Mid. after-Nguyen Knap
A Brief Ontogenical Sketch
by Mandy O. Chyryry
Universidad Subordinada de Asunción
There is a little-known cluster of trade creoles that have sprung up on several islands in the Mid-Atlantic; one of these creoles, used on Ascension Island, in particular presents an interesting case of creolization of a semi-constructed language that even its native speakers cannot speak with true native fluency.
When I first began my fieldwork on these creoles, I ran into several obstacles, some familiar to fieldworkers everywhere, some, I think, particular to this culture and language. For reasons I did not initially understand, speakers of Mid. after-Nguyen Knap are particularly secretive and protective of their language. After 8 years of living on the island, I convinced one family to give me data on the language. But even after they agreed to help, elicitation sessions were agonizingly slow. I would ask a simple question, such as, “How do you count from 1 to 10 in Mid. after-Nguyen Knap?”
Even before any answer was attempted, I was subject to a barrage of questions in return, such as: Does the speaker know what they are counting? What is the source of that knowledge? Are the items concrete or abstract? Animate or inanimate? Does the speaker, addressee, or a known or unknown third party own the items? Is that ownership inherent or contingent? Is the ownership contested? What is the source of knowledge concerning the ownership of the items? Are the items sentient? Do they adhere to Last Thursdayism? Does the speaker adhere to Last Thursdayism? Does the speaker believe the addressee adheres to Last Thursdayism? What is the source of that knowledge? What is the age, gender, and social class of the speaker? What is the age, gender, and social class of the addressee? By what source is this information known or inferred? What are the ages, genders, and social classes of known third-parties who are expected to hear the utterances? By what source is this information known or inferred? Are there other third parties who are not known but suspected to hear the utterances? Are those suspected hearers expected to hear directly or as reported speech? What are the possible ages, genders, and social classes of those suspected hearers? What is the source of each item of information concerning the suspected hearers? What day of the week, what month, and what year is it when the utterances are spoken? What is the current health of the speaker, addressee, known and suspected third-party hearers? Are any of the participants divine, supernatural, deceased, or inanimate? What is the source of that knowledge? Is the counting ironic, sarcastic, hesitant, or iconoclastic? Is the counting done for a particular purpose, such as finding the count of some set, passing the time, amusing a child, treating an adult as a child who needs amusing, or as an attempt at misdirection? Are any tools or body parts used in the counting, such as a stick, fingers, toes, genitals, or aardvarks? Do the stick, fingers, toes, genitals, or aardvarks used for counting belong to the speaker, a relative of the speaker (and if so, which relative, and is that by blood, by marriage, or by adoption?), the addressee (or relative), or some other entity? Was the item used for counting stolen, of questionable provenance, of disputed ownership, or a particularly ugly instance of its type? Should I give the answer as if I were the speaker, or as if I were reporting on the counting of the speaker? If reported speech, did I hear and see the counting, just see it, just hear it, or was it reported to me by a third party? If a third party, how trusted is that third-party, how long have I known them, what is their age, gender, and social class? Are they supernatural, divine, deceased, or undead? Was the report in writing or spoken? If in writing, was it accompanied by a verbal report? If so, did they conflict at all in details or core meaning? For a verbal report (alone or accompanying a written report), did I see or hear the report, or both? What language was the written or verbal report in? How fluent am I and the speaker in the languages in question? Am I a native speaker or certified as a translator in any of the languages in question? What about the reporter?
I answered all the questions as simply as I could, and then my informant was silent for several minutes. I was convinced he was pulling my leg and simply was not going to cooperate. I got up to leave and he said, in English, “Wait! Wait! I’m thinking!” Ten more minutes went by, and he said, as best as I can transcribe it:
/ʃʤʌˠɰⁿɽɺɻʘɘλʊɫfæƙɱǃɪǁǂɔθɵʀʁɾɣɤʰʡoː/ (with tone: ˧˨˩˥˧˦˥˦)
My immediate response was, of course, “Whoa! Hold on! That was way too fast! Can you give me each number individually?” My informant replied, with an expression of mild confusion, “That was just the word for ‘one’ in the conditions you described.”
By the time we got to the word for three I needed an aspirin and my informant said he needed a drink. I bought him a whisky sour at the local pub. (Interestingly, the translation for “I’d like a whisky sour, another for my friend here, we’ll need another round in ten minutes, keep them coming until I tell you to stop, and put it all on my company’s tab!” is just /oɪ/. For martinis (shaken, not stirred), it is /bɒnd/. It is also a cultural taboo to have a drink with someone and not drink the same drink.)
Once my hangover cleared up, I decided to give up on ever understanding Mid. after-Nguyen Knap. Since I had spent 8 years on the island and now had nothing to show for it, I decided to spend a little time trying to understand the origins of Mid. after-Nguyen Knap. Over the following 12 years, I have gained the trust of several other families of higher social status, and I have been able to piece together the following sketch of the history of the language.
There are many powerful entities—rich corporations, members of several royal families, oil sheiks, governmental agencies engaged in black-ops, etc.—which have for decades used the remoteness and solitude of small, sparsely populated islands all over the world to conduct potentially shady business in relative secrecy. A few long flights aboard chartered planes with erroneous flight plans, a few well-placed bribes that amount to pocket change for the briber and a year’s income for the bribed, and a little hired mercenary muscle to keep everyone to their word, and these meetings may as well have never happened.
Legend has it that many of these secretive meetings were originally conducted in an English-based Pidgin, called “Knap” or “Knap’s Language”, named after Ms. Belas Knap, the polyglot lead negotiator for a now-unknown entity in the 1920s. Ms. Knap was legendary for requiring English as the Lingua Franca of these secretive island meetings, and for teaching opposing negotiators just enough English to get them to agree to contractual terms that were not in their clients’ best business interests (and were often detrimental to the negotiators’ long term health).
A dialect of this pidgin, spoken on several Mid-Atlantic Islands, was creolized in the 1940s when several renowned negotiators decided to stop traveling the world for their clients, and set up shop (and permanent residence) on one or more Mid-Atlantic islands. This creole is now known as Mid-Atlantic Knap, or just Mid. Knap. Several of the children of these settled negotiators learned Mid. Knap natively and went on to become second-generation negotiators in the 1960s.
One of the third generation of negotiators and native-speakers of Mid. Knap was Nguyen Ling. He attended the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1980s, where he set out to major in business. Because of some computer-related complications in the administrative offices, and the staff’s general unfamiliarity with the surname-given name pattern of Asian names, his records were constantly mixed up in such a way that the university though his given name was “Busi”, his surname was “Nguyen”, and his major was “Ling”—that is, Linguistics. After two years of fighting the system, “Busi” Nguyen gave up and completed a major in Linguistics, and went on to get his Ph.D.
Upon his return to Ascension Island in the late 1980s, Busi put his linguistic training to a novel use. As the island’s negotiators-for-hire were naturally quite accomplished negotiators, their contracts with clients included several advantageous provisions, not least among them an iron-clad hourly rate, regardless of the time required to conclude the contracted negotiations, and the unquestionable right to determine the language of negotiations (a clause harkening back to the time of Ms. Knap herself).
Busi began consciously adding to the complexity of Mid. Knap, at first as an impediment to those on the other side of the negotiation table, but later as a means to draw out the negotiations as finer and finer grammatical distinctions were required to utter anything (this idea was pitched to clients as ensuring no possibility for misunderstanding in the final contract). Nguyen’s relatives and business partners quickly became the dominant negotiators in the Mid-Atlantic small-island shady-business world.
Nguyen was assassinated in the mid 1990s by a consortium of negotiating groups who were having trouble keeping up with the pace of innovation in the Ascension Island dialect of Mid. Knap. After Nguyen’s death, the innovation stopped and the then-recent changes fossilized. But there were already dozens of native or near-native speakers (including several children who have now become fourth- and fifth-generation negotiators). This semi-constructed language, which has fully re-creolized in the younger generations, is now referred to as Mid. after-Nguyen Knap, in honor of both its original source and recent champion and chief innovator.
From what I have been able to determine, the language incorporates at least the following features, most of which Nguyen presumably learned about in his time as a student of linguistics. The language is agglutinating, features clusivity, and follows a split ergative pattern, except on Thursdays. It requires the logical precision of Lojban. The phonology is a merger of Ubykh and !Xóõ, though the writing system is based on English, but with less emphasis on logical spelling. Some verbal and noun inflections are adapted from Métchif, based on Arabic’s tri-consonantal roots and employing Bora’s 350-odd noun classes. The evidentials are derived from Classical Pinnacle Sherpa, the cases from Estonian, the honorifics from Japanese, and the 6-level tonal system was adapted from Bench. An apparently unique feature, the grammaticalization of Last Thursdayism, seems to be a true native innovation.
The language was effective, not as a communication system, but as a money-maker. Simple negotiations take months. The most complex deals have been underway for over a decade. Negotiations, undertaken at exorbitant hourly rates, last 16-20 hours a day. The negotiators have become fabulously wealthy, while their egregiously wealthy clients hardly notice the cost. The language, as a communication system, is essentially a form of cognitive impairment on par with or even more severe than the Pirahã language, except that all speakers of Mid. after-Nguyen Knap also speak another language fluently, usually English.
One surprising socio-political side effect of the adoption of Mid. after-Nguyen Knap by the negotiators of Ascension Island has been a phenomenal slowdown in certain kinds of criminal activity when routed through the island’s negotiating underworld. As the result of an early draft of this paper having been circulated in unexpected circles, I have been approached by Interpol to start a program to encourage the use of Mid. after-Nguyen Knap among other small-island negotiators in order to enhance this slowdown effect. I am currently debating with myself whether I should continue my fieldwork here on Ascension Island in hopes of one day being able to properly describe the language, work to promote Mid. after-Nguyen Knap among speakers of Mid. Knap without being passably fluent in either, or simply enter witness protection and become a plumber or something.