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Digital History ID 3308


As people move from one environment to another, they carry their language with them. What happens to their language as a result of migration?

Some groups of migrants maintain a distinctive language over many generations. For the Quebecois in Canada, the French language has served as an important emblem of identity. Similarly, for many European Jews, Yiddish (for Ashkenazi Jews) and Ladino (for Sephardic Jews) offered an instrument that allowed Jews in diverse countries to easily communicate. In some cases, an immigrant group is able to preserve forms of speech largely intact over hundreds of years. Thus, some inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountain region of the United States speak forms of English that closely resemble 17th century English. Somewhat similarly, in the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, a distinctive Gullah language that combines elements of English and West African languages continues to thrive.

Over time, many migrants adopt the language of their new homeland. But even when migrants shed their native tongue, terms derived from the earlier language often persist. Many slaves in the United States, for example, selected English names that resembled African names or which followed the West or Central African practice of naming children after an event or a particular day of the week. African names with English phonetic and semantic equivalents were particularly likely to persist. Thus Quacko (meaning Wednesday) became Jack; Cudjoe (Monday) became Joe; and Phiba (Friday) became Phoebe.

It is very common for words derived from one group of people to be absorbed or adopted by the "mainstream" or "dominant" culture. Thus, cowboys of the Southwestern United States adopted the language (as well as the clothing styles) of Mexican vaqueros, including such words as barbeque, chaps, lasso, ranch (from rancho), and rodeo.

Even when words derived from an earlier language disappear, forms of grammar, syntax, and sentence structure sometimes persist.

To understand how language moves across space and is modified, linguists and other scholars use a variety of useful terms and concepts:

  • Displacement: Either to move a word from one context to another or else to replace one word with a new term.
  • Grammar: The rules governing the functions and relations among words in sentences.
  • Inflection: The pitch, loudness, and modulation of a voice while speaking.
  • Pronunciation: The way in which language is spoken.
  • Syntax: Sentence structure.
  • Vocabulary: A collection of words.

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