LINGUIST List 32.1475

Wed Apr 28 2021

Review: Palenquero; Spanish; Psycholinguistics; Sociolinguistics: Lipski (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 14-Sep-2020
From: Eliot Raynor <>
Subject: Palenquero and Spanish in Contact
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: John M. Lipski
TITLE: Palenquero and Spanish in Contact
SUBTITLE: Exploring the interface
SERIES TITLE: Contact Language Library 56
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Eliot Raynor, Princeton University


The latest monograph by John M. Lipski represents another major contribution to research on Ibero-Romance in the author’s ever-expanding body of work. Palenquero and Spanish in Contact: Exploring the Interface (hereafter ‘PSC’) stands on its own in the literature on Palenquero, departing from the standard ‘origin-story’ hypotheses (e.g., Parkvall & Jacobs, forthcoming); instead PSC presents a range of original, empirical findings derived from fieldwork-based – and yet controlled, laboratory-style – data collection. At the same time, PSC fits within the general arc of author’s recent research, involving experimental approaches to bilingual perception in Spanish-, Portuguese-, and Creole-speaking contexts across Latin America, an ongoing project which has revealed no small wealth of new insights on contemporary processes of language contact (Lipski 2017, 2020).

From the first pages of PSC, readers will appreciate the wide range of sub-fields with which the book engages, including (among a number of others) language contact, bilingualism, typology, psycholinguistics, and language awareness. As the author points out, the sources of data that form the foundation of PSC – collected on-site in San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia over the course of several years – were ‘developed through considerable trial and error’ and fostered through ‘a mutual learning process … as well as a genuine spirit of collaboration’ (p. 6). True to this spirit, Lipski’s writing foregrounds the voices of his Palenquero informants throughout, meanwhile also revealing the process of evolution of his own thinking and providing concrete justifications for each added element of the research design.

Following the short introduction (pp. 1-9), the body of PSC is divided into nine chapters, followed by a short conclusion (pp. 253-7). The first four chapters set the stage for the crux of the book – that is, a series of experimental studies with Palenquero speakers – through a detailed outline of prior research (Chapter 1), a discussion of the (socio)linguistic ecology and language policies in San Basilio de Palenque (Chapter 2), a grammar sketch that handily compares Spanish and Palenquero – the latter referred to within the community as Lengua ‘language’ or Lengua ri Palenge ‘Language of Palenque’ – with extensive examples drawn primarily from the author’s own naturalistic field recordings (Chapter 3), and finally a review of previous analyses and new data brought to bear on the question of Palenquero-Spanish code-switching and code-mixing (Chapter 4). These four chapters make up roughly one-third (pp. 9-94) of the entire work and are essential for readers who are not already familiar with the structure of Palenquero or with the earlier scholarship (primarily in Spanish) upon which PSC builds. Indeed, even for those with more than a passing knowledge of Palenquero, this first third of the text will be hugely beneficial in order to better interpret the findings of the latter five chapters (pp. 95-252).

In particular, readers will need to be familiar with the typological (dis)similarities between the two languages under analysis. Furthermore, there are a number of social and historical considerations which have had a clear, unambiguous impact on the development of distinct levels of metalinguistic awareness among different subgroups of Palenquero speakers within San Basilio de Palenque, which currently numbers roughly just 4,000 residents, as well as the wider community extending to coastal cities such as Barranquilla and Cartagena. Delimited in this fashion, the main subgroups within the community are the following: L2 Palenquero speakers, i.e. those who have been schooled formally in the language since the mid-1990s after reforms to the Colombian constitution promoted ‘ethno-education’ in public schools across the country; Palenquero language teachers; ‘traditional’ Palenquero speakers, many of whom received little formal schooling in any language and learned Spanish as an L2; and heritage speakers, born into Palenquero-speaking families outside of San Basilio de Palenque.

The present review focuses more concertedly, however, on Chapters 5 through 9, which, as stated above, comprise the heart of PSC’s inquiries and findings. Chapter 5 (‘Palenqueros’ thoughts: Language identification tasks’) consists of two perception experiments carried out with balanced groups of informants (i.e. L2 speakers, language teachers, and traditional speakers of Palenquero), which were designed to tease out linguistic and social factors affecting Palenqueros’ judgments concerning the language(s) used in stimuli consisting of Spanish-only, Palenquero-only, and mixed Palenquero-Spanish utterances extracted from the Lipski’s corpora of naturalistic recordings from the community. Among the major takeaways from these experiments is the the author’s summarizing statement that ‘the mental boundaries that circumscribe ‘lengua ri Palenge’ include more Spanish(-like) elements than would have been predicted from previous scholarship (p. 98). That said, the author highlights that in the extensive body of recordings contained in his corpus, ‘nearly all examples of complete intersentential language shifts are from Spanish to Palenquero’, which indicates that ‘Palenquero is not the weaker language’ (pp. 122-123).

Chapter 6 (‘Palenqueros talk back: Interactive tasks’) outlines the results of a series of tasks involving elicited repetitions, acceptability judgments, and translations in which informants were presented with a subset of the naturalistic stimuli used in the experiments already reported on in Chapter 5. Results of the first, time-pressured task of ‘close-shadowing’ repetition, in which participants were instructed to begin repeating stimuli even as these were still playing in their headsets revealed a remarkable degree of what the author refers to as ‘spontaneous self-correction in the direction of greater intra-sentential cohesiveness’ (p. 145). The results of the utterance acceptability task, eliciting metalinguistic judgments of what types of utterances (i.e. mixed Palenquero-Spanish or unmixed Palenquero/Spanish) count as ‘good Palenquero’, demonstrate that traditional speakers are the most open to accepting ‘mixed’ Palenquero-Spanish utterances, followed by L2 speakers, and least by Palenquero teachers. Among the results of the translation task, all groups more readily translated mixed utterances into Spanish, with younger (L2 or heritage) speakers doing so the most frequently and traditional speakers the least.

A brief interlude from the empirical work that immediately precedes and follows it, Chapter 7 (‘Palenquero-Spanish mixing and models of language switching’) takes a decidedly more macroscopic, theoretical perspective, delving into the nature of code-switching and code-mixing as observed in Palenqueros’ perception data from Chapters 5-6 and the large body of Palenquero-Spanish naturalistic discourse data from the author’s fieldwork. Specifically, the big-picture question addressed in this chapter is whether the data suggest something more like the ‘intentional’, systematic alternation invoked in Myers-Scotton (1993), versus Muysken’s (2000) concept of congruent lexicalization. In the author’s estimation, ‘Language mixing in San Basilio de Palenque … is not characteristic of congruent lexicalization, but rather an intermediate stage less constrained than the key requirements for alternation’, explaining further ‘many of the smaller Spanish incursions in Palenquero discourse respect constituency just like alternations but slip freely in and out in the more tightly interwoven and less predictable fashion of congruent lexicalization’ (pp. 169-70).

Chapter 8 (‘Palenquero as a second language: Data and analyses’) focuses on data deriving from interviews and written assignments of L2 Palenquero speakers, analyzing a series of specific linguistic features including the use of pre-verbal TMA particles, null subjects, possessives, plural markers, definite articles, verbal morphology, gender agreement, and negation strategies. It lies beyond the scope of this review to discuss each of these, but a significant (if broad) generalization is that the future of Palenquero as it is passed on to younger generations via formal schooling in San Basilio de Palenque is by no means certain; many features of the L2 grammars on evidence in this chapter make it clear that some aspects of the pedagogical methods used in schools are not particularly effective – i.e. ‘memorization of emblematic phrases and story fragments’ (p. 224) – and that use in family contexts and others outside of the classroom are increasingly limited.

Chapter 9 (‘A window into Palenquero-Spanish bilingualism: Grammatical gender’) zooms back out to the larger Palenquero-Spanish bilingual community of San Basilio de Palenque – including not only L2 Palenquero speakers, but also Palenquero language teachers, traditional speakers, and adult heritage Palenquero speakers. The specific linguistic locus for this analysis centers on the phenomenon of grammatical gender, which, for many L2 Palenquero speakers whose L1 is Spanish, presents a unique challenge that is distinct from that which is typically analyzed in SLA research on gender agreement. As the author describes it, ‘In order to speak Palenquero without interference from Spanish, the bilingual speaker in effect has to reduce an already acquired paradigm … and at the same time suspend an already acquired syntactic mechanism’ (p. 235). Based on the results of six distinct experimental tasks, this chapter is perhaps worthy of a review all to itself. In lieu of this, it deserves highlighting that L2 and heritage speakers of Palenquero are very much able to ‘turn off’ Spanish patterns of gender agreement in some types of tasks; however, in many cases, this ability is overridden by a strong entrenchment of agreement patterns attached to Spanish cognates for Palenquero lexical items. These findings suggest a considerably larger conclusion about gender agreement in general, which Lipski summarizes as such: ‘the automatization of successfully acquired gender agreement prevails over any cost associated with on-line creation of the syntactic dependencies that instantiate agreement’ (p. 252).


Palenquero and Spanish in Contact is nothing if not a true testament to the tireless dedication and exceptional insight of a scholar whose contributions to linguistics cannot be understated. In his first book-length work in English since 2008, Lipski has once again expanded the scope of Ibero-Romance and contact linguistics, undoubtedly leading the way for his own students as well as others to break into new realms of inquiry within the all-too-often ill-defined field of ‘Hispanic linguistics’. As fellow language contact and Colombian Spanish expert Angela Bartens put it in her review of Lipski’s (2005) A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents, ‘Looking for shortcomings in this astounding book is like looking for microscopic needles in a huge haystack’; from the perspective of this reviewer, the same can be said of PSC.

Some minor critiques must be made, however, although most of them are editorial in nature. Indeed, it is surprising to see the number of easily preventable mistakes in a book published by John Benjamins in the long-standing Contact Language Library, which continues and supersedes the prior Creole Language Library. These include numerous misspellings, including frequent shifts back and forth between ‘Lengua ri Palenge’ and ‘Lengua ri Palengue’, which is no small matter, since it is Palenqueros’ endonym for their language. One particularly striking oversight is the inclusion of a sentence fragment at the end of a methods section reading, verbatim, ‘Since this was a first venture into the realm of interactive metalinguistic tasks’ (p. 96) followed by no punctuation. The reference list is also missing a number of entries, including all citations of the Colombian linguist Carlos Patiño Roselli; fortunately, at least, the foundational work on Palenquero language and culture that Patiño Roselli wrote alongside Colombian anthropologist Nina S. de Friedemann (1983) is listed.

Beyond the above issues, which one would have expected the editors of the series to have remedied before putting into press a work of such significance as PSC, there is only one substantive, albeit again minor, critique to mention, notable only insofar as it recurs in a few passages. In these limited instances, Lipski appears to express frustration towards his Palenquero-speaking informants, for instance, for not providing expected responses in judgment tasks: ‘Although Palenqueros have welcomed scholars and students from around the world and do not demand demonstrations of linguistic loyalty, the polarizing effect of certain lexical and grammatical items can interfere with interactive research paradigms, i.e. any form of data collection that requires more than the production of Palenquero language samples’ (p. 29). In other cases, however, these concerns are framed merely as difficulties, which, for reasons outside of Lipski’s or his informants’ control, prevent the recreation of absolutely controlled, laboratory-like settings within the community (e.g., pp. 31-32).

To appreciate this work as a whole, and indeed Lipski’s larger body of work, however, is to understand that the author has worked for decades to develop a degree of trust, respect, and solidarity achieved by few others in San Basilio de Palenque, not to mention the wide range of communities across the Spanish-, Portuguese, and Creole-speaking world in which he has carried out a dizzying array of research. Readers of PSC are thus fortunate to be provided both with a window into Palenquero ways of thinking about their language as well as the author’s own reflections on how to approach this innovative line of research in a principled, empirical manner.


Bartens, Angela. 2005. Review of A History of Afro-Hispanic language: Five centuries, five continents. LINGUIST List 16. 2312.

de Friedemann, Nina S. & Carlos Patiño Roselli. 1983. Lengua y Sociedad en el palenque de San Basilio. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

Lipski, John M. 2005. A history of Afro-Hispanic language: Five centuries, five continents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lipski, John M. 2017. La evolución de la interfaz portugués-español en el noreste argentino. In Dolores Corbella & Alejandro Fajardo (eds.), Español y portugués en contacto: Préstamos léxicos e interferencias, 391-412. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Lipski, John M. 2020. Portuguese and Spanish unchained: Border experiences and experiments. (Plenary tat the 17th Annual Diálogos Graduate Student Conference of the Indiana University Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Bloomington, 28-29 February 2020.)

Muysken, Pieter. 2000. Bilingual speech: A typology of code-mixing. Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity Press.

Myers-Scotton, Carol. 1993. Dueling languages: Grammatical structure in code-switching. Oxford: Clarendon.

Parkvall, Mikael & Bart Jacobs. Forthcoming. Palenquero origins: A tale of more than two languages. Diachronica.


Eliot Raynor is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic Linguistics at Indiana University and a lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. His research concerns social and historical processes of language contact and change with a specific focus on Amerindian and West African influences in Colombian varieties of Spanish. He has carried and original archival research and fieldwork in urban and rural contexts in northwestern Colombia, including the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, and Chocó.

Page Updated: 28-Apr-2021