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Review of  A History of Afro-Hispanic Language

Reviewer: Angela Bartens
Book Title: A History of Afro-Hispanic Language
Book Author: John M. Lipski
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Portuguese
Issue Number: 16.2312

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Date: Tue, 2 Aug 2005 19:13:28 +0300
From: Angela Bartens
Subject: A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five centuries, five

AUTHOR: Lipski, John
TITLE: A History of Afro-Hispanic Language
SUBTITLE: Five centuries, five continents
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press.
YEAR: 2005

Angela Bartens, Department of Romance Languages, Section of
Iberoromance Languages, University of Helsinki.

[Another review of this book appears in -- Eds.]


As the information on the publisher's homepage states, the volume
under review is the first book in English to provide an overview of the
language contact situations that shaped Afro-Hispanic language. This
is an understatement in the sense that no such reference exists in any
other language, either, starting with the two Iberoromance languages
concerned, Spanish and Portuguese.

At least among Iberocreolists, there is the saying that a given linguistic
feature x does not exist in any known Iberoromance variety unless
John Lipski has just discovered its occurrence in some more or less
remote corner of the Hispanic world. The volume he is now offering to
the scientific community bears ample evidence of this profound
knowledge of the Hispanic world.

In the introductory chapter (pp. 1-13), Lipski raises the main issues to
be discussed in the subsequent chapters: the presence of sub-
Saharan Africans in the Hispanic world over the time span of five
centuries and the concomitant language contact situations; the
difficulty of reconstructing Afro-Hispanic speech and the importance of
this endeavor for the history of Spanish in general; and the main
hypotheses regarding the nature of the Afro-Hispanic contact varieties
that are supposed to have arisen from the mentioned settings.

The first half of chapter 1, Africans in the Iberian peninsula, the slave
trade, and overview of Afro-Iberian linguistic contacts (pp. 14-50),
constitutes a thorough overview of the first contacts Europeans had
with sub-Saharan Africans and the rapid transformation of these early
contacts into the increasingly expanding Atlantic slave trade. While
there are fairly detailed surveys of the Atlantic slave trade, an
important addition to the discussion of Afro-Hispanic language are the
references to the Portuguese colonization of Asia (pp. 29-32). In the
second half, Lipski tackles the difficult task of matching regions of
origin and destination of the slaves taken to the Hispanic colonies of
the New World as well as ethnic designations.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with early Afro-Portuguese and Afro-Hispanic
texts (pp. 51-70 and 71-94, respectively). In the case of the early Afro-
Portuguese texts, this includes texts from fifteenth to eighteenth
century Portugal, sixteenth to seventeenth century Africa, and colonial
Brazil and Portuguese Asia. In the case of Portugal, an Afro-
Portuguese pidgin may have been used at least through the early part
of the eighteenth century (p. 62). In the case of the early Afro-
Hispanic texts, the first occurrences in early sixteenth century Spain
have a clear Afro-Portuguese imprint. Around the middle of the
sixteenth century, a coherent Afro- Hispanic pidgin makes its first
appearance in texts. While literary Afro- Hispanic flourished especially
at the beginning of the seventeenth century and 'bozal' (L2-Spanish
as spoken by Africans) was fading out by the middle of the same
century, so-called black Spanish may still have been characterized by
some ethnolinguistic markers during the eighteenth century. Both
chapters include a panoramic discussion of the linguistic features
found in the texts surveyed.

In chapter 4, Africans in colonial Spanish America (pp. 95-128), the
author adopts a country-by-country approach when presenting the
origins of the African laborers in the Spanish colonies. Where
relevant, i.e., in the cases of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and
Puerto Rico, he also documents the arrival of Afro-European creole

Chapter 5, Afro-Hispanic texts from Latin America: sixteenth to
twentieth centuries (pp. 129-196), follows the same country-by-
country presentation mode. While the earliest texts still imitate the
stereotypes of peninsular literary Afro-Hispanic speech, an authentic
tradition emerges by the end of the eighteenth century. A well-known
example of the earliest texts are the villancicos of Sor Juana Ines de la
Cruz and Gabriel de Santillana (p. 140). The most important corpus of
Afro-Hispanic texts comes, however, from nineteenth and twentieth
century Cuba. Among these texts, Lydia Cabrera's writings constitute
the most important single source for bozal language in the Caribbean
when considered with certain caution. From the late eighteenth
century onwards, Afro-Cuban speech has also been influenced by
Haitian creole. In the case of Afro-Dominican speech, the majority of
texts depicts the Spanish of Haitians (p. 172). Another Caribbean
creole, Papiamentu, has influenced Afro-Hispanic speech in Cuba,
Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

In chapter 6 (pp. 197-203), Lipski presents a survey of the major
African language families, with special reference to those families
which contributed to the formation of Afro-Hispanic speech and
argues that the composition of the slave population was frequently
more homogeneous than what has been assumed before.

Although specific linguistic features were already listed in the
presentation of Afro-Hispanic texts from different countries, Lipski
proceeds to a systematic discussion of the phonetics/phonology and
grammatical features of Afro-Hispanic language in chapters 7 and 8
(pp. 204- 244 and 205-276, respectively).

On the level of phonetics/phonology, he deals with tonal phenomena,
syllabic structure, the realization of liquid consonants and nasalization
among other things. In this very detailed presentation, the author also
draws on data from the adaptation of European loanwords into African
language and from Spanish and Portuguese spoken by speakers of
Bantu languages. Because of qualitative differences at least in part
due to developments within Spanish dialects independent of language
contact, the main phonetic and phonological tendencies of early Afro-
Iberian language and nineteenth-century Spanish American bozal
Spanish are summarized separately (pp. 240-242 and 242-244).

Among the grammatical features discussed are word order, subjects
and subject pronouns as well as objects and object pronouns,
negation, interrogative constructions, nominal plural formation, definite
articles, copulative verbs (a very short note, p. 269, since African
languages appear to have exerted very little influence on Afro-
Hispanic language in this area), genitive constructions, verb systems,
and prepositions and postpositions.

The chapter of most theoretical interest is the final chapter 9, The
Spanish-Creole debate (pp. 277-304). For a long time, the fact that so
few Spanish-based creoles crystallized in the Americas ~V
Papiamentu is both Spanish- and Portuguese-based although some
scholars maintain Spanish was the only lexifier language and
Colombian Palenquero still preserves Afro- Portuguese features ~V
has constituted an enigma for creolists of all theoretical persuasions.
Answers have been sought in the proposals of the slow shift in
population proportions allowing slaves to acquire a vernacular variety
of the colonizers' language, a more gentle colonization by the
Spaniards, the disappearance of once more wide-spread Spanish-
lexifier creoles, and, most recently by McWhorter (1995, 2000) that a
pidgin of the corresponding lexifier language formed in the forts on the
West African coast obligatorily precedes the jelling of Caribbean
creoles. A fifth argument not mentioned by the author in this context
(e.g. p. 277) is the existence of African linguae francae like Yoruba
during the late stages of the slave economy when the slave to white
population ratio disfavored the acquisition of the colonizers' language.
Lipski admits that race relations were somewhat different in the
Spanish Caribbean during the centuries of economic stagnation but
refuses that population proportions alone could account for the non-
formation of Spanish creoles (p. 278). Unlike any other scholar before,
he also quite convincingly argues against McWhorter's thesis that only
a pidgin formed in West Africa can be at the root of Caribbean creole
formation. As in his previous work (e.g., Lipski 1994), the author is
very careful about making any categorical statements about the
Spanish creole question, ending the book with the sentence: The last
word on the status of Afro-Hispanic language in the Americas has yet
to be written (p. 304). Based on the available evidence and critically
evaluated previous research, he nevertheless qualifies most Afro-
Hispanic speech in the Americas as highly variable approximations at
learning Spanish as an L2 but concedes that this bozal Spanish
assumed more homogeneity in nineteenth century Cuba and, albeit
represented by a much smaller corpus, Puerto Rico. According to the
author (p. 300), the shared features of bozal Spanish from the middle
of the sixteenth until the beginning of the twentieth century are
unstable and variable nominal gender and occasionally number
inflection; unstable verb conjugation and occasional uninflected
infinitives, variable loss of articles and prepositions; occasional
confusion of pronominal case and frequent phonetic and phonological
deformation (I would speak of alteration).

The book also concludes an impressive list of references (pp. 305-
351) and an index (pp. 352-363) which compensates for the brevity of
the table of contents (p. vii) where no subchapter titles are given
(actually a very sensible decision). By itself, the volume has x + 363
pages. Its Appendix, available at,
not only comprises a volume on its own as far as its length is
concerned: it consists of 305 pages downloadable in pdf-format. Also
by content it could well have been published as a traditional book as it
is the most comprehensive anthology of Afro-Hispanic texts compiled
until today (cf., e.g., Granda et al. 1996, which admittedly aims at
being a selection). Now it is available to an even wider public.


Perhaps more than in any of his previous, very numerous publications,
Lipski is offering us an overwhelming wealth of data and analyses. He
has managed to tie together all the strands of the growing field of Afro-
Hispanic studies, linking it to historical data, Hispanic dialectology and
other creole studies. The suggestion of pursuing creole-to-
creole/bozal contacts, present in some of his earlier work (e.g. Lipski
2005), may very well be the very direction Afro-Hispanic studies
should turn to, at least when dealing with the (circum-)Caribbean
region. For example, taking into account the presence of creole input,
Lipski is able to trace the double negation of the Cuban and
Dominican data to Haitian creole while the same construction of
Brazilian Portuguese and in some varieties of Colombian Spanish
(above all Chocó) is traceable to Bantu languages (pp. 258-259).
There are also innumerous little details usually not found in studies of
the field, e.g. the mention that the word bozals was first attested in
Catalan (p. 15) or acknowledgement of the Iberian-Italian slave
connection (p. 14ff.).

Looking for shortcomings in this astounding book is like looking for
microscopic needles in a huge haystack. They are essentially due to
the dimensions of the book. There might have been other ways in
which to organize the book. There is some vacillation in the use and
presentation of classifications of African language families (cf. pp. 9,
44, 105-107, chapter 7). For someone not familiar with the field, it is
no easy task to match the ethnic Afro-Peruvian designations of p. 96
with the more common language names on p. 97 (maybe the reader
could be referred to pp. 105- 107?). There are a few typos, something
I consider too trivial for listing the pages here, and a few cases have
crept in where very brief passages look as if they had been pasted
from one page to the other (cf. pp. 25 and 26, 167 and 168, and 282
and 285). When reference is made to the decline of sugar production
on Sao Tome, Lipski quotes Curtin's hypothesis that it was occasioned
by the competition of Brazil (p. 48). Without the slave revolts of the
1570s, 80s and 90s, sugar production might not have declined on Sao
Tome in the first place. On p. 66, there is one case where the
sequence should be /r/ > [l], not the reverse. Most of note 68 on p.
117 on Papiamentu speakers would fit better into the section on
Africans in Cuba (and not Puerto Rico). The formulation of note 42 on
p. 226 suggests that Afro-Brazilian Portuguese is actually a creole, a
thesis which is now-a- days unsustainable. The observation that even
in non-creole Spanish dialects categorical use of subject pronouns
may arise when verbal endings are obliterated through consonantal
reduction (p. 252) seems a plea for the functional hypothesis, a thesis
no longer supported by contemporaneous studies of e.g. Caribbean
Spanish (cf. Flores 2002).

Notwithstanding these very minor observations, this is a major
reference for Afro-Hispanists, creolists and Hispanic dialectologists
which should not lack from any well-furnished library and which cannot
be surpassed unless a huge amount of radically different Afro-
Hispanic texts comes to light, something which unfortunately is
extremely unlikely to happen.


Flores-Ferran, Nydia (2002): Subject personal pronouns in Spanish
Narrative of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Munchen: Lincom

Granda, German de et al. (1996): Antologia de textos afro-
hispanicos.Mainz: CELA.

Lipski, John M. (1994): Latin American Spanish. London: Longman.

Lipski, John M. (2005): El espanol en el mundo: Frutos del ultimo siglo
de contactos linguisticos. In: Luis A. Ortiz Lopez & Manuel Lacorte
(eds.): Contactos y contextos linguisticos. Madrid/Frankfurt:
Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 29-53.

McWhorter, John (1995): The scarcity of Spanish-based creoles
explained. In: Language in Society 24, 213-244.

McWhorter, John (2000): The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering
the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages. Berkeley: The University of
California Press.


Dr.phil. Angela Bartens is Acting chair of Iberoromance Languages at
the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include language
contact including pidgins and creoles, sociolinguistics and applied
sociolinguistics including language policy and language planning.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521822653
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Pages: 376
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