10. Syncretic languages

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More than a century ago, the British colonial administrator and linguist Robert Needham Cust made the following interesting observation: Some years back it was laid down as an impossibility that a mixed language could exist. A mixed word store was admitted, as it is universal, but it was denied that there could be any mixture in the grammatical structure of a language. This idea is now abandoned. In the two great vernaculars, English and Urdu, there is a mixture both of word store and structure. In English the original Teutonic structure has become unrecognisable under the heavy burden of Latin intrusion, the Urdu vernacular is choked with Arabic and Persian accretions, and the influence of a third language, the English is now felt. (Cust 1899: 27) His statement has to be interpreted against the background of the Neogrammarian assumption, predominant in those days, that language mixing does not occur. The citation also shows that ever since the end of the 19th century at least some scholars have been aware that languages may influence each other to a considerable extent. Another scholar and pioneer with respect to the study of pidginised and creolised languages, Schuchardt (1884), also showed that contrary to popular belief, languages do mix. His contemporary Whitney (1881) made important observations on what today would be called convergence phenomena in the Balkans. These authors were already aware of the fact that the social settings (including demographics) were potentially important for the historical development of languages. The present chapter discusses a third type of outcome in language contact situations, next to borrowing, pidginisation, and creolisation, namely syncretisation.


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