Controversial categories: An interview with Umberto Ansaldo

by and on December 22, 2017

Natalie Chang and Natalie Tong speak to Professor Umberto Ansaldo about pidgins, creoles, and approaches towards categorising languages. He is the Head of the School of Humanities at Hong Kong University and a Krav Maga practitioner. His research interests lie in language contact, linguistic typology, and Creole Studies, among many other topics.


For readers who might be unfamiliar with the terms pidgin and creole, could you give a short description, in your opinion?

When you use the word pidgin, normally you’re talking about a code of communication that is usually restricted and used for one specific function. It could, for example, have developed out of a need to talk about sailing out at sea, or bargaining and counting and buying things in the market.

Creoles are just names for types of languages that evolved in a specific time, usually during a period of Western colonisation in many parts of the world. They developed out of the mixing of different grammatical elements from different languages.

There’s a hypothesis, however, that pidgins become creoles when a second generation of speakers uses the pidgin as their first language. What’s your view on this?

That’s the usual story that you often find in some textbooks and Creole Studies 101 classes. Actually, there are cases of pidgins that never turn into creoles, and cases of creoles which have absolutely no pidgin ancestors.

What’s more likely is that both types of communication belong to a very multilingual type of environment with people of different linguistic backgrounds trying to communicate. It’s possible that there was once a pidgin that contributed to a developing creole, but also that many other languages contributed to that creole as well. So that story from pidgin to creole is a very simplistic story that oftentimes is not correct.

Could you give us an example of a pidgin that never made it into a creole? 

In our part of the world, you have one of the most famous examples of pidgins, China Pidgin English or China Coast Pidgin, that’s never gone anywhere. It remained a pidgin and there’s no creole that’s based on it at all.

There may be other cases, however, where pidgins become creoles, but not without the influence of other languages. There is one well-documented example of this, and it’s the example that’s led to this generalised story [of how pidgins become creoles] in the first place. And that’s the transition from the pidgin that was spoken in Hawaiʻi to Hawaiʻi Creole. But even in this case, the picture is more complicated than that. It was later proven that many other languages and many other grammatical features beyond those that were found in Hawaiian Pidgin actually contributed to the development of Hawaiian Creole.

How did you get interested in researching on pidgins and creoles in the first place? 

When I was doing my PhD, I found myself in the city of Melaka where there was a very nice Peranakan museum. Back then, I had never heard of the Peranakans before, and the museum was very much about the mixed-culture aspects, the garments, and the jewels, but there wasn’t much about their language. So I started looking out for the little things that were available about it, and I realised that like the other aspects of the culture, the language [called Peranakan or Baba Malay] was a mixture as well.

That got me really curious because I had not encountered something like it before. So I started studying that and then I got interested in more of such situations, and that’s how my interest developed.

Share a memorable experience conducting fieldwork on pidgins and creoles.

Well, I had a very particular experience—many years ago, when I was working in the National University of Singapore, I spent a couple of months doing research on a small Malay community that is referred to as the Cocos Malays, because they live on the Cocos Keeling Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, pretty much removed from everywhere. This was an extremely beautiful place, it was also an extremely boring place—there was absolutely nothing going on. And what was striking was that the majority of the inhabitants had absolutely no interest in spending time with me to talk about their language!

Source: Google Maps; The Cocos Islands are a remote territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean consisting of 27 islands.

[Laughs] How did you come across that group or why did you decide to do research on that particular speech community?

Because this is one of a few Malay varieties that a scholar of the region, Sander Adelaar, first described. He was one of the scholars whom I really liked to read and who influenced me quite a bit; and he did a brief survey of this group which I found very intriguing and I wanted to find out more. He also did a brief survey of the Malay of Sri Lanka, which I later studied and documented for several years.

And I also wanted to spend 2 months on a tropical island!

On the topic of the challenges of conducting fieldwork, does a lack of openness or being strongly perceived as a foreigner by the community you’re studying often pose difficulty in your research? 

I know there are some colleagues who have had great difficulty in this respect. For me, the Cocos experience was such that people were not closed up but just disinterested.

But other than that, most of my experiences have been positive, and there have been many times when people have been very willing, generous, and interested in sitting down to talk about themselves, their language and their culture, and being listened to.

So fortunately, I have never encountered it, but indeed, it is true that other fieldworkers in other cultural or geographical contexts have had great difficulty in the course of their research. And in a sense, this is something in the field of language documentation that has been discussed quite a bit—to what extent does a linguist have the right to wander around poking his or her nose into people’s lives and to describe them, when the person has no interest or quite often does not want the researcher around? For example, there are strong ethical requirements in a number of academic cultures on what researchers can do. If a community invites you to work with them then that’s fine, but if they don’t, then perhaps you should do something else.

How about situations in which people think that the creole languages they speak are somehow lacking or broken, and are embarrassed to speak about it or even to speak it? Have you met people like that and how would you handle such situations?

Yes, it happens very often. That’s exactly what they feel. And it’s not unlike what people who speak dialects often feel—that there’s something wrong, or there’s something non-standard, crude, or gross about it. So yes, it happens a lot in creole settings as well.

In terms of how you tackle it, well, first of all you have to ask yourself whether you want to tackle it or not! In the sense, do you want to start telling people what they should think or what they should feel?

I guess, as a linguist, you can try to discuss to what extent different varieties—whether they are considered languages, dialects, or creoles—fulfil the communicative needs of a person. You might try to reflect whether there are also positive aspects that they associate with the creoles or dialects that they speak, for example, emotional aspects that they actually like, or memories of childhood. And perhaps, invite them to reflect more positively about their language.

There’s a portion of your article Contact in the Asian Arena (co-authored with Lisa Lim) where you talk about how a very normative, Anglo-centric view towards Asian-English grammars exists in this field of research. You’ve learned Chinese and have a working knowledge of quite a few of the languages used in Asia, so we’d like to ask if learning these languages has influenced your view of the traditional approaches to pidgins and creoles?

Well, I think definitely, because your knowledge base will affect how you do things. So I would argue the point that certain things are rather Anglo-centric or Eurocentric. Just take the general classification that you find in textbooks on pidgins and creoles: You’ll find that they are divided in French-based, English-based, Portuguese-based etc. Where does the direction come from? The direction comes obviously from the Western scholars who first approached these languages.

Of course, now you have a very different situation and I think that a lot of scholars have acknowledged and accepted that the so-called “substrates” in these languages have as much a role or perhaps even a more important role in the grammatical evolution that we’re looking at. So we have moved away from that view, but certainly there are still strong effects of this Eurocentric view that can sometimes stream into ways people analyse languages.

For example, why is the variety spoken in Singapore called “Singapore English”? Why wouldn’t you call it “Singapore Chinese”? It could just as well work, and I think again you’ve found a certain approach to naming varieties that focuses more on one aspect than the other. But this is quite natural, and it happens in a lot of different domains.

We did notice that Singapore Colloquial English appears quite prominently in your research. How would you classify it, and are there any controversies in such a categorisation?  

I actually prefer to call it Singlish rather than Singapore Colloquial English, simply because it becomes more of its own “thing” rather than belonging to some other group. But as far as categorisation goes, of course there are controversies, because categories are controversial by nature. Having a category means deciding what goes in and what stays out, and usually at some point this becomes arbitrary. So if there is arbitrariness, then categorisation is controversial.

As you may have read in some of my work, I prefer not to stick to categories, but I work on categories and argue against them. Because to me, each and every category has its own limitations.

So, how can we categorise Singlish? Singlish is a language spoken in Singapore which has grammatical and lexical elements from at least 3 language groups—from English, Malay, and different Chinese varieties. You can call it a creole if you think it should reflect a strong colonial origin through the colonial period of Singapore under Britain—you could call it an English creole. If you want to call it a mixed language, you can, because that is what it is; it’s mixed. But some people have a very strict definition of what a mixed language is, and often the definitions are so strict that within that class, they can only put their own language and not others, which means that these definitions are futile. So I wouldn’t categorise it.

The thing with labels is that people attach certain scientific explanations to a label, and that is more often than not incorrect. Just think of the two labels language and dialect. These are societal terms, they are not linguistic terms. They are not terms that have concrete and always appropriate linguistic definitions. The same applies to creoles. Some refer to them as mixed languages, it’s exactly the same thing.

These are socio-historical terms, which we can use as references but they should be used with care.

How has the rise of the Internet and other technological developments influenced the growth of more recent pidgins and creoles?

That is a good question, and I must say that I am really not an expert in that respect but there are colleagues working on this. From the point of view of what happens linguistically, you get new ways in which different languages can be mixed. For example, when you write on mobile devices, you bring in new factors into the game.

But what is more interesting is in terms of what has happened out there on the Web, and that is not just for pidgins and creoles. For small linguistic minorities, it’s an added way to build communities, to stay in touch. When you look at these languages you often look at diasporas; you look at groups that may not have a concrete home, or a concrete country, but may be dispersed around the globe. And the Internet provides an excellent opportunity to collect information about the group and the language, to stay in touch, to share. So beyond pidgins and creoles, what has happened to a lot minority and endangered languages is that there is now a place out there where the knowledge of these languages can be shared and preserved.

For example, the Sri Lankan Malay communities where I used to work now have different types of presences, some are physical presences in terms of [the physical buildings of] cultural associations and the like, but others are also web-based. And so for lots and lots of endangered languages, there are archives out there on the Internet on them.

You do seem to have a large repertoire of languages, such as Cantonese, Dutch, English, and Malay. Are there any tips you could share with language learners?

Well, thank you. I may speak a lot of languages but I speak most of them quite badly. [Laughter] So that may explain why I’m not sure if I have many suggestions to give, other than that if you really want to learn a language properly, there isn’t another way to do it but to go and live in a place where people speak it. I find it very frustrating to learn languages from far away—even in a classroom it’s very difficult. But when you go and live in a place where people speak the target language, you can actually learn quite a lot yourself even without much instruction. So unfortunately, that is quite a difficult suggestion, but it would be good to just leave and go somewhere else!

Do you have a language learning routine, or do you just immerse yourself in a place where the target language is spoken?

When I was studying languages more assiduously in the past, I used to listen and read books, and carry cards and sounds of the languages with me, and generally tried to have as much immersion as possible. But that is quite a common practice.

By the way, we also read that you practise Krav Maga. How did you get into it?

That is a sort of martial art. I was interested in martial arts many, many years ago, even before I had heard of linguistics. I was more interested in this than anything, and over the years I eventually came across this one, which I decided to learn as well as I could. And also because I want to be able to teach it to my students—one of my courses at the university is actually a course in self-defence.

That’s interesting! If you had not pursued linguistics, would you have gone into martial arts or another field of interest, then?

Yeah, there are other academic areas that have interested me, so those would’ve been my other options. And yes, it’ll probably be interesting being full-time involved in physical rather than intellectual things. So not just martial arts, but sports and yoga and other forms of training—that is certainly a passion.

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