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A New Mechanism For Contact-Induced Change:
Evidence From Maritime Languages

H.D. Onesimus
Gobi Institute of Maritime Linguistics
Lanzhou, China

Modern contact linguistics has demonstrated an impressive ability to account for language change and the emergence of new languages with a remarkably small number of mechanisms: bilingualism, creolization, borrowing, and convergence (also known as “smart drift”).

However, a few intractable situations of language contact seemingly cannot be accounted for in terms of this elegant system (notable
Edward Sapir and Mary Haas, voted King Phil and Queen An of the Evening Fieldwork Ball, strike a pose earlier in the day at the 1929 Annual International Men of Philology/Women of Anthropology Multidisciplinary Mixer, held at a private beach resort in Galveston, Texas.
examples include Wutun, Ma’a and Texas English). In this article, I show how the long-standing problem of Penguin and the Cetacean languages reveals a new type of contact mechanism, one which may well yield fruitful explanations for other heretofore unexplained contact results.


One of the most vexing questions in Maritime Linguistics has been the inexplicable but obvious similarities of lexicon between the Cetacean languages and the various dialects of Penguin. Cetacean, including a multitude of Whale, Dolphin and Porpoise languages (as well as possibly, but controversially, Pinniped languages1), is a widespread family with undeniable internal unity, and clearly distinct from all other known Aquatic families. Penguin, on the other hand, is almost certainly to be grouped with Auk and Puffin,2 with a distant relationship to Pelican and Flamingo.

However, Penguin shares a sizable portion of its vocabulary and morphosyntax with the Cetacean languages, and until now, no plausible explanation has been offered for this puzzling fact.3

Various theories have been explored in the vast literature, of which I will summarize the most common here.

Did Cetacean and Penguin varieties share a common origin, so that they actually belong, at great depth, to the same linguistic family? Perhaps both are the result of a failed human migration, in which some speakers literally fell off the boat and adapted their tongues (and breathing apparatus) to a new environment? This was once considered an attractive explanation, but because no plausible human language relative has been proposed, the theory has been abandoned by all but a few dogmatists.

Can the similarities be attributed to drift? Probably not: penguins and all cetaceans are strong swimmers, so drift seems an unlikely explanation.

With the advent of modern contact linguistics, attention has gradually become focused on the possibility that normal patterns of bilingualism or language shift might explain the similarities. Yet, all attempts to produce such an explanation have failed. Penguins cannot be birds that shifted to a Cetacean language; nor can they be mammals which picked up avian features through bilingual interaction.4 Massive lexical replacement (“relexification”) also fails as an explanation.

In fact, on cultural grounds, bilingualism has been shown to be an utter impossibility between the sociable and land-loving Penguin communities and the solitary and generally mean-spirited personality typical of the water-bound Cetacean species.5

And yet, reason tells us that there must be some key, some point of contact, which can account for the shared linguistic features observable in these two diverse linguistic families. As the discerning reader will have guessed (if only because I told you so already), the remainder of this article describes how I discovered what this point of contact is, as well as the implications of this discovery for the field of contact linguistics.


I cannot begin to count the hours that have been spent, here at the Gobi Institute of Maritime Linguistics, in fruitless discussions of the similarities between Penguin and Cetacean tongues. No doubt, the same can be said of any of our sister institutions throughout the world. This vexing problem has consumed many an academic career, and has been the subject of innumerable books and articles. Now, finally, the explanation is at hand.

The revelation, as Kuhn might have predicted, came when two seemingly unconnected events spontaneously intertwined in a revolutionary harmony of technical prescience. Let me tell you about it.

In New Orleans for an unrelated research project,6 I plopped down at a terminal in an internet café and pointed my browser to the Linguist List; while the page loaded I hastily unwrapped that prize of any visit to the Big Easy, a shrimp Po-boy. The first
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message was an announcement of Matras and Bakker’s The Mixed Language Debate. Scanning the table of contents, my eye fell on the title of Carol Myers-Scotton’s article “Split (mixed) languages as contact phenomena: What lies beneath”.

“What lies beneath...” An epiphany. Instantly I recalled the tortured question of the Penguin-Cetacean relationship. I looked from the screen to my sandwich, back to the screen, and back to the sandwich again. Slowly, as if in a dream, I raised the upper piece of bread to reveal what lay beneath: shrimp.

I had the answer.


Few scholars are aware that Roald Amundsen chose to include an accomplished philologist among the members of his 1910-12 South Polar Expedition team. This linguist, Olav Bjaaland, was fascinated by contemporary accounts of Penguin dialects, and later served for many years as editor of the prestigious Nordic Journal of Avian Languages of the Southern Hemisphere.

In 1910, he was involved in a race against Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Robert Scott’s South Polar expedition: alongside the drama of the race to the pole, Bjaaland and Cherry-Garrard were competing to produce the first comprehensive grammar of what was then referred to as Low Penguin, spoken in the Antarctic regions.

Relaxing on a Tasmanian beach with Roald Amundsen in 1912, Bjaaland penned his own version of the Polar expedition, an account which differs in surprising ways from the one published by Amundsen himself.7 Perhaps because of these differences, and because Amundsen was lounging in the next beach chair, Bjaaland saw fit to write his book in Etruscan. This effectively prevented not only Amundsen, but nearly everybody else, from reading the book.

Bjaaland’s account (my translation) includes the following key passage:

As far as this author can ascertain, nobody has ever bothered to write a description of Krillian; scholars appear to have assumed from the popular name “krill” [translator’s note: “krill” is Norwegian and means ‘food for a glutton’] that it was a normal member of the aquatic branch of Germanic, probably similar to Friesian, Herring, or Icelandic Cod.

Being Norwegian myself, I blithely assumed that I would have no difficulty learning Krillian, if the circumstances of our Antarctic expedition should warrant this. (I fervently hoped, of course, that they would not, as we all knew that our dogsleds would be totally unsuited to an aquatic assault on the Pole.)

However, in the course of some recreational snorkeling near the Ross Ice Shelf in September 1911, I did have the opportunity to do some impromptu wordlist elicitation in the midst of an enormous and congenial Krill community. What I discovered was astonishing. Not only was Krillian nothing like Norwegian, but in fact it had no identifiable Germanic features at all. It appeared, rather, to have numerous words in common with the Low Penguinic dialect which chattered around our camp day and night...

PS Roald is a really lousy skier.

Bjaaland further records that his usually dependable fellow explorer Helmer Hanssen, in an uncharacteristic and colossal oversight, used the pages of the elicited Krill wordlist for toilet paper, and thus destroyed the evidence.

Even without his notes, though, Bjaaland was right. Furthermore, he had inadvertently stumbled upon the answer to the most vexing question in Maritime Linguistics. But he never realized it, because he never bothered to study any Cetacean languages. And since his manuscript lay undeciphered among his possessions until his great grandson recently sold it to an opportunistic collector for a fraction of its true worth, the world was until now ignorant of his discovery.


The answer to the problem is Krill. Penguins and most Cetacean species are avid consumers, relying on the teeming schools of Krill which inhabit the world’s oceans as a primary source of nutrition. That is to say, they eat them.

Nearly all published descriptions of Krill have focused on North Atlantic dialects, but the critical data, of course, comes from Euphausia superba, the Antarctic Krill. Here we find precious little published data, but a brief article in the soon-to-appear Routledge volume The Zooplanktonish Languages gives all the necessary detail.

I will not bore my patient readers with the linguistic details,8 but suffice it to say that the Euphausia superba dialect of Krill has all of the lexical items and morphosyntactic features, down to the very minutest morphemes themselves, which are shared by Cetacean and Penguin
Karl Verner, Eduard Sievers, and Henry Sweet mill about near the clubhouseunescorted, unflatteringly unfashionable, philological pariahsat the 1929 Annual International Men of Philology/Women of Anthropology Multidisciplinary Mixer, held at a private beach resort in Galveston, Texas.
languages. Furthermore, these features are different from, but clearly cognate to, though readily explainable through processes of natural semantic change and grammaticalization from, the features of better-known Krill varieties such as Euphausia pacifica.


The implications of this discovery for contact linguistics cannot be overstated. Clearly, a new mechanism has been revealed, which accounts for the spreading of linguistic features in a new way. In the case of Krill, those who eat it have picked up some of its linguistic features; this is not a case of classic bilingualism, nor of any of the other recognized contact processes.

We may refer to our newly-discovered process as “ingestion”. Naturally, we can predict that some other unexplained contact languages may in fact turn out to provide evidence for this same process: perhaps Wutun or Texas English are candidates for such an analysis?

Up to now, most sociolinguists have had an extremely shallow knowledge of Maritime languages: the closest I have heard to an insight about contact among aquatic language varieties was when Sarah Grey Thomason was overheard to order “creole redfish” off the menu at a Cajun restaurant. This article shows that much more attention should be paid to aquatic languages, which may yield a considerable haul of insight into language contact phenomena.

Perhaps other new contact processes are awaiting discovery beneath the waves; ingestion may be just the tip of the iceberg.

1 See my article “But will it float? Why the case for the ‘Cetacean Seal’ is not watertight”. Acta Linguistica Artica 81.1:23-408.

2 Some scholars group Penguin with Ostrich, Rhea, Emu and Kiwi under “Proto-Dodo”, but this grouping is based purely on minor morphological similarities, and is clearly inaccurate.

3 Notable among these similarities is the causative construction; see Scott (“Exploring Penguin Causatives”, Linguist of Fortune—JLSSCNC I.1) for an excellent description of the Penguin causative. Most Cetacean languages not only have the same construction, but in fact, use the exact same causative morpheme!

4 The best candidate for a relative in such a theory, Platypus, cannot be plausibly considered a relative on any linguistic grounds.

5 I do not want to hear any complaints about this claim from idealistic dolphin huggers. Abundant research shows that they cannot get along with anybody. Ask any penguin about dolphins and you will get an earful.

6 See my forthcoming book The Avery Island Salt Diet: the natural weight-loss plan of the Atakapa Indians.

7 For example, Bjaaland claims that his team beat Amundsen’s squad 15-1 in the first football match played at the South Pole; Amundsen’s official account of the match lists his own team as 4-3 winners.

8 This will contribute to my quest for tenure by allowing me to squeeze an additional publication from this topic.

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