My friend at “La polyglotte” did an interview with me recently that I thought I’d share with you. It’s called, “The community at the heart of learning.” In it I discuss my background in languages, and my current process in learning Somali.
I’m proud to say that I did the interview completely in French. It was the first time I spoke French publicly, that is, outside of a simple conversation, since high school.
The “Polyglotte” is a fascinating woman, whom I met at the Polyglot Conference in NYC back in October. She comes from Paris, and her parents from Senegal. She advocates for the importance of African languages, so we’re kindred spirits in this way. These languages often get left out even in polyglot circles, since most polyglots focus on European and East Asian languages. But now that people see more economic and personal opportunities in Africa, interest in the continent’s languages is on the rise.
During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.
Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.
Did you ever feel you take on a new personality when you speak another language? Does it feel like performance? Do you love it?
I love messing with cultural expectations. Greeting Africans at the airport in their own language gives me a rush. Speaking Arabic as a blue-eyed blondie gives me a laugh, too. I also like to speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent, or speak German with a Swabian (Stuttgart area) accent. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes anger. The folks at the airport always smile; I make friends during every layover. In contrast, once I was speaking Moroccan Arabic with a Moroccan waitress at a coffee shop, and I was accused of being a Jewish spy and encouraged to leave. (“We’re closing now,” I was told.) I don’t like the cultural rules we’re told to play according to; fooling people’s cultural expectations brings me joy.
Maybe I’m a kind of drag queen, messing with expectations. I recently listened to RuPaul‘s interview on Marc Maron‘s WTF podcast (Episode 498), where he compared drag performance to the “red pill” in The Matrix. We all know what it means for us to act like a man or woman, because in our “Matrix,” each gender follows certain rules–talking, walking, dressing, etc. in its own unique way. Human beings identify with one or the other gender and follow the rules. Society expects you to follow the rules of your gender; anyone who has been to high school knows the shame and horrible epithets that go along with the boy whose speech sounds too feminine or the girl whose hair looks too masculine. We demand that everyone follow the Matrix–otherwise, they threaten reality.
Drag performers take the “red pill” and so reject the Matrix and flaunt the rules and borders of gender. He or she changes identities in an instant: now he’s a woman, now she’s a man. “Ego”–so goes RuPaul’s famous tweet–“loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Drag is threatening because our ego is grounded in an identity, such as gender, but drag shows that gender is just another performance. A man can go on stage and become a woman in actions, mannerisms, and character. He takes on a woman’s identity. Then he takes off the makeup and he acts like a man again. He mocks the rules of identity in the Matrix by never settling in one.
The cultural “Matrix”
The Matrix presents, in addition to rules for gender, rules for culture according to which we act and build our identities. If I am American, I act a certain way. If I am Greek, I act a certain way. If I am Russian, or Oromo, or Iranian, I follow cultural rules to display and maintain my identity.
This compartmentalized view of culture can cause an identity crisis for the children of immigrants. If I am a second-generation Indian, born in Singapore, living in Australia, how am I supposed to act? Indian? Singaporian? Australian? The Matrix doesn’t offer a set of rules for this situation, leaving us in the lurch. The Matrix demands that we despair that we don’t fit, or whittle down our identities to one the Matrix deems “normal.”
Take the red pill!
Languages are the cultural “red pill.” For “third culture” kids, who live between the culture of their parents and of their residence, they can thrive if they learn the languages of both cultures. They can transcend the Matrix and follow their own rules. Like drag queens, they can switch seemlessly from one set of expectations to another. Performing in each culture is unremarkable. When you see one of them switch to the other, however, the jaws drop: “How did he do that?” The Matrix doesn’t allow such fluid change of identity.
You can transcend the Matrix by learning another language and culture, and the more you learn, the less you are held fast by rules. You can connect with people you couldn’t otherwise. New ways of thinking will challenge how you perceive the world. When you have a dilemma or decision, you will suddently realize you don’t have to follow the expected solution; you can draw from ideas outside the normal expectations. Those invested in the Matrix might laugh at or reject you. At the same time, unlikely friends will meet you here; openness will greet you. Through new languages we hope to bring down monoculture and bring about a fertile ecosystem of new thinking and new ideas. We want all of your personalities and cultures.
Are you ready to help overturn the Matrix? “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
I uncovered less information about the languages and everyday life of this region than of the Virginia Colony. The Dutch colonists may have left fewer records and stories because they were largely trappers and traders, in distinction with the English farmers and townspeople. Nevertheless, we see diversity in New Netherland that we don’t in the Virginia Colony. Both the colonists and the natives included people of many mother tongues.
The result of the Dutch commercial venture of New Netherland saddened me. The interactions among the Europeans and natives revolved around commerce. While occasional individuals from various groups intermarried, the reason people came together originally was to become rich. Competition, not mutual understanding, ended in extinction or near-extinction of the dozens of languages–Iroquois, Algonquin, and European–spoken in this area of the 17th century. We need to look to this cautionary tale if we hope to keep our country’s and planet’s linguistic diversity viable for us to benefit from. Only the desire to understand and know each other, not business, will keep us wise and languages alive.
Let me start with a basic historical outline. (You can skip to the next section if you want to go straight to the languages.) The Dutch were already actively trading in the Americas, especially in South America and the Caribbean. In 1609 (two years after the English founded Jamestown in Virginia) they hired Henry Hudson to explore the waterways of modern-day New York and New Jersey, to find a Northwest Passage to Asia (1). He did not find a passage, but he found many Mohawks and Mahicans eager to trade animal skins for European manufactured goods.
The Dutch trader, Hendrick Christiaensen, decided to settle in 1614 on Castle Island by modern Albany, named for the abandoned French trading chateau built there. (This land is no longer an island and is now known as the Port of Albany.) He called it Ft. Nassau, after the ruling house of the Netherlands. It was abandoned and moved nearby in 1618 because of frequent flooding of the island (2).
In 1624 they founded and settled Ft. Orange, a ways south of Ft. Nassau, right after they established in 1623 another Ft. Nassau on the Delaware River in present-day Gloucester, New Jersey (3). They moved Ft. Orange south in 1652 to Esopus (present-day Kingston), named after the local group of natives (4).
To establish a port at the entrance of the rivers towards these trading posts, the Dutch head of the West Indies Company, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the Lenape in 1626 and began constructing the port of New Amsterdam. Once the Dutch government gave city rights to New Amsterdam in 1653, the city that would become New York City was born (5).
Sorting out the languages in New Netherland was more difficult than in the Virginia Colony, as I mentioned. Traders seem to move around more, and more people come to find them, too. I will categorize the languages as European, Native, and Pidgin.
I could not find any information about African languages, but since the Dutch took over the Portuguese slave trade, I assume that the slaves of this time were speaking Ndongo or some other Bantu languages.
The Low Countries (the literal meaning of “Netherlands”) included modern Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany. Dutch was the lingua franca among the colonists, but speakers of multiple languages from the Low Countries found their way into the early colonies, resulting in linguistically-diverse settlements that included multiple Dutch dialects, plus French and German. Peter Minuit, who bought Manhattan from the Lenape, was a German-born Walloon (French-speaking from modern Belgium) who also spoke English (6).
In addition, New Netherland absorbed New Sweden, where Swedish was spoken. I assume that citizens of both colonies had to communicate with each other, probably in German, English, or French (7).
The colony to the north was French (much of modern French Canada) and English to the Northeast (New England) and to the South (Virginia). I did not find information about the interactions, but I can assume that there were enough French and English speakers among the Netherlanders that Dutch was not exclusive.
After the Netherlands lost some of their South American colonies to the Portuguese, speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, and Ladino began to populate New Netherland.
The major language group in this area is Algonquin, but Iroquoian languages were also widespread in the area.
Henry Hudson encountered Mohawk (Iroquoian) and Mahican (Eastern Algonquin) speakers in the area of Castle Island. Although tensions existed between the Iroquois and other groups before Europeans came, I imagine that the Mahican and Mohawks had to communicate with each other in one or both of their languages. Mahican became extinct in the first third of the 20th century, while Mohawk is still spoken by about 3000 people in Northern New York State and Southern Canada. One school even offers immersion in the language.
Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape, also called the Delaware, people. Lenape referred to an association of related peoples in this more southern area, who spoke the closely related Unamiand Munseelanguages. The English missionary, John Heckewelder, documented the two languages in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, noting their similarities and differences. While both are members of the Eastern Algonquin family, they display clear differences in grammar and vocabulary. At present, only a half-dozen native speakers of Munsee are still alive, while Unami is extinct.
The Minqua, or Susquehannocks as the English called them, lived more to the West. They spoke an Iroquoian language. The language has long been extinct, but about 100 words were preserved by a Swedish missionary of the 17th century (8).
The diverse mix of languages forced people to get practical and so the society of New Netherland developed multiple Pidgin languages. A Pidgin language is a mix of languages that naturally forms when two or more groups meet, often for trade, who do not share a common language.
Pidgin Delaware was spoken in the Lenape area, in the region of modern-day New York City and Long Island. It developed as a mix of Unami and Dutch. Significantly, the language showed very little Munsee vocabulary, even though the Pidgin was used by Munsee speakers, as well. It was first mentioned in 1628, but its use spread to Swedish and English speakers in their dealings with the Lenape. The Swedish minister, Johan Campanius, prepared a vocabulary list of Pidgin Delaware and even translated Luther’s Catechism into it.
Jersey Dutchwas spoken in today’s northeast New Jersey. The basis was Dutch dialects with some English and a bit of Lenape. The language lived for about 300 years, from the 17th to the 20th centuries. It had two varieties, one that was spoken by descendants of Dutch settlers and another that was spoken by African-descended people only, which showed more influence of grammar from African languages.
Mohawk Dutchformed among the Dutch and Mohawk in the northern reaches of New Netherland. It was used among the Iroquois language speakers in the North, in contast to the Algonquin languages (like Lenape) in the South. The language seems to have existed for a short time in the 17th century–until the English took the northern reaches of New Netherland–and was never documented.
The languages we know about from New Netherland were those involved in commerce. While people spoke scores of Iroqouis and Algonquin languages, the Mohawk, Mahican, and Lenape languages represented the largest trading partners with the Dutch. Among the Dutch, the languages of the “old” Netherlands were all spoken, Dutch, German, and French. Dutch, however, was most important, and English became important as the Dutch and English interacted more in the New World. Swedish declined as they became less economically important, once the Swedish colony was absorbed into New Netherland. Pidgin languages developed as needed, so that language barriers would not stand in the way of commerce.
I was sad that I found no information about the African languages spoken in New Netherland. This fact, though, would follow from the previous assumption, that the traders determined importance, and they spoke only those languages they needed for commerce. The bottom of the hierarchy–slaves and servants–spoke African languages.
As power shifted from the native Americans, those languages became less and less important, until they begin to die in the 19th century. Power shifted from the Dutch, as well, until English took over in the area of New Netherland and, later, of the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
People did not learn languages out of a love for the people they were interacting with but for commercial reasons. Both natives and Dutch colonists sought to use each other to enrich themselves. In the end, the richer and more powerful English drove the languages of both groups to extinction in the United States. Their refusal to learn from and understand each other created unnecessary rivalry and tension. If we hope to keep the language diversity of the US and the planet, we must learn languages for love and community, not merely for the sake of business.
What lessons can we draw from history when we pursue languages and interact with each other?