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How languages are like food - By James Harbeck (THE WEEK)

Do you like fusion cuisine? Maybe a bit of Caribbean barbecue with couscous and ratatouille? Or perhaps a dish like bobotie, the South African version of meatloaf-in-a-pie-dish with chutney, fruit, and other south Asian and Malay influences?

Well, how about some fusion languages?

You don't need to go to a special linguistic café to get some fusion language whipped up. There are quite a few languages in the world that are the product of two or more unrelated languages coming together — sometimes one language provides most of the grammar and the other one provides most of the words. Other times, one main language loads up with little bits and influences from several other languages.

Most languages have some influence from other languages, of course, just as most cuisines have important borrowings: Italy got tomatoes from the New World, for instance. But let's look at seven languages that really mix it up.

Haitian Creole

The most common language of Haiti is a classic example of a mixed language type, and one that shares its name with a kind of cuisine: creole. Slaves brought over from Africa to work the plantations needed to communicate with the French people who owned the plantations, and with each other — the slaves spoke quite a few different African languages. So they started using versions of French words but arranging them in ways more familiar to their own grammars. At first this was a simplified language with no native speakers, what's called a pidgin, but over time people grew up speaking it and Haitian Creole developed a fuller vocabulary and grammar. That said, as is usual with "contact languages," the grammar doesn't involve a lot of suffixes, prefixes, and variant word forms. The language calls itself kreyòl ayisyen.

What does it look like? Here's a bit from the Wikipedia article on tonmtonm, a mashed breadfruit dish: "Tonmtonm, Yon manje moun Jeremi fè avèk lamn veritab (fwiyapen). Yo bouyi gonbo a ansanm avèk lam veritab la."


Bislama is the main language of Vanuatu, a Pacific island country. It's another language that started as a pidgin. In fact, two closely related languages are Pijin (from the Solomon Islands) and Tok Pisin (from Papua New Guinea), both of which mean "pidgin" — which, in turn, actually comes from the English word business. That's what these were in the first place: languages for business communication (such as working on a plantation) between people who didn't have a common language. They grew into creoles — just like Haitian Creole, but different.

What does it look like? Here's the Wikipedia article on coconut: "Kokonas (Cocos nucifera) oli wan fud blong ol man Vanuatu. Oli gat melek mo swit mit. Yumi save kukum kokonas o nogat."


Malagasy is the main language of Madagascar, which is a large island country off the southeast coast of Africa. But it's not an African language. The people who brought it to Madagascar came from Borneo, and it's related to Malay, Indonesian, and Filipino — and also to Bislama. But in its trip to Madagascar and its time there, it picked up words and influences from Arabic, French, English, and several Bantu languages.

What does it look like? Here's the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on rice: "Ny vary no foto-tsakafon'ny Malagasy sy mponina hafa maro eto ambonin'ny tany, indrindra eto Afrika sy ao Azia."


Swahili is a Bantu language. The Bantu languages are a sub-family of the Niger-Congo language family, spoken in a wide swath of Africa south of the Sahara, right down to the southern tip. Swahili is the main language of Tanzania and is also used in Kenya, Uganda, and several other countries in the area. It's not quite as much of a fusion as Malagasy, and it didn't come from a pidgin. But it's been the common trade language for much of southeast Africa for long enough to have picked up a lot of words from other languages, especially Arabic — in fact, even the word Swahili comes from Arabic for "coastal dwellers." It also has bits of Portuguese, Hindi, German, French, and English. And the grammar has dropped some of its more intricate aspects, as often happens when many people with different native languages speak a language regularly.

What does it look like? Here's the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on chapati — one of the many Indian foods now popular in Tanzania: "Chapati au Chapathi ni aina ya mkate ambao haukufura (inayojulikana kama roti) kutoka Bara Hindi."


Bantu languages have also contributed a number of words to Afrikaans, as have Khoisan (Bushman) languages, Portuguese, and Malay. But the base of Afrikaans is a variety of Dutch brought to South Africa in the 1700s. It was used as a language for communicating between workers and merchants of different nationalities — sound familiar? It's really the language equivalent of bobotie. Or vice versa.

What does it look like? Here's how the Wikipedia article on bobotie starts: "Bobotie is 'n eg Suid-Afrikaanse gereg wat bestaan uit maalvleis en speserye met 'n eier-, melk- en borriebolaag."


Romansh is a language you probably haven't heard of, but it's spoken in one part of Switzerland, and is related to French, Italian, Romanian, and the other Romance languages. While it also has a sprinkling of Celtic (as French and Spanish have, too), the real fusion comes from its strong German influences. There are several dialects of Romansh, and depending on the dialect, the name of the language is spelled Romansch, Rumantsch, or Romanche.

What does it look like? Here's from Wikipedia on capuns, a popular kind of dumpling in the region: "Capuns è il num d'ina tratga tradiziunala dal Grischun. La basa furma ina pasta da bizochels enritgida cun ervas e tochets da charn setga."


Surprise! The language we're using right now is one of the great examples of linguistic fusion cuisine. The Anglo-Saxon language brought over by German invaders to England 1500 years ago — displacing a Celtic language — was a very grammatically complex language, with three genders, four cases, a whole bunch of verb classes and conjugations, and a vocabulary that didn't have a lot of influence from other languages. But Scandinavian invaders in central and northern England left their mark — even basic words such as they and she come from Scandinavia — and the grammar started to simplify quite a bit.

Then England lost a war to France in 1066 and was run by the French for a while, which brought a huge amount of French vocabulary into the English language. Classical and scientific scholars added a lot of Latin and Greek words. When the English developed an empire that spread around the globe, they started taking words from all over the place, too. Now there are actually quite a few different kinds of English; the English you'll get in India or Australia — or Scotland — can be strikingly different from what you're used to in America. There's every reason to expect even more fusion in the future. People use English for business all over the place, after all!


At the Atlanta Institute of Language Corp, we work with our native-speaking staff to make sure they use a robust combination of teaching techniques.

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