Parlez Vous?

Here’s a question from Booking Through Thursday:

I had an idea for a BTT question when I was taking a peek at one of my bookcases yesterday and spotted my old copy of the Aeneid in Latin sitting there. Maybe this question has already been done—but if not… Do you have any foreign language books and if so can you (still) read them?

I have several Bibles (or parts thereof) in a few foreign languages: German, French, Russian, and Gullah. I can read the German one after eight years of studying the language. I can’t read the Russian one even after two years of studying the language. I can sort of read the French one because I’ve studied Spanish. That may sound odd, but I minored in linguistics in college, and when you take courses in linguistics, after a while, you develop a sort of sense about how languages work, so even if I don’t know a particular language, I can piece a lot of it together from what I know about other, related languages.

The most interesting one is Gullah, though. It’s spoken in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. It’s a creole, which means that it’s a mix of other languages. It arose among the slaves of the area before the Civil War. The common practice among slaveholders was to put individuals together from different parts of Africa, so they couldn’t readily communicate with one another and revolt, but they had to communicate with each other to work, so they came up with a pidgin, a mixture of the languages they spoke and English. It wasn’t a full-blown language, because it was limited in its vocabulary and grammar, but the children of the first generation of slaves grew up hearing pretty much only this pidgin, so they filled in the blanks and made it a full language–Gullah.

I can read it because most of the vocabulary is taken from English, but some of the grammatical structures are dramatically different. It’s really fascinating to sit and try to figure out the reasoning behind some of them. (Hey, I said I was a dork.)

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