These languages pose a problem for historical linguists, who tend to like neat “family trees” (as in this amazing page, which also has beautiful maps) showing languages splitting neatly into daughter languages in such a way that each language is traceable (in theory) back through a single lineage; fortunately, these mixtures are rare enough not to disturb the general picture too much, and they don’t destroy the usefulness of the traditional model any more than the existence of people who cannot be clearly defined as “male” or “female” nullifies the concept of gender. (If you think it does, you may have wandered into this blog by mistake; I suggest you flee back here.)


  1. CP = Complemintizer Phrase?

    I believe that’s the Chomskian term that Myers-Scotton use with regards to structural governance.

  2. No, would that it were that obvious, but it’s something like “projection of complementizer” — except I don’t think it’s “complementizer.” If I see it again I’ll make a note of it.

  3. It is, in fact, “Complementizer Phrase.”

    Just passing through … enjoying your articles 🙂

  4. It is not, in fact, “Complementizer Phrase.” It is, in fact, “projection of complementizer,” just as I suggested (I should trust my memory more). I made a special trip back to the Strand to check on this; here is the relevant quote (the beginning of section C.2.1. CP as the unit of analysis, p. 54): “Soon after Duelling Languages was published in 1993, I replaced ‘sentence’ with ‘CP’ (projection of complementizer) as the unit of analysis…. A CP (or S-bar) is a special type of constituent; it is the syntactic structure expressing the predicate-argument structure of a clause (plus any additional structures needed to encode discourse-relevant structure and the logical form of that clause).” Man, I hate that kind of jargon; I hope I never have to transcribe that much of it again. “A CP (or S-bar)…”: why use one mysterious glorp when you can use two? Anyway: facts, gentlemen, facts. Don’t leave home without them!

  5. I stand corrected, though I was only guessing in the first place. Having not read the particular book you were refering to I wasn’t aware of the full context in which ‘CP’ was used.

    Nonetheless, I would like to share the following.

    In the 2000 article Matching lemmas in a bilingual language competence and production model: evidence from intrasentential code-switching (The Bilingual Reader, p 282) , Myers-Scotton and Jake write:

    “Although the subject here is intrasentential CS, it is as well to note that the constituent level that is relevant in the determination of either intersentential or intrasentential CS is the same. This is the CP (complement phrase) or S-Bar (S’). . . “

    I have that article in PDF format if anyone wants to take a look.

  6. Well, I for one am anxious to see what she makes it stand for in her next book!

  7. Ilya Vinarsky says

    Òðè ã¸ðëèöû ïîä âèíäîì
    Ïðÿëè ïîçäíî èâíèíãîì.
    – Êàáû ÿ áûëà êèíãèöà,
    Ô¸ðñòà ìîëâèëà ã¸ðëèöà,
    ß á äëÿ áàòþøêè-êèíãà
    Ñóïåð-äèííåð çàäàëà.
    Êàáû ÿ áûëà êèíãèöà,
    Ñýêîíä ìîëâèëà ã¸ðëèöà,
    ß á äëÿ áàòþøêè-êèíãà
    Ëåâè-Ñòðàóññ ñîòêàëà.
    Êàáû ÿ áûëà êèíãèöà,
    Ѹðä-à ìîëâèëà ã¸ðëèöà,
    ß á äëÿ áàòþøêè-êèíãà
    Ñóïåðìåíà ðîäèëà.
    Ýò çå òàéì îâ ðàçãîâîðà,
    Êèíã ñòîÿë ïîçàäü çàáîðà.
    Ãîâîðèò: “Èäó íà ôàê,
    ×òîáû ê ñàììåð áûë ÷óâàê!”

  8. Wow! Ilya is quoting the start of an amazing macaronic poem (about a girl-itsa who is chosen as queen by King Saltan) that goes on much longer and ends:
    King Ñàëòàí ïðèçíàë ñåìüþ,
    Happy end,as since we knew!
    Ñíîâà sun ñèÿåò â sky.

    Those who wish can find the whole thing here.

  9. *rubs eyes* CP or not CP, I suddenly remember why I am not a linguist. But I do like the ideas behind “mixed languages” — Yiddish and Ladino are the ones which immediately come to my mind, although I wonder whether one couldn’t make convincing arguments for putting modern English into that category.

  10. Actually, those are just languages that have absorbed a lot of foreign vocabulary. The true mixed language is extremely rare: it has to have two entirely separate language systems crammed together. It seems to arise when speakers of a language that’s being overwhelmed by a majority language (say, Aleut by Russian) decide (consciously or not) to reinforce their language and not let it die out, but have absorbed so much of the dominant language’s grammar that all they can do is reintroduce as many lexical items as they can. But the whole process is very unclear. It was thought there weren’t any such languages until Ma’a/Mbugu was described about ten years ago.

  11. Oh man, I feel your pain… I’m doing an essay on this topic at the moment, so I got hold of Myers-Stotton’s book – I couldn’t get through it! There’s SO much jargon and it is written in such an unengaging way… bleh.
    Anyway… fascinating topic though, I’m finding it really fun to research.

  12. Please report back on whatever interesting stuff you come up with!

  13. Thanks, I’ll fix the link in the post.

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