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ISCApad Archive  »  2014  »  ISCApad #194  »  Events  »  ISCA Events  »  (2014-06) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter June 2014

ISCApad #194

Monday, August 04, 2014 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-16 (2014-06) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter June 2014

Kristang, an endangered Portuguese creole



Amongst the many languages spoken in Singapore, Kristang is probably one of the less likely you might hear when attending INTERSPEECH 2014. Indeed, this Portuguese creole originating from Malacca, Malaysia, is spoken by less than five hundreds persons and categorized as an endangered language according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.


Some background about creoles


Creole languages can easily be mixed up with pidgins. The fundamental difference between those two categories of languages stands in the existence of native speakers [9]. A pidgin is a language without native speakers that is developed in areas where several languages co-exist, while a creole is taught by a generation to another and thus is native language for a community of speakers. Therefore, pidgins emerge in societies where several mother tongues are used in the same place to facilitate mutual understanding and can be referred to as “contact languages”. When spoken by many people it might become a creole if transmitted over generations. In some cases, creoles can even replace the existing mix of languages to become the official language such as Krio in Sierra Leone and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea.

From the linguistic perspective, both pidgins and creoles are derived from several languages and generally involve simplification of the vocabulary and syntax (grammar). They also often include considerable phonological variations and fulfill fewer functions than the original languages.

Before the 1930's, pidgins and creole were mostly ignored by linguists. Recently, more attention has been paid to these languages. In 1997, Hancock [9] listed 127 pidgins and creoles languages: thirty-five described as English-based, fifteen French-based, fourteen Portuguese-based, seven Spanish-based, six German-based, five which are based on Dutch language, three on Italian and the rest based on a variety of languages such as Russian, Chinese or Malay. Most of the creoles and pidgins are distributed in the equatorial belt where contact between languages is facilitated by oceans and trade.





Kristang is a Portuguese-based creole language influenced by Malay, English and other languages spoken on the Malaya peninsula [1]. Called Papia Kristang or Christao, this creole originated from Malacca in 1511, when the Portuguese explorer, Alfonso de Albuquerque, conquered the city [7]. Strategically located on the spice trade routes of South-East Asia, Malacca was a way for Portuguese to challenge the dominance of Venice in the trading or rare spices [8]. In order to ensure the loyalty of the local population and to provide manpower, Alfonso de Albuquerque encouraged marriages between Portuguese men and Malay women [2]. In 1641, Portuguese lost Malacca to the Dutch and Dutch men married local “Portuguese” women and embraced their Catholic faith. The mix of Malay, Portuguese and Dutch were known as “Malacca-Portuguese” or Jenti Kristang (Kristang people) speech community [8]. After the Dutch captured the city, the Kristang community not only preserved the language but also, through migrations, influenced other languages such as Macanese, the creole language spoken in Macao, another Dutch colony.


Although Kristang has no written form and has never been taught in school, it has been passed down from generation to generation, through daily usage and by being used in church services [2]. A first proposal for standard orthography was made in late 1980's by Alan Baxter in which he suggested to use Malay orthography. In the 1990s, Joan Marbeck's book 'Ungua Andanza' was published, with a “Luso-Malay” orthography. The grammatical structure of Kristang is very close to Malay but a large part of the vocabulary (~95%) is Portuguese, so Kristang is generally quite recognizable to speakers of European Portuguese although many words are considered archaic. Perhaps because of cultural exchanges along trade routes, Kristang has a lot of similarities with other Portuguese-based creoles spoken in Indonesia and East-Timor. According to Baxter [8], Kristang's pronunciation is very close to the colloquial Malacca Malay, for instance, the vowel /e/ is usually pronounced as an /i/ when followed by a syllable with a /i/, for example, penitensia ('penitence') is pronounced [piniˈteɲsia].


Nowadays, Kristang counts 5,000 speakers in Malacca and 400 in Singapore; it is also spoken in some parts of Indonesia and in Australia (region of Perth) due to migrations. Kristang is considered the “last vital variety of a group of East and Southeast Asian Creole Portuguese languages” [6] and categorized as one of the endangered languages in Malaysia.

In order to revitalize the language, publications of dictionaries, phrase-books, and language documentation efforts are encouraged. Social media are also used as a way to promote the use of Kristang with Facebook pages such as “Keep Kristang alize” and “Yo Falah Linggu Kristang” (I speak the Kristang language).


Although Kristang is only spoken by a handful of people in Singapore these days, and most people (including local Singaporeans and the Portuguese and the Dutch) are virtually unaware of its existence, Kristang symbolizes the rich multilingualism rooted in Singapore in a historical context.









[6] Stefanie Pillai, Wen-Yi Soh, Angela S. Kajita , “Family language policy and heritage language maintenance of Malacca Portuguese Creole,” in Language and Communication, 2014, in press

[7] Bryan W. Husted, “Globalization and cultural change in international business research,” in Journal of International Management, 2003, pp. 427-433

[8] Ei Leen Lee, “Language maintenance and competing priorities at the Portuguese Settlement Malacca,” in Ritsumeikan Journal of Asia Pacific Studies, 2011, vol. 30, pp. 77-99

[9] Syarfuni Syarfuni, “Pidgins and creoles languages,” in Visipena, vol. 2, issue 1, 2011

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