When we arrive in a city, we notice the relief, the coastline, the houses, the centers, the streets, the people, the shops, the rocking boats. If that city is Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente, in Cape Verde, where I was last week, we also notice the island of Santo Antão, in the background, like a giant wave that never approaches. All of this is part of the landscape that we see with our eyes. Those who like to know more about languages need to sharpen their ears as well.
If it’s a German who lands in the city, he’ll walk the streets without encountering anything strange. It’s all written in a foreign language, which you might identify as Latin. All speak a foreign language, with some words of Latin origin. One way or another, little does it notice. Everything normal.
An unsuspecting Portuguese sees Portuguese written everywhere and remembers hearing Cape Verde mentioned in the list of Portuguese-speaking countries. Perhaps you are then surprised to understand very little of what people talk to each other. There appear some very Portuguese words, but the sentences are determined to understand.
See if you start talking to Cape Verdeans, our curious Portuguese realizes that they know how to speak Portuguese, with a more or less Cape Verdean accent. The Portuguese feel like English people in tourist areas or Madrid in a Galician village: everyone knows how to talk to us, but we don’t understand the conversations in which we don’t participate.
There will be Portuguese who are irritated by the situation, just as there are Madrilenians very annoyed to hear Galicians speaking Galician and one or another Englishman who finds it annoying that not all peoples converse in their language. Well, it takes a very particular form of arrogance to demand that others – that they even learn our language! – don’t talk to each other in your mother tongue just so we can understand how they converse. If we really insist, we can always learn their language…
The German and Portuguese that we imagine in the streets of Mindelo do not have this arrogance. They are simply curious about the city where they landed. The German, not very interested in languages, decides to explore other landscapes. The Portuguese, surprised by that language that they understand a word or two, only to be left without understanding anything afterwards, wants to know more about the linguistic landscape of the city.
For this, let us first take a trip to Switzerland.
1. How many Germans are spoken in Switzerland?
Land in Zurich. If we don’t know German, we listen to passersby and identify everything as German. The signs are in German, the books that are sold in bookstores are mostly in German – and the Swiss speak something that sounds German to us. We are like the Germans in Mindelo: everything seems simple. The linguistic landscape boils down to this: German.
And yet, if a Berliner landed in Zurich he would feel something very similar to what Portuguese people feel in Mindelo (I’m talking about languages; on their skin, Berliners will feel much colder, I have to believe).
A German will speak without problems with the Swiss in German. But if he heard two Swiss talking to each other, he wouldn’t understand. The television is in German, but two journalists talking in a cafe would say something else.
This other thing is the Schwyzerdütsch, Swiss German, a name given to all the Swiss dialects of a language that many linguists call Germanic. Some people call Swiss-German a dialect of German, but that’s not quite the case. The situation is more complex.
In areas where German is official, there is a continuous dialect, a more or less smooth transition between ways of speaking. In a development based on the uses of several zones, a written pattern was constructed, an artificial construction (like all patterns), which no one uses exactly orally.
Over time, Germans and Austrians, when learning the pattern at school, brought their language closer to that pattern and, today, dialectal diversity has faded away (without ever having disappeared). In Switzerland, this doesn’t happen: the Schwyzerdütsch it continues to be spoken, in its various dialects, in parallel with the use of Standard German in writing and in formal situations.
If we want, the Schwyzerdütsch it is the norm of informal orality and Standard German is the norm of writing. Parents speak Swiss German and educational to their children, who learn to speak it, as well as later learn to speak Standard German for use in writing and other situations.
To further complicate matters, Standard German itself has its own peculiarities in Switzerland. Orthographically, for example, the Swiss do not use the Eszett (ß) – and there is vocabulary that is different. German is a pluricentric language: there are three standards (German, Swiss and Austrian), very close to each other.
The Swiss in the German-speaking area have a language for the street and home and another for classes and television. We are facing a situation of diglossia, a term used by linguists to describe the territories where two languages coexist, with different social uses. Usually, there is a prestigious language, used in writing and formal hypotheses, and another popular language, used in conversation, at home, and passed on to children naturally. The prestigious language is then taught at school.
All languages have formal and informal records. What differentiates the diglossic territories is that there is a language for formal records and another for informal records.
German-Swiss is perfectly standardized, taught in schools, used in all situations. Only it isn’t.
The Luxembourgers decided to take a different path: they codified their own Germanic variety, Luxembourgish, which has become one of the country’s three languages (German, French and now Luxembourgish). They didn’t throw out standard German, they just produced their own language that is taught in school and officially used.
2. An ancient language on many islands
Cape Verdeans are in a similar situation to Switzerland and are working to get closer to the Luxembourg situation.
Portuguese is used in the formals and is also used to communicate with other Portuguese speakers. It is taught in schools and there are many Cape Verdeans (not all) who end up speaking and writing it as well as any native Portuguese speaker. By the way, there are great Cape Verdean writers of our language.
On the other hand, at home and on the street, Cape Verdean is a language of practically the entire population and, as with Swiss German, it has a wide range of internal variations.
Unlike the Swiss situation, Cape Verdeans do not come out of it. continuous dialect the official language (in this case, Portuguese). Cape Verdean is a creole language, which appeared in a very particular situation, in which slaves from various origins and their traffickers had imperfect ways of communicating, called pidjins, which later became complete languages when transmitted to new generations, who created the Creoles.
Creoles are extraordinary for having a very strong grammatical regularity. A generation is deprived of the transmission of a complete language and creates an entire grammar – and creates it in a form as stable and expressive as any other language. Even in the most desperate of hypotheses, human beings need to converse, if only by force of inventing a language.
In the case of Cape Verdean, the creation of the language occurred a long time ago: Cape Verdean has centuries of history and there are linguists who have determined its influence on other languages, such as Papiamento, an official language in several Caribbean islands.
To become the official language of Cape Verde, alongside Portuguese, Cape Verdean needs to be standardized. There have been several steps in this direction. The biggest difficulty is, as happens in many other cases of recent standardizations, the internal diversity of the language. But make no mistake: all languages are diverse below the standard.
There are several organizations for creating a language standard. My trip to the island served, in fact, to give two lectures on the diversity of our language and also on the various strategies that the Iberian languages provided to standardize themselves. Basque, for example, also started from a very marked internal diversity and, even so, managed to create a standard that was accepted by society and applied in education.
Cape Verdeans now need to find a strategy for their language. What is certain is that, for those who like to know more about a human language, Cape Verdean is a very interesting language: it is the oldest living Creole you know.
3. Back to warmth: the value of mother tongue
We flew to Portugal. The Swiss situation, the Luxembourg situation, the Cape Verdean situation seems strange to us – but the truth is that many languages have gone through parallel situations. Even Portuguese!
Our language, before being called Portuguese and having a standard, already existed as a spoken language. Latin was the formal language (at a time when few wrote) and language it was the language of the street and the home. Over time, this language gained the name of Portuguese and became the official and written language. Note that Portuguese continued to be an exclusively oral language for most speakers until the 20th century; in fact, in Cape Verde, today, there is a percentage of the population that writes Portuguese much higher than the percentage of Portuguese who wrote in Portuguese at the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, the majority of the population in a large number of countries can read and write. It is normal that you want to do this in your own language. We all like to see our mother tongue with literary and official honors.
Many societies have to combine the natural desire of peoples to give state honors to their language with the need to allow communication with other peoples. In general, this involves making the mother tongue official, without throwing out the other language (or like other languages).
That’s what Ireland did, making Irish official, keeping English as the second language (with the particularity that, today, English is the mother tongue of the population of the population).
That’s what Luxembourg did, keeping French and German in the education system, alongside Luxembourgish (no end, everyone speaks like three languages).
This is what he did with various regions of Spain that have a language other than Castilian.
That’s what Malta did, making Maltese a Semitic language with a lot of Italian lexicon, not abandoning English.
The Swiss, on the other hand, did not feel the need to make the Swiss-German official, but they protect it tooth and nail. It is spoken by all Swiss in the German area and no one is ashamed of its language, even if they don’t teach it or learn it at school.
In all of the above cases, where a population decides to make one mother tongue official, the other language remains strong and important – and this will likely be the case in Cape Verde, even after Cape Verdean becomes official. Mother tongues are of value to their speakers because they are the mother tongue, in which they converse and live on a daily basis; how other languages are valuable because they allow you to communicate with other peoples.
Cape Verdeans have kept Portuguese as their official language and do not seem to be able to abandon it – rather, they want to use their own language not only in speaking, but also in writing. I think that we, who sing so much praise in our own mother tongue, understand perfectly.
Human beings have always lived in multiple languages. Monolinguals are the minority. If we look closely, mother tongue speakers with a low number of speakers tend to know more languages than speakers of widely spoken mother tongues (starting with English). In the future, Cape Verdeans will be able to speak more languages than typical English.
As a matter of fact, in the future, no: today this is already happening. Cape Verdeans speak Cape Verdean, speak and write Portuguese and even learn English at school – this is the intriguing landscape we find when we land in the beautiful (and hot) city of Mindelo.