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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

On the Nature of Slavery in the Americas and Its Linguistic Consequences: The Legal Hypothesis of Creole Genesis



Sandro Sessarego


The origins of the Afro-Hispanic Languages of the Americas (AHLAs), the languages that developed in Latin America from the contact of African languages and Spanish in colonial times, are extremely intriguing, since it still has to be explained why we do not find creole languages in certain regions of Spanish America, where the socio-demographic conditions for creole languages to emerge appear to have been in place in colonial times. Nowadays, in contrast, we can find such contact varieties in similar former colonies, which were ruled by the British, the French or the Dutch (McWhorter 2000). Despite the fascinating implications of this phenomenon, our knowledge of the AHLAs remains extremely limited. Several hypotheses have been proposed to account for this situation, but no common consensus has yet been achieved (Chaudenson 2001; Mintz 1971; Laurence 1974; Granda 1968; Schwegler 1993, 2014; Lipski 1993; etc.). The pull of different views on the issue has been labelled in the literature as the “Spanish creole debate” (Lipski 2005: ch.9).

The current study is aimed at casting new light on the Spanish creole debate by relying on a comparative analysis of slave laws in the Americas. This article highlights the role that legal differences played in shaping colonial societies and the Afro-European languages that developed in the New World.

Findings indicate the presence of a highly heterogeneous legislation, whose origins must be sought back in Europe, where the bases of slave law were originally laid down—by the Romans. This research shows that the legal figure of the ‘serf/slave’ had been received by the Spanish legal system in ancient times, from the Roman Corpus Juris Civilis; it had been gradually modified and progressively softened into the medieval Spanish code, called Siete Partidas, and then further smoothed in the Leyes de Indias ‘colonial laws’. In particular, the Spanish slave, unlike the Roman one, was granted legal personality and a series of legal rights that derived from it.

By contrast, the legal concept of ‘serf’/‘slave’ followed a significantly dissimilar evolutionary path in the other European codifications, which did not receive it in ancient Roman times. Thus, by the time the Americas were “discovered”, the English, the French and the Dutch found themselves borrowing directly from the Corpus Juris Civilis to fill such a legal gap and introduced slaves into their overseas plantations. As a consequence, English, French and Dutch slaves did not have legal personality and the living conditions set by these legal systems for black captives were much more brutal than the ones dictated by the Spanish Crown (Watson 1989). The Portuguese, on the other hand, had received Roman slave law in ancient times but over time did not modify it to the extent the Spaniards did. As a result, Brazilian slaves were not considered legal persons, and had many more restrictions constraining their freedom than Spanish saves did.

The Legal Hypothesis of Creole Genesis highlights the impact that these legal differences had on the development of black-white relations and therefore on the evolution of Afro-European contact varieties in the Americas. In particular, it stresses the importance of the reception of Roman slave law in Europe as a significant factor for understanding the evolution of creole languages overseas. The point here conveyed might be summarized as follows: if certain colonial societies in the Americas were more or less conducive to creolization than others, it is in great part due to the degree of legal Romanization their homeland countries went through in ancient times.

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