LINGUIST List 16.139
Tue Jan 18 2005
Sum: Very Multilingual Communities
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Very Multilingual Communities
Message 1: Very Multilingual Communities
From: Richard Hudson <dicklinguistics.ucl.ac.uk>
Subject: Very Multilingual Communities
Regarding query http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-3555.html#1
A couple of weeks ago I asked for information about communities where
*everyone* speaks a lot of languages, with a view to establishing the
highest number known - i.e. which community belongs in the Guinness Book of
Records as having the largest shared verbal repertoire (counted in
languages). This may sound a trivial query, but it's relevant to the
question of the general human capacity for language learning, on the
assumption that these communities are genetically typical of all humans.
My guess was that the answer would be around five. Here are my results,
with many thanks to those who took part in this pre-scientific survey.
As you can imagine, it depends somewhat on how you define 'community'.
If you mean 'group of people who live together', then the record seems to be 6.
This was reported by Hilaire Valiquette who writes: I was in Wirrimanu (Balgo),
Western Australia writing a dictionary of Kukatja (a dialect of Western Desert)
in '91. There were five languages in the community, and people seemed to be
comfortable in all of them. A sixth language was English, and people could
handle that well too. My best consultant in Kukatja was a Ngardi speaker!
But if you mean 'group of people based on something other than language and
covering a wide social and intellectual range', then the record is 7. Sangeeta
Bagga-Gupta writes: I conducted fieldwork for my doctoral thesis primarily in
western India (in present day Mumbai and Pune) where I followed the work of a
national NGO (the Mobile Creches) that served migrant construction workers and
their families. At one point during the fieldwork phase the NGO was serving ca
20,000 children. One of the main interests of that study was literacies in
everyday life. The predominantly women dominated NGO represented class
structures in urban society in western India (during the late 80's early 90's)
in an exceptional manner. In addition (and to my frustration) the members in the
NGO spoke at least 7 languages and used at least 4 written languages in their
everyday working lives in Mumbai. These included: Bambaiya hindi, Marathi,
English, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Konkani and Parsi. I documented and analysed
the complexities and fluidity of multiliteracies in these settings where women
with post graduate degrees worked together with women who had dropped out of
primary grade vernacular schools. I may have a few copies of my thesis and could
share this in case someone is interested.
As expected, there were also several reports of communities where everyone
speaks 3, 4 or even 5 languages in one of two patterns:
Everyone shares the same range of languages. (There are N languages such that
every member speaks all these languages.)
Everyone shares the same social system which requires multiple languages because
members have to marry from an external group which speaks a different language.
(For every member there are N languages that they speak - but not necessarily
the same languages for all members.)
People and places
I received messages from: Claire Bowern, Jean-Christophe Verstraete, Baden
Hughes, Aone (Thomas) van Engelenhoven, Donald Osborn,Chris Beckwith, James L.
Fidelholtz, Hal Schiffman, Jim Wilce, Sangeeta Bagga-Gupta, Hilaire Valiquette,
Juliet Tembe, Jean-Christophe Verstraete.
Communities with large shared language inventories were reported from: Northern
and Western Australia, Papua New Guinea, the inland Niger delta of Mali (Mopti
region), the North-West Amazon, India (and in particular, western India, in
present day Mumbai and Pune), Cameroon.
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
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