Thursday, January 22, 2015

How to "fake" a language to a linguist fieldworker

My friend Calle drew my attention to the fact that the well-renowed linguist Lyle Campbell has written an article on how to spot that a speaker is actually faking knowledge about a language. Interesting, huh? And, you can read this article for free online! 

Full reference: Campbell, Lyle (2014) How to "fake" a language. Estudios de Lingüística Chibcha (ISSN 1409-245X) 33: 63-74

Link to free online PDF of official version

Link to in press-academia version (in case the above one has problems)

In the course of several years of fieldwork in Central America and Mexico seeking potential speakers of endangered languages, I encountered on several occasions individuals who attempted to fabricate a language, to create spontaneously what they hoped I would take to be an indigenous language. The number of cases in the sample considered here is not large; nevertheless. the goal of this paper is to attempt to make some general observations about how these individuals have attempted to fake a language. It may be valuable to be able to spot a fake and to distinguish it from real languages, particularly since new, previously unidentified languages have continued to tune up in this region. For example, Terrence Kaufman discovered Sakapulteko (Sacapultec), Sipakapense (Sipacapa) (Kaufman 1976), and Teko (Teco) (Kaufman 1969), three new Mayan languages; I discovered Jumaytepeque, a previously unknown Xinkan language (cf. Campbell 1979); and Roberto Zavala Maldonado (2014) recently discovered a previously unknown Mixe-Zoquean language of the Zoquean branch in Chiapas, Mexico. Clearly, then, one cannot conclude that anything different or unexpected must be a fake. The fakes I have encountered appear to exhibit defining characteristics that distinguish them readily from real languages, and these earmarks alone are sufficient for distinguishing the deceptions from real languages 
Why would a person try to fabricate a language, why one would engage in such deception? Whatever the full range of motives might be, two significant ones almost certainly involve money and status. 
As mentioned above, fakers run out of steam after a short while, not able to continue to come up with new “words.” 
The faked languages I have encountered exhibit none of the recurrent parts of “words” that might be associated with inflectional or derivational morphology in true languages. Fakers seem incapable of fabricating morphology. 
In short, it turns out to be very easy to detect attempts to fake a language in these situations – they exhibit the characteristics pointed out here.

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