Book Review: Chota Valley Spanish, written by Sandro Sessarego

In: Journal of Language Contact

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2013, 124 pages. Madrid / Frankfurt am Main: Iberoamericana/Vervuert.

Chota Valley Spanish (cvs) is an Afro-Hispanic language variety spoken in several rural villages in Ecuador. It is spoken by approximately 12,000 descendants of Africans who were taken to the region to work as slaves in the sugarcane plantations owned by the Jesuit during colonial time.

The volume under review consists of six chapters, and its objectives are twofold. First, the book deals with the structural characteristics of cvs by revisiting previous literature and collecting new linguistic data through sociolinguistic fieldwork implementing audio recording and grammaticality tests with 50 participants. As part of this effort, the author presents a description of cvs in terms of its morphosyntactic patterns, phonetics, phonology and lexicon (chapters 3–5). Secondly, the author discusses the conditions under which CVS emerged and evolved in Ecuador and the implications of the variety for the study of Afro-Hispanic creoles (chapters 2 and 6). Toward that aim, the author tests whether the sociohistorical and linguistic conditions necessary for a creole language to develop were present in the region at the time that cvs emerged.

In chapter one, the author points out that the study of cvs is important because it supplements the understudied area of Afro-Hispanic language varieties. According to him, performing comparative analyses of grammatical features in “less prestigious, but equally efficient linguistic systems,” such as this contact variety, makes it possible to test earlier hypotheses, “which usually have been built on standardized language data” (Sessarego, 2013: 15). These circumstances appear to be a substantial reason for studying cvs.

Chapter two offers a sociohistorical account of slavery in Ecuador and an overview of varieties of Spanish in contact with African languages in Latin America. The author identifies three phases (1530–1680; 1680–1770; 1770–1964) in order to better understand the evolution of slavery in Ecuador over time. Based on recent historical research and a detailed reanalysis of the historical sources used in earlier research on the genesis of cvs, the author casts serious doubts on studies identifying Chota Valley as a region having the ideal conditions for a creole language to emerge. The conditions that are not met in this place would be “a low white/black ratio, harsh working conditions in labor-intensive sugar cane plantations, massive introduction of African-born workers and minimal contact with the outside Spanish-speaking world” (Sessarego, 2013: 54).

Chapter three is a discussion of the main phonetic and phonological features observed in cvs. The author concludes that most of these features are shared with regional Spanish varieties and that the following linguistic features differ from surrounding varieties but are shared with other Afro-Hispanic varieties: paragogic vowels, elision of word-final /r/, and intonational patterns. Confusion of intervocalic /l/ with /d/ should be added to this list.

Based on his own fieldwork and data published in previous studies, the author focuses on the morphosyntax of cvs in chapter four. Among the features observed in cvs, the following patterns are shared with other Afro-Latin contact varieties: cases of variable number and gender agreement in the np; bare nouns appear in object position and sometimes also in subject position; ele used as a topic/focus marker rather than as a pronoun; presence of sporadic variable subject/verb agreement in the vp; interchangeable use of the verbs ser/estar/haber; overlapping of haber/tener; omission of reflexive se; omission of the copula; possessive adjectives substituted by periphrastic constructions; use of a preposition and object pronoun instead of a preverbal object clitic; divergent use of prepositions in comparison with normative varieties; use of ele and ca as emphatic markers; and the use of the particle vuelta as a discursive marker (meaning ‘on the other hand’). cvs also shares some properties with other varieties of Spanish in contact with Quechua, such as gerundive constructions instead of conjugated forms and progressive constructions with estar.

In chapter five, 56 lexical items identified by Choteños as peculiar to the region are presented. Most lexical items on the list seem to have Spanish origins but have a different meaning in cvs than they do in Spanish. Some items, such as ñaño ‘brother,’ are common Quechua words used in local Spanish varieties. The description of the lexicon would have profited from a more extended wordlist, including lexical items collected by others, and a more in-depth discussion concerning, for example, etymologies and semantic fields for this lexicon. African lexical borrowings in cvs are mentioned in chapter six, but not in this chapter as part of the description of the lexicon.

Chapter six provides an analysis of the two main hypotheses proposed in earlier studies to explain the absence of a Spanish-based creole in the region. The first hypothesis, based on the Monogenetic Hypothesis, claims the prior existence of an Afro-Portuguese creole (from which most creoles derive, according to the Monogenetic Hypothesis) that went through a decreolization process. The second hypothesis advocates for the Afrogenetic Hypothesis, claiming that a creole did not arise in Ecuador because a Spanish-based pidgin from which such a creole would have developed never existed in West Africa. As such, the author revisits sociohistorical data in order to show that the conditions for the emergence or maintenance of a creole language were not present in the Chota Valley. Moreover, the author claims that the analyzed linguistic data indicates that the restructuring observed in cvs can be found in other contact varieties and may be attributed to incomplete second language acquisition without prior creolization.

When describing the linguistic characteristics of cvs, Sessarego never fails to compare them to other regional varieties of Spanish and to several Afro-varieties of Spanish and Portuguese in order to better understand which features can be explained as contact-induced changes and which cannot. Furthermore, the results of the author’s own fieldwork are carefully complemented with other researchers’ data and the phonetic and morphosyntactic patterns are thoroughly accounted for. However, the context or mode of learning (untutored second language learning) should be emphasized more. It is known that enslaved Africans acquired Spanish naturalistically and that their descendants probably also acquired this variety in informal contexts. The author mentions an ongoing shift towards more normative patterns (Sessarego, 2013: 70), a fact that could be explained by an increasing number of members of the community who are learning Spanish in formal contexts (school). The process of so-called “incomplete” or “imperfect” learning may lead to language restructuring, and it may therefore be interesting to relate the level of restructuring to the context of acquisition/learning.

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