Bringing a dying language back to life

It’s unlikely that many of his grade-school classmates would have predicted that Sunn m’Cheaux would grow up to be a Harvard instructor.

“I remember being humiliated in elementary school, because I sounded different from the other kids. I was a Gullah-speaking kid in an English-speaking class. I was a fish out of water,” the artist, activist, and social commentator told a roomful of Cambridge seventh-graders recently.

“That memory has always stuck with me. Like that song [‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”], ‘You say tomato’? Well, I said ‘demayda,’ not ‘tomahto,’ but I was corrected, disrespected, while the latter was accepted. Which is why I now teach Gullah at Harvard University, to see that Gullah is accepted and Gullah/Geechee people respected.”

M’Cheaux, an instructor in the African Language Program at Harvard, worked with students at Vassal Lane Upper School in Cambridge, teaching them the origin of his native tongue.

“The Gullah language is a creole, the result of essentially taking multiple existing languages and mashing them all up into one,” he said. “Mix in some other elements indigenous to the Sea Islands and surrounding areas, and you have a whole new language. That in a nutshell is Gullah.”

Gullah, or Geechee, was created by enslaved people brought from West Africa to Charleston, S.C., who needed a common language to communicate. It allowed them to speak freely, by way of encoded speech, in the presence of those holding them in bondage. That code-speak evolved into a language of its own, indigenous to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends along the coast of the southeastern U.S.

M’Cheaux was working with the students through Harvard’s Project Teach program, which helps local seventh-graders see themselves as college-bound, showing them that college can be an affordable, accessible, and attainable opportunity. (Research out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has shown that middle school is when students begin to envision themselves going — or not going — to college.) The program works to expose students to examples of some typical and some atypical courses, and acknowledges that college can be different things to different people.

For m’Cheaux, this has been a lifelong journey. Born into a rural, impoverished family in Charleston, m’Cheaux didn’t learn to speak English until he was bused to another town midway through elementary school. Although he became fluent in his second language, he says he never strayed far from his Geechee roots.

Read more: The Harvard Gazette

How English gave birth to surprising new languages

Languages are ever changing, mixing and mutating, and sometimes they give birth to new ones. Sanskrit gave birth to Hindi and others; Latin is ancestor to a set of languages including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian; more recently, Afrikaans came from Dutch. But how about English? What will it give birth to?

Three important factors linguists have identified in languages giving birth to other languages are time, separation, and contact. All languages change with time, as speakers innovate and economise and each generation reanalyses what it received from its forebears. This does not quickly make a new language, but it can over time; Latin went through this to become Italian, but Shakespearean English and modern English are still seen as two versions of the same language, as are Ancient Greek and modern Greek.

Separation – geographical distance, cultural divergence, political independence – helps give a changed version of a language an independent identity. As Max Weinreich famously said (and linguists often repeat), a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Political separation has allowed Danish and Norse to be distinct.
English spoken

Contact with other languages is a very important force: mutual influence leads to borrowing of words and even grammatical structures. If a language’s speakers move en masse into an area where another language is spoken, there may be considerable cross-influence, and one or both languages may simplify grammar because their speakers are learning each other’s languages. Influence from Danish, Norse, and French helped Anglo-Saxon become Chaucer’s English, and French is a descendant of Latin with some influence from Celtic and Germanic languages.

Read more: BBC