My roommate here at the LSA Institute is Pieter Muysken, and one of the many things that I've learned from him is that for 450 years or more, miners in Potosí (in what's now Bolivia) have communicated among themselves in a mixed language spoken only by mine-workers in connection with mining operations. Since the existing scholarly literature seems to contain just a few scattered references to this interesting phenomenon, I asked Pieter some questions about it, and I reproduce his answers below.
1. Who speaks the Potosí Miners' Language? And where, and when, and why?
The Potosí Miners’ Language was created in the silver mines of Potosí (central Bolivian highlands) in the 16th century. The extremely rich Cerro Rico silver mines ‘discovered’ by the Spanish in 1546 (there had been earlier exploitation by the Incas in the region) attracted an enormous number of Indian workers, forced or voluntary, from a wide area; these workers spoke different languages, three of which we know: Aymara, Quechua, and Uru. Potosí came to be one of the largest cities in the western hemisphere. Each ethnicity living in the city had different tasks in the mines, and lived in separate compounds, but of course in the mines they had to communicate closely, and some had dealings with the Spanish owners and overseers as well. Now the Potosí Cerro Rico mines are officially closed, but cooperatives of miners continue to work in the mines ‘informally’, and mining language has spread to many other mines in Bolivia.
2. When was it first documented?
Astonishingly there is a dictionary of the mining language already composed by Garcia de Llanos (1609-10), titled Diccionario y maneras de hablar que se usan en las minas y sus labores de ingenios y beneficios de metales [Dictionary and ways of speaking that are used in the mines and their engineering works and ore dressings]. The last written source I have found so far is a mining language course published in 1989 by a miner’s labor union. I also have some of my own field notes from 1991; at that time it was easy to gather the material, but I was not yet focused on the topic and should have paid more attention.
3. What are the sources of this language, and can you give some examples?
The main source grammatically for the language was undoubtedly Quechua, referred to in the dictionary sources as la lengua general de los indios [the general language of the Indians]. However, not all endings are Quechua. There are some Spanish and many Quechua endings, and some Aymara endings as well. Lexically, words come from Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. In much later sources there are occasional words from English, such as ore-pass, and as the son of a Dutch mining engineer I was pleased to see a Dutch loan, trommels [drums], showing up as well.
The Aymara ending X–ri [the person who X-s] is the most interesting for me. In the mines there was a strict hierarchy: Quechua speakers worked the ore (and were best paid by far), Aymara speakers provided the communications and logistics and carried the ore out of the mine, speakers of Uru and other languages earned the least and were involved in final processing of the ore. This hierarchy probably reflects status differences in the late Inca empire. Even though the mining language has mostly Quechua morphology, the job descriptions of the Aymara workers have this –ri ending. The following are from a source as late as 1968 (more abundant before). Quechua elements underlined.
Apiri/Apire [apa-ri] [take-agent] [person transporting the ore]
Palliri [palla-ri] [select-agent] [woman selecting the remaining bits of ore outside of the mine]
Chasquiri [chaski-ri] [receive-agent] [person who hands over the material]
These kinds of mixed language forms both reflect the multilingualism and the hierarchical job divisions in the mines. Incidentally, the word palla- refers to women checking out in a field whether all potatoes have been found after the main harvest.
4. Why do you think it has remained in existence for so long, without either dying out or spreading into broader use?
I think it has been used so long, with innovations, because mining activities have never stopped, and many traditional patterns of work organization have been maintained. The underground world is different from our ordinary world, and although many agricultural metaphors are used (silver veins ‘sprout’, metals ‘grow’), it remains a very different and highly technical world. It is also very multicultural, in which traditional ethnic identities are necessarily transformed. It probably had some symbolic use in the ethnic residential compounds, but really was mostly something of the mines. In a broader sense, the shift from Uru to Aymara and Quechua, and from Aymara to Quechua in the Bolivian highlands may be linked to earlier communication patterns in the mines, but I still need to investigate this.
There are mining languages, and mining dictionaries, all over the world. In monolingual areas they mostly serve to help clear up all the technicalities of word usage. However in multilingual areas, such as Johannesburg (where Zulu-based Fanakalo was adapted for mining use) and Lumumbashi (where Congo Swahili was adopted in the mines), it has a broader function, making it possible to communicate at all. In Potosí a Quechua/Aymara/Spanish mix was adopted and in various guises has survived until the present day.
[(myl) It's worth noting that silver mining on a large scale in Potosí dates at least to the 15th century under Huayna Capac, a century or so before the Spaniards arrived; and there is some evidence that in fact it started as much as 400-500 years before that — see Hillary Mayell, "Bolivia Silver Mines May Predate Inca, Experts Say", National Geographic 9/25/2003; Mark Abbott & Alexander Wolfe, "Intensive Pre-Incan Metallurgy Recorded by Lake Sediments from the Bolivian Andes", Science 2003; and Colin Cooke et al., "Late-Holocene atmospheric lead deposition in the peruvian and Bolivian Andes", The Holocene, 2008. So it seems possible that the Potosí miners' language also has roots in Incan or even pre-Incan times.]