Posted by: lrrp | May 31, 2008

Indo-Portuguese of Ceylon: A Contact Language

By Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya (2001).
188 pages. £15.

This work draws attention to an amazing linguistic phenomenon — the survival against all odds of a contact language — a Portuguese-based Creole which served as the lingua franca for three and a half centuries in the Pearl of the Orient, Sri Lanka. It survived not only Dutch and British colonial rule but also half a century of post-colonial self-determination.

Topics covered include:

• Hugo Schuchardt manuscript

• Hugh Nevill manuscript

• tense, mood and aspect markers and comparison with the prototypical creole

• grammatical variation

• lexical borrowing and lexical exchange

• phonological borrowing and phonological rules

• reduplication

A previously unexplored issue is how music and dance have contributed to the survival of this contact language.

A chance storm swept a Portuguese vessel into the Sri Lankan port of Galle in 1505. The incident was to have a profound effect on the economic, social and cultural future of the island. Realising the country’s potential as a trading nation, the Portuguese returned some years later, intermarrying and leaving the stamp of their language on that of the indigenous population.

The imprint of the Portuguese language still survives in the Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole, as it is now called: for 350 years this was the lingua franca of the island, surviving attempts by the next colonisers, the Dutch, to impose their own language. Even the British, arch-colonisers of language, failed to eradicate Creole, though English supplanted it as the contact language between Sri Lanka and other countries from the middle of the nineteenth century. Even so, the British in Sri Lanka found it necessary to learn Portuguese Creole in the early colonial days in order to communicate with the indigenous population and many texts, especially religious manuscripts, were translated into Portuguese Creole for missionary purposes.

Creole is dying out now and there are probably no more than 500 Creole speakers on the island: younger members of the community are able only to join in traditional songs which in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, retain the last traces of a language which has been replaced.

Shihan Jayasuriya has written a scholarly account of the enduring Portuguese-based contact language of Sri Lanka, examining in detail The Hugo Schuchardt Manuscript and the Hugh Nevill Manuscript. Jayasuriya follows the development of Creole in essays, songs and extracts from the Bible contained in Schuchardt’s manuscripts, published between 1882 and 1890 and brought together by her in her own translation of his manuscripts, “On the Indo-Portuguese of Ceylon”.

The Creole songs, in particular, include loan words from the Dutch, Sinhala and English, showing how the customs, occupations and faiths of the different cultures have imprinted themselves on the language. Hugh Nevill was a civil servant who worked in Sri Lanka in the second half of the nineteenth century and was an enthusiastic collector of manuscripts. Many of these are now in the British museum, including a Portuguese Creole manuscript which represents the largest collection of Portuguese Creole folk verse. These show how love affairs between the Portuguese and Lankans led to the development of Portuguese Creole, and also reflect on some of the cultural clashes between the Portuguese and Sinhalese. Jayasuriya chronicles the changes that have taken place in the grammar of Portuguese Creole through an examination of these texts and through secondary sources.

Portuguese Creole is certainly dying out, but it has left its mark on colloquial Sinhala, just as Portugal has influenced the customs and culture of the island. This painstaking study of the development of Creole demonstrates the relationship between the cultures of the three colonising powers and their languages and those of the indigenous population and, in that respect, is a unique representation of a little-known aspect of social and cultural history. It also charts the development of a contact language which has survived for 500 years and is in itself an example of linguistic change. This book commends itself alike to students of social and cultural history and to linguists.
Patricia Thomas, BA (Honours)
Former Deputy Director
The Nuffield Foundation

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