Intertwined Languages: Media Lengua and Mednyj Aleut

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE

By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

As languages evolve after coming into contact with each other, users begin code switching. But in many cases, especially in times before languages were written and regularized, languages became intertwined and created new languages like Media Lengua and Mednyj Aleut.

Woman standing in front of a board with words in many languages written on it.
When speakers of one language interact with another language, they often develop a language which is a mix of both languages. (Image: Aysezgicmeli/Shutterstock)

Quechua Speakers in Quito

Ecuador was home to people who grew up speaking Quechua, an Amerindian language. They grew up speaking Quechua, but they would go to the capital, Quito, and work. The language of Quito is Spanish, this being the official language of Ecuador.

The Quechua speakers who left for Quito developed an identity that was neither colonial Spaniard nor village Indian. It was something in between. They developed a way of speaking that corresponded to that way of being. What it was, was Spanish words plugged in to Quechua grammar and used with the Quechua sound system. It is called Media Lengua (Middle Language) because it is in between the two.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Grammar of Quechua and Spanish

Quechua speakers in the Andes
Quechua speakers who went to Quito to work, began to speak in a mixture of Spanish and Quechua. (Image: Alberto Seminario/Shutterstock)

For example, if in Spanish you want to say I come to ask a favor, you might say, Vengo para pedir un favor, or I come for ask a favorVengo para pedir un favor In Quechua this comes out quite differently.

For example, the object comes first. So the way the sentence comes out is A favor ask come I. That’s the first thing to know, that the object comes first. Then you have shuk fabur—that’s favor. Then the word for ask is maña. Then the word for come is shamu. So you’ve got shuk faburmaña and shamu.

The twist about Quechua is that it is one of these Latin-like languages. There are all these special endings, so the Quechua for ‘I come to ask a favor’ is: Shuk fabur-da maña-nga-bu shamu-xu-ni.

Learn more about language mixture.

Combining Quechua and Spanish

In Media Lengua, the way ‘I come to ask a favor.’ comes out is that it has the main Spanish words (the favor, the fabur) and then it has these endings from Quechua. So it’s unu fabur-ta pidi-nga-bu bini-xu-ni.

In addition, the sound system of Quechua comes in to Media Lengua. There is no e and there’s no o in Quechua. So you have your [a], your [i] and your [u]. That means that if you’ve got a Spanish word like pedir, then in Quechua it’s going to come out as pidi. So that’s the way it comes out in Media Lengua. Or venir will come out as vini because there’s no [e] in Quechua. So the sounds, the word order and the endings of Quechua are in Media Lengua but they are Spanish words.

It is important to realize that Media Lengua is not a game or a play language. Speakers actually speak this way, and it is getting to the point where there are some people whose Quechua is fading, and whose native language now is Media Lengua. So it is now a language.

These languages are sometimes called mixed languages by linguists, but that term is awkward because, as we are finding, all languages are mixed languages. Some Europeans have called them intertwined languages. It is this kind of language where there is this fifty-fifty split.

Learn more about how language changes.

The Speakers of Mednyj Aleut

Aleut is one of the Eskimo languages. Mednyj means middle in Russian, so you can guess that Mednyj Aleut may be somewhere in the middle.

In the middle 1800s, Russian traders colonized the Aleut islands off of Alaska. They brought some Aleuts to work with them on one of the islands. It was called the Copper Island. The traders and the Aleut women had children together. The children felt neither Russian nor Aleut, but something in between.

an Aleut paddling a baidarka, with an anchored Russian ship in the background
Children born to Russian traders and Aleut women living on the Aleutian islands began to speak a mixture of Russian and Aleut, which eventually developed into a new language. (Image: Louis Choris/Public domain)

They came up with this language, which linguists call Mednyj Aleut, so it’s kind of “middle Aleut.” It’s this kind of interesting, elegant mix between the Aleut language and the Russian language, which are two massively complicated but thoroughly incompatible languages which somehow are together in this package.

Russian and Aleut Mix

For example, in Russian “Ja tebja skazal” is I to you told. When you say “Ja tebja skazal” the –al in skazal is the past tense ending. In Mednyj Aleut, the way to say I brought you a package, is Ya tibe cíbux ukaɤla:ɤa:sa:l. The root verb at the end of this sentence is Aleut, but the Russian past tense indicator -al appears at the end. So you have these Russian pronouns and that Russian past ending, but package and bring are from Aleut. The case endings on the nouns tend to be from Aleut. But then the verbal endings tend to be from Russian.

There are many intertwined languages like this. There are various ones between Romani, the language that Gypsies in Europe originally speak, which is a language of India, and various languages of the countries that they have inhabited. This is something that you see a lot of. Those are mixed languages, intertwined languages.

Common Questions About Media Lengua and Mednyj Aleut

Q. How did Media Lengua evolve?

Quechua speakers who left for Quito developed an identity that was neither colonial Spaniard nor village Indian. They developed a way of speaking that corresponded to that way of being. What it was, was Spanish words plugged in to Quechua grammar and used with the Quechua sound system. It is called Media Lengua.

Q. How does Media Lengua combine Quechua and Spanish?

In Media Lengua, the words used are the Spanish words. But the sounds, the word order and the endings of Quechua are used.

Q. How did Mednyj Aleut evolve?

In the middle 1800s, Russian traders colonized the Aleut islands off of Alaska. They brought some Aleuts to work with them on one of the islands. The traders and the Aleut women had children together. The children felt neither Russian nor Aleut, but something in between.
They came up with this language called Mednyj Aleut.

Q. How does Mednyj Aleut combine Russian and Aleut?

Mednyj Aleut uses Russian pronouns and Russian past endings, but nouns and verbs are from Aleut. The case endings on the nouns tend to be from Aleut. But the verbal endings tend to be from Russian.

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