From pidgins—forms of simplified speech—used for commerce to the more mature creoles that have developed from them, contact languages exist all over the world. Some are transitory; others have persisted for hundreds of years. Through time, some that began as contact languages evolved into more formalized ones, explains University of Pittsburgh linguist Shelome Gooden, who as a child spoke English at school but Jamaican Creole—a mix of English and West African languages—at home.
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Turkish, for example, is a fully formed language that evolved about 1,000 years ago from an amalgamation of existing Turkic languages, Arabic and Persian languages, Greek, and Armenian. But Gooden notes that Turkish shows signs of reduplication, a feature common in creole and pidgin languages wherein existing words in a language are used to create new words. In Jamaican Creole, for example, “laaf” means simply “laugh,” but “laaf-laaf” becomes “laugh a lot.” In Turkish, not typically grouped with contact languages, the word “derin” means “deep,” while “derin derin” means “deeply.” Traces like this, Gooden says, offer linguists hints about the origins of languages when other historical clues may be missing.
There is a reason contact languages have traditionally commanded less respect, says Nala H. Lee, a linguist at the National University of Singapore who wrote an overview of the status of contact languages in the 2020 Annual Review of Linguistics. “They’ve been thought to be bastardized versions of component languages from which they have been derived,” she says. “People think of them as being less good, or not real languages.” Sometimes derisively referred to as “kitchen languages,” they are spoken in informal settings and are unlikely to be written down or used in official documents.
But they are well worth saving, Lee says. These tongues are part of a people’s cultural or ethnic identity and history. When they disappear, which they do at a disproportionate rate to mature languages, an entire tradition can die with them—the Gullah Geechee language, for example, reflects the unique culture of descendants of the slave trade still living on the southern Atlantic coast of the United States. Contact languages also are a trove for linguists studying how languages evolve and how our brains learn to speak them.
In research published in 2018 in Language Documentation & Conservation, Lee surveyed 96 contact languages for endangerment. She scored them by the number of fluent speakers, the extent to which they’re being passed to the next generation, and how widely they’re used by those who still speak them. Some, for example, might still be used in day-to-day trade, while others are spoken only at home or in small group settings.
Lee says that there are probably a little more than 200 contact languages in the world, 154 of them pidgins or creoles. For her survey, she chose 96 prominent and well-understood examples. Of those 96, 10 had lost their last speaker within the last 50 years—becoming dormant, as linguists put it—and 11 were critically endangered, with fewer than 10 speakers and a low chance of transmission to the next generation. Five more were severely endangered, with between 10 and 99 speakers left.