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How Does Migration Change the Way We Speak?

How Does Migration Change the Way We Speak?

September 26, 2023 5 min read

The languages we speak are changing all the time. We don’t usually notice it as it happens, but it is normal for languages to adopt new words, expressions, and even grammar thanks to the influence of time and social change.

There are a few different factors that drive these changes in the way we speak. Within a given language, the use of slang varies widely between regions, generations, and social classes, and slang terms often go in and out of fashion within just a few decades.

New technologies also create new words and expressions – now-common English words like “selfie”, “download”, and “emoji” only came into existence during the last few decades, while other words like “text”, “stream”, “post” and “friend” gained new meanings because of new technologies.

Language contact: when two (linguistic) worlds collide

Possibly the most important factor to drive linguistic change has been speakers of different languages interacting with each other. Linguists refer to situations like this as language contact. Throughout history and even today, language contact has been a major driver of linguistic evolution all around the world.

For example, contact with other languages has had a huge influence on the way English is spoken today. In the Middle Ages, Viking raids and the Norman invasion of the British Isles introduced thousands of new words to English from Old Norse and French respectively. Beginning in the sixth century, Christian missionaries brought the Latin alphabet along with many new terms and concepts.

Those are just a few examples of the major changes that occurred early in the history of English, but the evolution of the language through contact is still happening right now. English is filled with loanwords, terms borrowed from other languages, such as “tornado” (from Spanish), “kindergarten” (from German), “caravan” (from Arabic), “tsunami” (from Japanese), and many more. All these words have been added because of people and their ideas moving around the globe.

Loanwords aren’t the only way that linguistic contact can affect the way we speak. Calques, also known as loan translations, occur when speakers of a language “borrow” a phrase or expression from another language through a direct translation into their native tongue. For example, many languages borrow the English name “skyscraper” to refer to very tall buildings by using the nearest direct translation possible, such as the Italian “grattacielo” (literally “sky scratcher”).

Researchers have identified a new, calque-filled variety of English appearing in and around Miami, Florida, driven by contact between English and Spanish in the area. This emerging variety contains many expressions that might sound unusual to other English speakers but are direct calques from Spanish. Examples include saying that a person “gets down from the car” (directly from the Spanish “bajar del carro”) rather than “gets out of the car”, or that someone “makes the line” (from “hacer cola”) to wait their turn for something rather than “gets in line”.

New languages emerge

For communities living in ongoing contact with people speaking languages other than their own, the effect is often much more profound than adopting a few new words. In many cases, these situations create whole new ways of speaking such as pidgin languages. Pidgins are simplified systems of communication that serve mostly for managing daily, practical needs.

One modern example is Roquetas Pidgin Spanish, spoken mostly by migrant workers in and around Roquetas del Mar in Andalusia, Spain. The area is a destination for migrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa who come to work on the many farms in the area for just a few months and speak little to no Spanish before arriving. To make it possible for this diverse community to communicate, many migrants in Roquetas del Mar utilize a particular Spanish-based pidgin with a much smaller vocabulary and simplified grammar.

Eliminating many of the more complex elements of other Spanish varieties, such as gendered nouns and verb conjugation, and reducing the shared vocabulary down to only about 40 to 50 words makes it much easier for residents and migrants in the area to communicate about everyday topics. By providing new arrivals with a language they can learn quickly, communication becomes easier for non-Spanish speakers, who can begin using the pidgin right away.

Creole: languages born in contact

Pidgin languages are often born from the practical need for native speakers of different languages to communicate, but given enough time and enough people using them, these informal means of interaction can develop a unique depth and complexity. Creole languages form when, over the course of several generations, pidgins are learned as native languages by people born into language contact situations. Despite containing elements of two or more base languages, creoles are themselves complete languages with complex grammar and rich vocabularies that are used daily by native speakers.

Haitian Creole is one of the most widely used creole languages in the world today, spoken natively by 12 million people in Haiti and abroad. Haitian Creole started with contact between French colonists and enslaved Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries. These shared origins are evident in the language as it is spoken today, combining a vocabulary of words derived from French with a grammar based on the Volta-Congo languages of western Africa, as well as influence from English, Spanish, and other languages.

Today, Haitian Creole is one of Haiti’s official languages alongside French, and Creole television and radio stations exist in Cuba and the US to serve Haitian diaspora communities. An extensive body of literature has been created by Haitian writers to further support the use and study of the language.

The development of creole languages and other new ways of speaking illustrates just how profoundly migration can change the way we speak, work, and live. The movement of people around the world has shaped our cultures and languages for all of human history, and as our society becomes more and more global, the way we speak will continue to evolve alongside it. Learn more about the ways that migration shapes the world around us on the Migration section of our blog.

About the author

Brian Snell

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