Historical linguistics blog - even weekends

2018 > 08

Liber Vagatorum "Book of Vagabonds" from 1510 Liber Vagatorum "Book of Vagabonds" from 1510

The very concept of ‘secret’ languages appears as if it is taken out of a crime novel. We may think of military secret codes, jargons by criminal inmates, or suburban youth slang. However, are not all languages (except for, let us say, standard English) in some sense ‘secret’, as long as they are spoken by a close group of people and unintelligible to outsiders? This is true in many cases: for instance, minority languages, immigrant languages, local languages or dialects, youth jargons, or ethnolects – these represent communication systems that are restricted to a closed group of speakers and not shared by outsiders. So what makes a language a ‘secret’ language? The answer is complex.
A secret language is no one’s mother tongue – this is probably the most important distinction from a ‘normal’ language. Rather, secret languages represent traditionally a jargon that was transferred from father to son, together with an occupation or a life-style, the purpose of which was not just to keep outsiders, but also members of the own family, outside. Secret languages, connected to various occupations, are found in Europe as well as in Africa and South America. They are very often the idiom of occupations with a distinct social function, most typical occupations that are excerpted within the society but which have with a special, often low, status. In Europe, pedlars, dealers, chimney sweepers or circus people, but also various types of low-status occupations, such as the executioner's henchman or skinners, used to have their own secret languages. In Africa, to mention an example, we have documented secret languages among healers, skinners, and sandal flickers. 
Linguistically, secret languages do not possess their own grammar, like ‘normal’ languages do. Their grammatical system relies on the grammar system of another language, most normally the majority language of the country where they occur. The grammar is often simplified and syntactic patterns are replaced by pidgin-like structures. A frequently occurring phenomenon is to borrow the ‘appearance’ of a language, by means of stress patterns, prosody, dialectal variation and gestures, but to switch all content words, sometimes the entire lexicon. The lexicon is either taken more or less completely from another language, or it is an ad hoc-conglomerate of words from various adjacent source languages. Very often, secret languages ‘distort’ their words by various complex patterns of morphological transformation; for instance, they truncate words and add heavy suffixes, they reverse syllables or letters, or they add epenthetic vowels within words. The result is a language that ‘melts in’ – from distance they appear as if they are a native or indigenous idiom, but not one single word is understandable to outsiders.

On Scandinavian soil, there are several traditional secret languages. One is the pedlars language, which in fact is two, one in the isolated county of Dalecarlia, gråmål ‘grey language’ or monsing, the main pedlars’ secret language, which during the 20th ct. transformed into a prisoners’ language. The vocabulary of monsing is based on multiple languages. Many words are borrowed from Scandoromani, the language of the indigenous Swedish Romani speakers, other words are from Low German, Rotwelsch, the Medieval secret jargon of European outsiders, from Finnish, Russian, as well as from Swedish. Swedish words are totally changed by linguistic distortion. Sources of monsing go back to the 17th ct. and they give us a glimpse of the type of communication that monsing speakers had. Besides communication related to their occupation, much of the content is rude, such as talk is about the farmers (who are supposed to be stupid) and in particular their wives and daughters (who are target of their sexual interest).
Even though there are no ‘real’ speakers of these languages in Sweden anymore, monsing is still, together with Scandoromani and knoparmoj, the secret language of chimney-sweepers, a very important source for words in the Scandinavian vernacular languages.

Carling, Gerd, Lenny Lindell & Gilbert Ambrazaitis (2014) Scandoromani. Remnants of a Mixed Language. Boston: Brill

Samples of the Swedish secret language Monsing (from 18th and 19th ct. sources). Most of them have found their way into Swedish slang.
Samples of the Swedish secret language Monsing (from 18th and 19th ct. sources). Most of them have found their way into Swedish slang.
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I found a fun map on twitter, from the Foreign Service Institute (see below), which categorises the difficulty of learning a language identified as number of weeks. According to the map (which applies to (American) English speakers), Swedish and French are languages that are supposed to be very easy to learn, whereas, e.g., Russian is found among the more difficult languages. Even though applied to English speakers, the map would not be very different to a speaker of Swedish or German. Why is that so? If you ask normal people (i.e., without a degree in linguistics), the answer would naturally be that languages like English and Swedish “have no grammar”. If you ask what they mean by “grammar”, many would come up with the answer “they have no cases”.
In learning a language like Russian, we have, early on, to start learning many case forms, and then to learn the rules for how to apply them in language. This is difficult to most of us using a language with prepositions (in, on, on top of, towards) rather than cases. But why do some languages have cases instead of prepositions? Or, to reverse the question, why do some languages have prepositions instead of cases? And are really the usages of prepositions easier to learn than the usages of cases? Very few languages (such as Hungarian or Ossetian or other exotic languages in the Caucasian mountains) have as many cases as any normal language such as Swedish or English has prepositions. The rules of English prepositions are also hard to learn, and speakers of, e.g., Swedish often make mistakes in the use of prepositions.

However, if we take a look at the map of learning difficulties in contrast to the map of case system types below (data from the DiACL database), the correspondence between the two maps (in the parts that overlap) is striking. Analytical systems are the easiest, followed by fusional, and finally by agglutinating and other more complex systems. It would be very interesting to see what the map looks like to native speakers of Finnish or Russian.
Case systems are interesting, since they indicate that languages are circular in their evolution. Case systems are basically of three types:

  • isolating (or analytic), with no cases, relations between participants in an event is expressed by prepositions (or postpositions),
  • agglutinating, with cases expressed by affixes with a simple function (plural, dative), which are attached to the noun stem,
  • fusional, where paradigms are built by cases which may mark several functions, such as feminine + dative + plural.

Case systems are typically of one of these types, where isolating systems are small, with 0-2 distinctions (e.g., English, Swedish, Danish), fusional systems are medium-large (e.g., Russian, German), often with many different forms in the language, whereas agglutinating systems tend to be large (e.g., Finnish, Hungarian, Turkic). Agglutinating systems are ruled by the principle, one suffix – one function (e.g., plural, dative).
Systems are seldom ‘pure’: most languages have case systems that are partly isolating, partly, agglutinating, partly fusional. That is what makes them difficult to learn.

Why is the case situation the way it is? The structure of case systems has multiple explanations, and linguists are not yet aware of all the details in the process and development of case systems. One important reason for the outcome is language change and the cyclical behaviour of case systems: Fusional systems (e.g., Russian) tend to break down or erode to isolating systems (e.g., English), which in may merge their combinations of noun + adposition into an agglutinating system (e.g., Turkish). And agglutinating systems, again, may fuse their forms to become fusional. However, in this cycle, languages may become stuck for millennia between states, where various types of mixed, weird and complex systems, with many and irregular forms, become standard.
Besides time and cyclic change, geography and language contact shape case systems. The situation is complex: case systems show clear tendencies of sharing similarities over language, branch and family boundaries. For instance, no case is more frequent in Western Europe, fusional cases are more frequent in Eastern Europe and in various conservative pockets (islands, forests) such as in Iceland, Faroe Islands, Germany, and Dalecarlia, and agglutinating cases are more frequent on the Asian landmass (except for in the east, China). But the map is complex: historical explanations struggle with geographic explanations, which in turn struggle with typological cyclic behaviour explanations, when we try to explain the structure of case systems.


From https://twitter.com/AmericanGeo/status/1010364347502059520
From https://twitter.com/AmericanGeo/status/1010364347502059520
Distribution of types of nominal case systems in modern (top) and ancient (bottom) languages. Dark red (1) targets no cases, green represent fusional types, pink/purple nuances agglutinating systems.
Distribution of types of nominal case systems in modern (top) and ancient (bottom) languages. Dark red (1) targets no cases, green represent fusional types, pink/purple nuances agglutinating systems.
Illustration of the morphological cycle of case systems. Tocharian is an example of a mixed system which has moved in the opposite direction, from fusinal to agglutinating..
Illustration of the morphological cycle of case systems. Tocharian is an example of a mixed system which has moved in the opposite direction, from fusinal to agglutinating..
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