Peter Trudgill on English in Retreat

“The history of the geographical spread of English outwards from the British Isles is a familiar story. During the course of the 1600s, there was an explosive expansion of the English language across the Atlantic Ocean, with settlements in what is now the USA, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas; and then during the 1700s in Canada. By the mid 1800s, English as a native language had extended its reach into the Southern Hemisphere, arriving in Australia, South Africa, the Falkland Islands, and New Zealand. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, English continues to spread as a native language, as a second language, and as a foreign language.

“However, this tale of inexorable spread is not the whole story. There are actually a number of places in the world where English-speaking communities are under pressure from other languages, and where there is a possibility of language shift – the process whereby a community abandons its native language and adopts another – taking place.

“One striking example of English under threat concerns perhaps the least-known anglophone community in the world. These are the Bonin Islands, as mentioned in Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics: stories of colonisation and contact. The islands are in the central Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles southeast of Japan proper. The current population is about 2,000. The uninhabited islands were discovered by the Spanish navigator Ruy Lopez de Villalobos in 1543. They were then claimed by the U.S. in 1823 and by Britain in 1825. The islands were first settled in 1830 by 5 seamen: two Americans, one Englishmen, one Dane, one Italian; and ten Hawaiians, 5 men and 5 women. They were later joined by whalers, shipwrecked sailors, and drifters of many different origins, which led to the development of a unique form of English with many similarities to American New England varieties. The islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1876, but after World War II they were a placed under U.S. military control. They were then returned to Japan in 1968. Currently immigration from Japan is being followed by language shift to Japanese on the part of the original (part-)European origin population. If the Japanese-based American linguist Danny Long had not alerted us to this community, it is quite possible that this form of English would have died out without anybody knowing that it even existed, let alone what it was like.

“Other examples come from Central America. In the 1640s, parts of the eastern coastal areas of Central America and adjacent islands began to be occupied by groups of anglophones – one consequence of this which is not widely appreciated is that much of the Caribbean coastline of Central America, from Belize down to Colombia, is English-speaking to this day, with both British Isles-origin and African-origin speakers. The Honduran Bay Islands of  Roatan and Utila were occupied by English buccaneers in 1642, and Honduras was officially ceded by the British to the Spanish only in 1859. Today, however, in-migration to the islands from the Honduran mainland means that the communities are becoming increasingly Spanish speaking.

“More recently, during the late 19th century, there was large-scale expansion of native-speaking anglophones from some of the Caribbean islands, notably Jamaica, to eastern coastal areas of Costa Rica, focussing on Limón. They came to work on the construction of a railroad to transport coffee from the interior highlands to the coast. Today we find an unusual situation where English is a language which generally has lower status in Costa Rica than Spanish does. Spanish is the official language of the country, and is spoken natively by people who are mostly of European origin. The anglophones, on the other hand, are people of African origin who have in the past experienced considerable racial discrimination – until 1949 they were actually forbidden by law to travel from the coastal zone into the highlands.  Younger English speakers are now all bilingual in Spanish and English ­­– necessarily so, because they are required to speak Spanish in school – and recent reports suggest that English is giving way to Spanish to a certain extent, as is also happening on the English-speaking islands of Colombian and Nicaragua.

“In another example, the Dominican Republic is basically monolingual Spanish-speaking, but several regions of the country were settled in the 1820s by some 6,000 American ex-slaves who immigrated there through arrangements between the Haitian rulers of Santo Domingo, and American philanthropic agencies. One settlement was on the peninsula of Samaná. The anglophones there refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ and speak fluent English, some of them to the apparent total exclusion of Spanish.  Most of them cite Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey as the place of origin of their ancestors. There is now, however, considerable pressure on the community to shift to Spanish.

“A further interesting case goes back to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Thousands of Americans from the defeated South then left the United States. Some went to Mexico and the West Indies, and some even made it as far as Japan and Egypt, but the largest number of those that left went to Brazil, perhaps as many as 40,000 of them, where they founded a number of settlements. The best known of these is called Americana, which is situated about 150 km northwest of Sao Paulo, and today has about 200, 000 inhabitants. The language of the community was for many decades a Southern variety of American English, and there are many hundreds of older people today who still speak a conservative form of English which has its roots in, particularly, Georgia and Alabama. Gradually, however, the community have become bilingual in English and Portuguese, and most younger people are as comfortable in Portuguese as in English, if not more so.

“We see, then, that there are cases in the world of English being threatened by major languages such as French, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. However, in a final and most extraordinary example of English as an endangered language, we can note a remarkable case of a reversal of the usual tragic pattern of English killing off indigenous languages: in one small part of the word, English is dying out and being replaced by a Native American language. The language in question is Guaraní, the main indigenous language of Paraguay. The presence of English in Paraguay is the result of a Utopian Socialist settlement carried out from Australia in the 1890s, when a colony of perhaps 400 English-speaking people was established. Many of the descendants of these New Australia colonisers are still to be found in the area of the town of  Nueva Londres (formerly Nueva Australia),where the community retains English-language surnames and a collective memory of their Australian origins and customs. Large-scale language shift is taking place, however, and English is being lost as a native language: younger members of the community are now native-speakers of Guaraní.[1]”

Peter Trudgill


[1] I owe this up-to-date information about the situation in Paraguay to Danae Perez, of the University of Zurich.

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Language Diversity in the USA

Cambridge author Kim Potowski seeks to contribute to the appreciation and promotion of ethnolinguistic diversity in the United States:

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Language and the African American Child

9780521618175“How does the language of developing African American English (AAE)-speaking children differ from that of their peers who are learning standard American English and other varieties of English? How does it differ from that of AAE-speaking adults in the same speech communities? Research on some topics in the study of the use AAE by adolescents and adults is well established; however, research on development and use of AAE by pre-school age children is limited. Language and the African American Child gives a linguistic description of patterns in the speech of developing AAE-speaking children who are growing up in small communities in the southern United States. As one of the few linguistic descriptions of child AAE, the book contributes to our understanding of developmental trends and systematic use of language in this population. Given reports in the literature on AAE from other regional areas, some data in the book can be generalized to children in other AAE-speaking communities. The data raise questions about general linguistic principles and patterns unique to child AAE as well as those shared by child language in general. The discussion helps to dispel the myth that AAE is simply a dialect consisting of features with negative settings that correspond to positive settings in standard American English, and all that is necessary is for children to switch the negative settings to positive in “formal” settings. At the very least, the view is stereotypically simplistic, and on a more serious note, it perpetuates the erroneous view that children growing up as native AAE speakers are not acquiring a complete grammar.

“Language and the African American Child brings together child AAE data from different sources, such as spontaneous speech samples and data from elicited constructions, and addresses them from the perspectives of general claims about development, inherent variation in AAE, and language use in AAE speech communities. Some of the data, such as that related to the link between syntactic and phonological structure in prosodic and intonational patterns in yes-no questions, for example, have never been addressed in the literature and provide interesting and important topics for further research. Given the recent emphasis on language use and academic success, the book also raises questions that should be taken into consideration in classroom instruction.”

Lisa Green

Lisa Green’s title Language and the African American Child published in December 2010 at £19.99. Click here to find out more and look inside the book.

Language and Religion: A Journey into the Human Mind

“This is one of the first books to explore in depth the philosophical implications for religion, and by implication other areas of culture, of the new Rationalism tacit in cognitive psychology. Its approach to a renewed rationalism is Kantian in its underlying stance and develops a form of philosophical pragmatism based on Peirce. The book can be seen as a project which attempts to modernize and naturalize this historic tradition.

“Language and Religion is about the cognitive pragmatics of culture, with the world religions as the example. The term ”rationalism” is used in the sense of the claim that the architecture of the mind, with its innate mental representations, provides reliable knowledge independently of experience, knowledge which is a prerequisite for learning from experience. Being the result of evolution such knowledge is ‘synthetic a priori’ providing cognitive frameworks for the fixation of belief and all forms of reasoning within experience, including communication. And this background, with its subsequent rationalizations, and empirical input to-gether give the species-mind its whole grasp of reality. This is in sharp contrast with most 20th century explanations of religion which are within modern empiricist assumptions, the unquestioned ‘common sense’ in English speaking countries in the most recent historical period. Indeed, in purely empiricist contexts, isn’t it the case that the mind is led to the eliminative reduction of religion, once evolution destroyed the ‘argument from design’?

“The book exemplifies the rationalist tradition through its thorough-going cognitivism. It is a synthesis of Peter Carruther’s version of modularity of mind, Chomsky’s linguistics, cognitive pragmatics, mainly relevance theory, and Sperber’s theory of epidemiological culture within a modified Tooby/Cosmides outlook. The book suggests that something like this picture gives the best naturalistic account of the emergence of culture from the complex interaction of the multiple systems of the mind/brain, and therefore the best explanation of religion. This synthesis can be used for a new understanding of culture in general, just beginning to be explored.

“In fact, it provides a picture of how complex cultural systems are emergent phenomena created by the interactions of billions of mind/brains within various social orders in evolutionary and practical contexts. Religion is a cultural complex in which language and communication in social contexts is the main means by which inter-modularity is achieved and relevant cultural mysteries conceptually formulated using rational-aesthetic concepts and made public by language.

“In this context, can religion be scientifically explained without being eliminated? Can it have a rational warrant within a stereoscopic image of humanity which is both scientific and non-scientific? The book tries to demonstrate that it can. It argues that the species-mind can and indeed must accept many relevant but incorrigible mysteries within culture with its tacit metaphysics and morals – concepts like ‘freedom’ – that will most probably never become scientific problems, and it can do so rationally, although within a context of uncertainty and critique that requires a philosophy of uncertainty. This is not the same thing as having blind faith but a response to a natural but genuine authority emergent within a community in practical contexts.”

Language and Religion: A Journey into the Human Mind by Professor William Downes is available now. Click here to find out more and take a look inside the book.