"This infant Babel"

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From Doctor Science, posted in a LLOG comment due to email difficulties:

I happened to be reading (parts of) Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chambers, 1844) and I came across his discussion of language change and evolution. Chambers wrote:

The able and self-devoted Robert Moffat, in his work on South Africa, states, without the least regard to hypothesis, that amongst the people of the towns of that great region, “the purity and harmony of language is kept up by their pitchos or public meetings, by their festivals and ceremonies, as well as by their songs and their constant intercourse. With the isolated villages of the desert it is far otherwise. They have no such meetings; they are compelled to traverse the wilds, often to a great distance from their native village. On such occasions, fathers and mothers, and all who can bear a burden, often set out for weeks at a time, and leave their children to the care of two or three infirm old people. The infant progeny, some of whom are beginning to lisp, while others can just master a whole sentence, and those still farther advanced, romping and playing together, the children of nature, through the live-long day, become habituated to a language of their own. The more voluble condescend to the less precocious, and thus, from this infant Babel, proceeds a dialect composed of a host of mongrel words and phrases, joined together without rule, and in the course of a generation the entire character of the language is changed.” [ft 317 – Missionary Scenes and Labours in South Africa; p10-11]. I have been told, that in like manner the children of the Manchester factory workers, left for a great part of the day, in large assemblages, under the care of perhaps a single elderly person, and spending the time in amusements, are found to make a great deal of new language.

I haven't been able to find an obvious source for the info about Manchester day care, in a superficial search. It's also unclear to me which languages Moffat is talking about in the quoted excerpt: whether they're Bantu or Khoisan.

Language Log readers may be interested in this quote, and also in considering what other day-care-type situations might encourage rapid language change. Orphanages? Child labor gangs? Refugee camps? … the Internet?

Interesting indeed.

The best-documented history of this type is the recent development of Nicaraguan Sign Language. The history of other signed languages is no doubt similar, though not observed in such detail.

And the standard theory of creolization also involves a similar process: In a situation where adults from many linguistic backgrounds converse across languages in a limited and highly-variable pidgin, the children of the next generation(s) quickly extend this pidgin into a regular sort of language.

There are reasons to be skeptical of the view that this process is qualitatively different from language development in "normal" speech communities, which span a range from (rare) homogeneous groups  to all sorts of more-or-less extreme contact situations. In the "creolization" situation, the collective re-invention of language by a new generation is obvious — but really, this is what always happens, even when the phenomenon is less plain.

[By the way, a workable email address for me can be found on my Penn home page…]



  1. Rodger C said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

    To repeat my comment on this on the previous thread: I can't find a reference easily, but I've read somewhere of such a language once spoken by breaker boys in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Its remaining speakers are elderly and are divided among those who want to preserve its memory and those who despise it as "broken English" and a product of a bad time.

    [(myl) A quick web search (which you no doubt also tried) didn't turn up a reference — I hope someone can find one.

    A couple of years ago I mentioned the Potosí miners' language, which was created in the silver mines of Potosí in the 16th century and is still spoken today. But it seems to have been a pidgin or some other sort of "mixed language" (with rooms in Aymara, Quechua, Uru, and other languages) and never to have become anyone's native language.]

  2. Phil Ramsden said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

    "I have been told, that in like manner the children of the Manchester factory workers, left for a great part of the day, in large assemblages, under the care of perhaps a single elderly person, and spending the time in amusements, are found to make a great deal of new language."

    Top, sorted, mad fer it.

  3. maidhc said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

    I suggest Boontling as another language created by children.

  4. Mark F. said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

    This is a little tangential, but what does Chambers mean by "without the least regard to hypothesis"?

    [(myl) Maybe the sense that the OED glosses as "A groundless or insufficiently grounded supposition; a mere assumption or guess." Also the sense of Isaac Newton in Latin, "Hypotheses non fingo".]

  5. Rebecca said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

    This source mentions the breaker boys creating a sign language because of the noise. Could that be what you are remembering, Robert C?


  6. Doctor Science said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 10:11 pm


    Yes, I immediately thought of Nicaraguan (and other) sign languages, and of creoles — but both the examples I found, and the breaker boys language, imply that the process might take place even when all the children are starting with the same birth language.

    I think whatever is going on with African urban youth languages may also be related, though I'm not sure how much input they have from pre-adolescent speakers. Similarly with language change on the Internet, which is dominated by 15-22 year-olds, with little input from pre-adolescents.

    My assumption is that the natural development of a true language (with its own grammar) requires some number of pre-adolescent human brains, so groups of teenagers are likely to develop all kinds of jargon, but not really grammar.

    On the other hand: my experience on the internet, especially tumblr, shows that a population with very few pre-adolescents *can* develop a grammatically fluid language, to some extent.

    [(myl) And there's also the "Creole birdsong" case…]

  7. Joyce Melton said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 12:09 am

    Personal experience is not allowed as reference on Wikipedia so here it goes:

    When I was about three, my parents worked in the cotton fields in Casa Grande, Arizona. There were no babysitters, the pay was so good that anyone who could drag a cotton sack around was making so much money they would not take any other job. Even the guys who owned the field were picking cotton.

    All us littles were corralled under the water wagons, English speakers, Spanish speakers, local Indian language speakers, hemmed in by boxes, tanks and big wooden spools. In less than two weeks we were all jabbering away at each other in who knows what pastiche.

    I only remember one word from that gumbo: pronounced "kitty" it meant, "want". It was years later that I realized it was from the Spanish "quiere".

    Too bad I didn't take notes.

  8. Max said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 8:31 am

    My impression (not knowing the referenced book) was that the language referred to is not Bantu or Khoisan, but Afrikaans, which is often said to be far too different Dutch to have evolved from it by "normal" processes in such a short time — but perhaps too similar to be a creole.

  9. Rodger C said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 8:54 am

    @Rebecca: IIRC it was a form of spoken English.

  10. Doctor Science said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 1:22 am


    You can read what Moffat wrote here, in context:


    It doesn't seem to me as though he's talking about Afrikaans at all.

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