Community Engagement Content Strategy

Taxonomy of mixed languages, non-languages and code-switching languages

Metatypy is a type of morphosyntactic and semantic language change brought about by language contact involving multilingual speakers. The term was coined by linguist Malcolm Ross.

“A Metatypy is a change in morphosyntactic type and grammatical organization and also semantic patterns which a language undergoes as a result of its speakers’ bilingualism in another language. This change is driven by grammatical calquing, i.e. the copying of constructional meanings from the modified language and the innovation of new structures using inherited material to express them. A concomitant of this re-organization of grammatical constructions is often the re-organization or creation of paradigms of grammatical factors. Usually, the language undergoing metatypy (the modified language) is emblematic of its speakers’ identity, whilst the language which provides the metatypic model is an inter-community language. Speakers of the modified language form a sufficiently tight-knit community to be well aware of their separate identity and of their language as a marker of that identity, but some bilingual speakers, at least, use the inter-community language so extensively that they are more at home in it than in the emblematic language of the community.”

I have been speaking English for at least the past 4 years of my life. My two best Italian friends in New York were respectively, one a corporate child, one an Italian married with an English man. Both of them had spent at least the past 4 years speaking in English much more than Italian.

The language we were speaking in New York was a weird language, with sentences like “Devo printare delle applications”:

“DEVO” = “I have” in Italian;

“PRINTARE”= to print + stampare (to print in Italian)

“DELLE” = “some” in Italian

“APPLICATIONS” = it has not translations in Italian in one word, it can only be expressed in a sentence.

The first time I came back to Italy after having lived in New York for one year, my family and my friends were not understanding the majority of my sentences, as logical consequences of mixing and merging words, but also part of words with English. I was operating a metatypy, without knowing it and as a result I was speaking a mix language.

A mixed language is a language that arises through the fusion of two source languages, normally in situations of thorough bilingualism, so that it is not possible to classify the resulting language as belonging to either of the language families that were its source. A mixed language is one where the speakers developing the language are fluent, even native, speakers of both languages. In a mixed language both source languages are clearly identifiable.

Not long time ago in my city young people were speaking a language called TRANCORIO. The language was created by switching the position of syllabus inside a word, but sometimes also by switching the letters inside the syllabus, to make the word pronounceable. A good example is the word TRANCORIO itself.

The word Trancorio comes from “CONTRARIO” in Italian: CON – TRA – RIO > TRA – NCO –RIO = the first two syllabus switch position, and the second syllabus switches the position of the third letter with the fir two letters.

Trancorio was not a completely invented language, it was not either a mix of languages, nor a modification of Italian language.  Trancorio was a modification of our dialect. Normal people were not able to understand it. I wasn’t always able to understand it. But the language coming out from there was not random: there were rules and grammatical syntactic constructions that were followed. Each word has one and only one Trancorio translation, and people using it knew it. Trancorio was something that has no definition, so I will call it ‘non-language’.

In Kenya young people speak Kish/Sheng, which is the result of English + Swahili/Kiswahili. This is what it is defined as a code-switching language, such as Spanglish or Portuñol, where the fusion of the source languages is not fixed in the grammar and vocabulary, and speakers need to know the source languages in order to speak it.

A couple of month ago I meet Jim, a guy working in Pakistan that was explaining to me that they were trying to use algorithms to extract information’s from SMS, when they discovered that the language that people were using in the region he was working in to communicate thought SMS was not a spoken language, was not Urdu and it wasn’t either a dialect or language of the region. It was a language proper of SMS communication, an entirely different language, or “non-language” that makes them unable to use any pre-existent algorithm to extract information from it. One of the solutions that Jim’s organization decides to opt for is to built a dictionary of that language and use it to create an algorithm. A pretty long process that will allow them to be able to extract information only from that particular area’s messages.

Now, the reasons I am so interested in this are mainly two:

1- Those mixed languages, non-languages and code-switching languages are increasingly more common, and this pose an interesting challenge to the increasingly common tentative to built software, like Swift River, that will be able to extract information from SMS, e-mails or media sources thought the use of algorithms (I blogged on the media extractions of words using algorithms by Health Map here. I will blog on Swift River very soon!)

2- What is this landscape telling us about the role of international workers and organizations in emergency affected areas? Is there a need of new translation algorithms to be created to allow crowd-sourcing information from those typology of languages, or is there an need of more local and less international communication management on emergencies? Or both?

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