‘Contact Languages’ Don’t Get the Respect They Deserve

They’re dying out at an astonishing rate, and saving them is no easy task.

A mural with writings in Palenquero, an endangered contact language spoken in the Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque
A mural with writings in Palenquero, an endangered contact language spoken in the Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty)

When groups of people who speak different languages come together, they sometimes inadvertently create a new one, combining bits of each into something everyone can use to communicate easily. Linguists call such impromptu tongues “contact languages”—and they can extend well beyond the pidgin and creole varieties that many of us have heard of.

The origin stories of these linguistic mash-ups vary. Some are peaceful, such as when groups meet for trade and need a lingua franca: Nigerian Pidgin English, for example, allows speakers of some 500 tongues to communicate. But others were born of tragedy and violence—like Haitian Creole, Gullah Geechee, Jamaican Creole, and many others that arose during the Atlantic slave trade, when West African peoples combined several tongues with English, creating everyday languages often used among enslaved people.

Today, many of these contact languages are lost. Only 200 or so remain—and scores are at risk of extinction. Linguists and anthropologists who traditionally have focused on more formal languages are paying increased attention: studying contact languages with greater intensity and working with Indigenous groups, international agencies, independent nonprofits, academics, and others to preserve them.

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.

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.

In all, Lee’s work suggests that up to 96 percent of contact languages are either endangered or recently dormant—having lost their last known speakers—compared with less than 50 percent of the roughly 7,000 languages worldwide. That means the risk of a contact language disappearing is nearly double that of other languages.

This is sometimes due to ephemeral needs; the contact that gives rise to a language may not last very long. Lee points to Northern Territory Pidgin English, which came about through trades between British settlers in northern Australia and some Asian countries. “It quickly became obsolete when trading was halted after 11 years,” Lee says. In other cases, evidence points to deliberate efforts to suppress informal languages. Once the United States took over Hawaii, for example, it banned schools from using Hawaiian Pidgin (a combination of English and Hawaiian), as well as the Indigenous Hawaiian language, starting in 1896.

The fact that contact languages are not written but are passed down orally means they can fade as younger generations move to seek economic opportunity elsewhere, leaving traditions to elders. On the U.S. Virgin Islands, English gradually became the language of choice, and Negerhollands—a creole that originated around 1700 and combined Dutch, English, French, Spanish, and African languages—became extinct in 1987.

Attempts to preserve the endangered tongues can be a challenge: Just as contact languages command less respect on the outside, the speakers themselves may be reluctant to view them as worth saving, Lee says.

But efforts are afoot around the world. Among these, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in South Carolina works to preserve the language of the Gullah people. The Sri Lanka Malay Association aims to maintain the language and traditions of this small ethnic group in Sri Lanka. The Creole Heritage Center and the Louisiana Folklife Center, both affiliated with the Northwestern State University, in Louisiana, promote Louisiana Creole, which is based on French, some Spanish, and native African languages used by enslaved people from the period when Louisiana was in French-held territory.

And in Canada, some who identify as Métis—the descendants of First Nations people (primarily Cree) and French fur traders—are working to preserve Michif, a contact language mainly combining Cree and French that arose among the Métis. It’s listed as critically endangered by the Endangered Languages Project, which tracks at-risk languages, including contact languages. An estimated 200 Michif speakers are left in the world, though Lee estimates that the number of speakers fluent enough to pass on the language to subsequent generations is far lower.

In the British Columbia area, the Michif Language Revitalization Circle was formed about two years ago and focuses on preserving Heritage Michif—one of four Michif dialects spoken in Canada and small pockets in the United States. “Luckily, in our group, three of us grew up exposed to our language,” says program coordinator Anita Barker, whose maternal grandfather was Cree and maternal grandmother was Métis. “We’re by no means speakers, but we at least heard it and could speak some when we were growing up.” The group is trying to create a written, phonetically read form of the language, working with Métis elders who still speak the language and members of the circle who had exposure to Michif growing up.

Though many contact languages face endangerment, others go on to thrive. Gooden points to Nigerian Pidgin English. Some 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria, and to facilitate cross-communication Nigerian Pidgin has become the country’s universal, everyday tongue.

There have also been moves to legitimize contact languages. In 1987, the government of Haiti made Haitian Creole an official language alongside French. Similar efforts are currently underway in Jamaica.

But then there are tongues like Baba Malay—a combination mainly of Malay and Hokkien spoken by the Peranakan ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Malacca—that only older generations have held onto. That includes Lee’s own grandparents. As these languages are diminished, so are the cultures that created them.

This post appears courtesy of Knowable Magazine.