Grammar and Structure in Language Mixes: Sounds and Word Order


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

Before literacy was widespread anywhere in the world, grammar and structure mixture between languages took place all the time. This had a major impact on why languages are the way they are today, not only in terms of words, but in terms of grammar and structure too: how languages are built, how the words are put together, and so on.

Multiple languages text samples on a  white background.
When most languages were spoken languages only, many things like grammar and structure were exchanged between them. (Image: Anna Kutukova/Shutterstock)

How Did Xhosa Get Its Clicks?

Language mixing does not entail only mixing of words, but also grammar and structure. A simple example where the phenomenon of language mixing is particularly clear is in southern Africa. The click languages of the region are well known in the world. The click language is a small and endangered family of languages spoken in southern Africa. The click sounds are not just expressive, they are actually as much a part of the sound system as b, p, d, l, u, and h. You have to be able to make these various sounds in order to distinguish between words. That’s a very rare feature. There is just one other language that uses clicks, and that is in Australia!

Except that there are Bantu languages that have some of these clicks. But the bantu language is completely unrelated to the click languages. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a singer named Miriam Makeba. She used to sing in Xhosa, and she would sing with these click sounds. Xhosa is one of the Bantu languages spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

However, originally Bantu languages did not have clicks. They only have clicks when they border click languages. The fact that languages like Xhosa have clicks is clearly due to contact with click language speakers.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Language Mixing

Because most languages are not written, and even many that are written now were not written until rather recently, we don’t know how that happened. Somehow people came close enough together that non-click language speaking people started making the clicks.

We can’t be sure, but something like that happened, and as a result Miriam Makeba’s Bantu language had these clicks in it. So languages came together not only in terms of the words, but in terms of grammar.

Let us take a look at what are called Indo-European languages. This is because among the families of the group are languages of India, Iran, and Europe. Apart from the European languages, these are languages like Persian, and Indian languages like Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Marathi.

Distribution of Bantu (in orange) and click languages (in green), showing the proximity of Xhosa to click languages.
Bantu languages like Xhosa are in close contact with click languages (in green) in southern Africa. (Image: Mark Dingemanse/CC BY 2.5/Public domain)

But though the languages are related, if you hear a person speaking Hindi, somehow that seems like a very, very different way of making sounds than what you associate with European languages. The reason for that is that the Indo-European languages of India have been in close contact with a very different group of languages for a long time, and that gives them a very different character.

Learn more about sound changes in language.

Indo-European and Dravidian Language

More scientifically, these structures of the Indo-European languages of India have signs of mixture from other languages. If you think of India as a kind of upside-down triangle, in a very schematic sense, then you can take the bottom third, very schematic, of the triangle and then you take a tear-drop, which is Sri Lanka, and that’s down on the bottom of the triangle.

You can think of it as the triangle squeezing out a teardrop—that’s Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and that bottom third of India have languages that are of a different group, called Dravidian. The most commonly spoken Dravidian languages are Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam.

Map of Indo-European languages and Dravidian languages in India.
Indo-European languages in the north meet Dravidian languages of the south in India. (Image: Kitkatcrazy/ CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Somebody who speaks Tamil does not speak a language related to French, German, or Russian or even Hindi. The Dravidian languages are a completely different family from Indo-European languages, and have many very different structures.

In Indo-European languages like Hindi or Gujarati, the verb comes last. That is something that is unusual, though not unheard of, in European languages. It is there to an extent in German, for example. But, in general, a language with a S-O-V (subject-object-verb) word order is not common in Europe. Suddenly, in the Indo-European languages of India, it became the order of the day.

Learn more about Indo-European languages in Europe.

Word Order in Indian Languages

For example, if you want to say, “I met Apu.” Then the way it comes out in Hindi is: “Mẽ Apu se mila tha.” (literally: “I Apu with met.”) What’s the verb doing over there on the end? Why would that happen?

Most European languages have verbs in the middle: “The boy bounced the ball.” What kind of process of change would make people gradually start saying “The boy the ball bounced?” If a little boy said, “The boy the ball bounced,” then you would say, “Stop that, Joshua. You’re supposed to put the verb in the middle.” There is no way that it would gradually happen.

But it could happen if you have people that are in close contact with languages that always put the verb at the end. The Dravidian languages, like Tamil and Kannada, always have the verb at the end. So, for example, in Kannada, if you want to say he fed me a biscuit, you say Avanu nanage bisket̩annu tinisidanu (he to me a biscuit fed.). Suffice it to say that tinisidanu is fed.

Because of contact with Dravidian languages, the Indian Indo-European languages started putting the verb at the end too. There are also implications there for the sound system, to the extent that these Indian Indo-European languages have certain consonants that sound exotic to the European ear. Much of this is due to contact with Dravidian languages.

So, these two examples show how proximity to one language can influence not just the vocabulary, but also the grammar and structure of another, unrelated language.

Common Questions About Grammar and Structure in Language Mixes

Q. Why do certain types of Xhosa have clicks in them, unlike other Bantu languages?

Certain types of Xhosa, unlike other Bantu languages, have clicks in them because these speakers of [click]Xhosa live in close proximity to people who speak click languages.

Q. How does language mixing occur?

Language mixing occurs when speakers of one language live in close proximity to speakers of another language and absorb words, grammar, and structure from the other language into theirs.

Q. Why do Indo-European languages of India sound different from the Indo-European languages of Europe.

Indo-European languages of India follow the Subject-Object-Verb structure, while Indo-European Languages spoken in Europe have a Subject-Verb-Object structure.

Q. How did Indo-European languages spoken in India acquire their unusual structure?

Indo-European languages in India have been in contact with the Dravidian languages spoken in India. Dravidian languages have a Subject-Object-Verb structure, which influenced the structure of the Indo-European languages of India.

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