Potosi miners' language

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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.]


  1. Load every rift with ore | Symposium Magazine said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

    […] Jenny Davidson This would make an amazing premise for a fantasy novel. …read […]

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

    Someone needs to tell Thomas Pynchon about this. Five hundred years of working-class history, hybrid languages, telluric substances, underground civilisations, indigenous/colonial relations, … he'd have a new novel out in no time. Or possibly twenty-five years.

  3. Bobbie said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    "…the word palla- refers to women checking out in a field whether all potatoes have been found after the main harvest." This is referred to as "gleaning" for agricultural harvests.

  4. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:31 am

    "…as the son of a Dutch mining engineer I was pleased to see a Dutch loan, trommels [drums], showing up as well."
    Sorry, but trommels could just as well be a loan from German: Trommel (drum) plus Spanish plural marker "-s". What's the more likely source? And are there other Dutch and/or German loans?

  5. Bart said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 2:20 am

    The first question was never answered: Who speaks it? Only miners? Or their families too? Or everybody in certain mining villages?

    [(myl) As the introduction notes, this language-variety is "spoken only by mine-workers in connection with mining operations".]

    Another question: Should we call this a creole? Or merely a dialect of Quechua?

    [(myl) It fails the usual definition of "creole" in that it's no one's native language. (Though I should note as well that Michel DeGraff has challenged the idea that "creole" is a coherent linguistic category.) And it contains enough lexical and morphological elements from other languages that Pieter characterizes it as a "mixed language", again as noted in the introduction.]

  6. Barrie England said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 4:02 am

    It’s perhaps worth mentioning that there is a British dialect, Pitmatic, related to mining: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/jul/30/books.britishidentity

  7. Pieter Muysken said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 5:31 am

    I am grateful for any references to other mining languages, such as the one about Pitmatic, so that we can gain a comparative perspective in the long run. Incidentally, the Spanish plural of Trommel would be trommeles,not trommels. There were numerous German as well as Dutch (and Canadian etc.) engineers and technicians in the Bolivian mines in the 1940s and 1950s, so new technical vocabulary could come from any of these sources.

  8. Andy Averill said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 9:15 am

    Also African slaves during the colonial era, but they may not have worked in the mines.

  9. William Steed said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    I was going to suggest Fanagalo, but Andy Averill is ahead of me.

  10. el organillero-cantante de barcelona said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    More mierenneukerij: in Spanish the Lutheran plural, trommels, is the norm – see e.g. Botella, Descripción geológica-minera de las provincias de Murcia y Albacete (1868). I think its use in American English comes from the Spanish.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    Lutheran plural? Why do you call it that?

  12. el organillero-cantante de barcelona said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 9:19 am

    Dutch, German: Satan's spawn.

  13. Rodger C said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    Son unos herejotes todos, pero los holandeses son calvinistas. No doubt it's the sort of thing only Protestants notice.

  14. Ken Brown said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    I have no references to Pitmanic, but I have met people from the north-east of England who claimed that you could tell which colliery a man worked in by the way he spoke it. As far as I know its not so much a language (or dialect) as a large number of technical and local terms, differing between collieries.

    (I am not and never have been a miner but I have friends and relatives who used to be)

  15. el organillero-cantante de barcelona said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    Workers' finches also evolved various birdlects, enshrined in different local singing competition rules, but unfortunately none of them wrote dictionaries.

  16. Sara said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    I grew up in a mining community in northern Minnesota called the Messabi Iron Range. We have special vocabulary from the mining industry, such as "the drys" (changing rooms with showers) and "locations" (company housing developments). Interestingly, I believe that these words (and others) can be used by anyone in the community, not just miners. We don't have a mixed language, but we do have a unique immigration/work environment history that led to a few non-standard forms that are both apparent to outsiders (see Linn 1988 for "drive truck" and "go store") and not apparent to outsiders (see Loss 2011 for info on non-clause bound reflexives). Looking forward to learning more about how wide-spread "minerlects" are… and thinking about going back home to investigate my region more. Thanks for the info!

  17. Glossographic news of the week « Glossographia said,

    July 17, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

    […] always-fascinating Language Log has a post this week about the fascinating Potosí miners' language, a mixed language of Spanish, Quechua and Aymara used from the 16th century to this day by miners […]

  18. Friday Quick Hits and Varia | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World said,

    July 19, 2013 @ 6:41 am

    […] The Potosi language used by miners in Bolivia. A man camp language! […]

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