11 January 2008

An Intentional Pidgin Produced by Playmates

A few decades ago, a five-and-a-half year old American boy named Colin Gilmore found himself living in rural Kenya. His parents had gone there to conduct research on a community of wild baboons. Colin only spoke English but he soon developed a close friendship with a local boy named Sadiki Elim who only spoke Samburu and Swahili.

They invented a language. It started with Colin learning a few words of Swahili. After that, the two boys took off on their own trajectory. Blending modified and unmodified English and Swahili words, plus original items created through onomotopoeia and other playful processes, they generated a vocabulary that only the two of them could understand. Intentionally and consciously. The language was a part of their play and an element of their friendship.

When called on to translate for each other in public, the two would stand up very close, faces almost touching, and whisper in CP. These private translations took place for example when English or Swahili speaking children came to visit. These speech events usually involved directions for soccer games, races and the like. Whether in all cases they actually needed one another to translate is unclear. Nonetheless, the ritual of translation persisted to the end. This behavior essentially threw up boundary markers to the others present and reinforced the special intimacy of the two close friends.

As time went by, Colin learned more Swahili and Sadiki learned some English. However the two boys always interacted with each other in their private language, expanding it with new words whenever needed. The grammar seemed to be evolving also.

An analysis of the pidgin's syntax revealed the creation of original articles, markers for clausal embeddings, and grammatical devices for expressing tense and aspect. These grammatical features are of extreme interest since they are most common in creole languages that have existed for generations...

Regrettably Colin had to say goodbye to Sadiki after 15 months. But fortunately notes had been taken and recordings had been made. Colin's mother happens to be sociolinguist Dr. Perry Gilmore. She described the language and the experience (all too briefly) in two articles (published in Sociolinguistic Working Paper, no. 64, July 1979, and The Volta Review, vol. 8 no. 5, September 1983)

I wonder if Sadiki and Colin have forgotten their language. I hope it sometimes echoes through their memories and their dreams.

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