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The language that is a perfect blend of two others

North Dakota is home to most speakers of Michif, a language created by a combination of French and the indigenous Cree. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on a remarkable language made up equally from two others

From time to time we hear about ‘mixed languages’. Maltese, for example, is sometimes said to be a mixture of the European language, Italian, and the North African variety of Arabic. But it isn’t really. Its grammatical structures show that it is basically still a Semitic language.

Similarly, English can be said to be a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French – we do have a very large number (about 40%) of French-origin words in our language (including origin and language, for instance – and instance). But when we look at its grammatical words and structures, we can see that English is still fundamentally a Germanic language.

In the same kind of way, about 60% of Albanian vocabulary is derived from Latin, but its grammatical structures are nothing like those of Italian or Spanish which are truly descended from Latin, and we would not want to consider it to be a Romance language.

However, a fascinating language which really is a genuine mixture in more or less equal parts of two languages, one European and one non-European, goes by the name of Michif (also Metsif – there are various spellings). It is a remarkable combination of French and the indigenous Canadian Algonquian language, Cree.

It is spoken by some of the peoples known in Canada by the French name of Métis, earlier Métif, meaning ‘of mixed ancestry, mestizo’.

The language has its origins in Canada, and there are still speakers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, though most of them are in North Dakota in the USA.

The language arose around the turn of the 19th century as result of intermarriage between male European-origin – mostly French-Canadian – fur traders, who had headed west across the plains from Quebec and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, on the one hand, and indigenous women, mostly Plains Cree, on the other.

Although the community was mixed in origin, by 1820 or so a distinctive culture had emerged, and it had a distinctive language to go with it: its speakers today mostly do not know any French or Cree as such.

One of the most remarkable things about Metsif linguistically is that most of its nouns are French, complete with French-style grammatical gender and grammatical agreement between nouns and adjectives, while its verbs – which can be highly complex – are Cree. For example, la fam miciminêw li pci means ‘the woman is holding the child’.

The way that sentence works is like this… La fam is in origin French la femme, ‘the woman’, complete with the feminine form of the definite article la, ‘the’. Li pci is French le petit, ‘the small (one)’, with the masculine definite article le and the masculine form of petit (the feminine would be petite). Micimin-êw is Cree and means literally ‘holds (s)he-him/her’.

Verbs in Algonquian languages have a very interesting structure. We can compare them with, for instance, Italian verbs, where you can omit the subject pronoun if you like because the verb already has a suffix at the end which tells you if the subject is 1st-, 2nd- or 3rd-person: (io) parl-o ‘I speak’, (tu) parl-i ‘you speak’, (noi) parl-iamo ‘we speak’. Cree goes one better, however, because the verb suffix – and I am simplifying here – tells you both what the person of the subject is and what the person of the object is. The suffix -êw in micimin-êw marks the fact that the subject of the verb is in the third person (so he/she) and that the object is also in the third-person (so him/her).

The leading authority on Michif, the linguistic scientist Peter Bakker, says that genuinely mixed languages like this are generally spoken by people with dual ancestry, where all the original fathers spoke one language, and all the mothers spoke another, with their bilingual offspring being responsible, as children or adolescents, for the creation, deliberate or not, of the mixed language.