The Wasabi Language Experiment

The purpose of this page is to provide a more or less detailed description of the pidginization experiment I ran up at UC Berkeley which resulted in the language Wasabi. Below will be an account of why I performed the experiment, its background, what it entailed, how to run the experiment (as well as my advice on what not to do), and some brief notes on the language itself. If you'd like to see the language in action, you can go to, where the Wasabi Babel Text is posted.

So, without further ado, I introduce you to Wasabi: The language without a "b".


In the fall of 2001, I took what turned out to be John McWhorter's last class at UC Berkeley on pidgin and creole languages (this sentence is syntactically ambiguous, but both readings are technically true). As a final project, we were to write a 25 page, 1 1/2 spaced (yes, 1 1/2 spaced. Perhaps this is why he thinks a form of music, of all things, is holding a particular group of people "back": Too much double-spacing in the world out there...) paper on a particular pidgin or creole. Not liking what is commonly referred to as "research", wherein one goes to a library and checks out a stack of books and, allegedly, reads through them to glean what information s/he can, I thought it might be interesting to create my own pidgin or creole. How? Well, being a language creator, I thought I'd take two languages, like French and Arabic, and mix them in a way that looked like some of the pidgins and creoles we studied in class, and write about how the new pidgin reflected the two input languages, what its grammar was, etc. I really liked this idea, and did something like it with Kelenala. But that part of the story comes later.

So, the next day in class (following a day which I didn't mention wherein our final project was detailed), I approached John, and gave him my idea, and he said, "Yes, that sounds like a good idea. You'll take a group of people and give them a set of words and have them speak using only those words, to see if they produce something that looks...pidginish." (Or, in McWhorterese, "This idea, that which you have related to me, appears to me to be a thoroughly worthwhile endeavor. I charge you to enlist a set of compatriots, and further, once said group has been obtained, then shall you attempt to engender in them the capacity for speech, with respect to a simple allotment of words, which shall, furthermore, contain, or 'have', no actual grammar. Insodoing, I charge you to monitor the progress of the group, taking note especially of their speech habits, that you may 'see' if the structure of the language that they, in fact, 'come up with', contains any characteristics which mirror those of a prototypical pidgin, therefore, forthwith, hereby, thereto.") Needless to say, this was not my idea, but it was a good one, and, most importantly, a doable one. So, that very day, I set about creating a list of words, and rounding up people in the co-op I lived in, at the time, who would be good enough to take part in my ill-defined, over-rushed experiment.

The word list I came up with was, more or less, the Swadesh list, with a few additions (e.g., the number six). Basically, I was true to the list, though. So, what did the words look like? Well, since the six people I got to partake in the experiment were primarily L1 English speakers (there was one L1 Romanian speaker), I used a kind of basic English orthography with "Spanish vowels", and trusted that they would be able to pronounce them. So, there were words like "huches", "sanya", "sangi", "duwev", etc. With the list complete, though, and my speakers selected, I had to have a name for the language. It was my idea that everyone should take part in the decision process, though, so in the interim, I simply called it "Language X". The name stuck, and so this was the name of the first word list of my first experiment. (Note: We haven't gotten to Wasabi yet. That was the second version of this experiment.)

This isn't a page about Language X, so I won't go into many of the details, but essentially, it was a promising start. The six people whom I got to do the experiment all ended up speaking a kind of pidgin-like thing by the end of the semester, with a few interesting features cropping up, and they were, for the most part, able to converse in a very basic way without constantly referencing their word lists. So, in that way, it was a success. And so I wrote my 25 page paper (1 1/2 spaced [demi-spaced?], of course), and met with John a couple of times the next semester to discuss ways to expand the experiment. The reason for this was that the experiment ran for only one semester, and even then, we met only once a week for an hour or two. In real life, it takes about, oh, fifty years to get from the polylingual stage to standardized pidgin stage. Needless to say, this wasn't that. It was something, though, and it was mine and John's idea to make it something more.

The Setup

In retrospect, I should have been very pleased with how the Language X experiment went. At the time, though, I had nothing to compare it to (this type of experiment having not been done before [or, at least, having not been documented]), so I wanted to improve it. Here were some of the areas I hoped to improve upon:

  1. The original phonology had a few problems. I adopted the simple five vowel system, using the traditional orthography, but, given that these were L1 English speakers, there were problems. Even though I told them that these were "Spanish vowels" (they'd all taken Spanish), there were those that pronounced the grapheme "e" like the "e" in "he", and those that pronounced the grapheme "o" like the "o" in "top". Coincidentally, some of the forms they messed up had minimal pairs which led to actual confusion (I can't think of any offhand, but an example would be something like "sika" vs. "seka"). When you only have about 300 words, you can't be confusing one word for another.

  2. An additional problem with the original phonology is that there were just too many phonemes: "s" contrasting with "z", as well as "sh" and "h" and "f" and "v"... One of the biggest problems was final "s" and final "z". Believe it or not, these both come out as a variant of [s] in English, word-finally. So there was a word like "okuz" which people thought was the word "okus", and so they'd go hunting through their lists for "okus", and then wouldn't find it, and time would be wasted. You might think, "Well, even if there was an 'okus', context would determine which was the right one." Yes, it would. But if you can barely even speak the language—in fact, if you barely even have a language that you're speaking—you can't rely on context. So this large phonemic inventory was a real problem that had to be solved.

  3. Just a quick note on the word structure: I had words that were of the forms: CV, CVCV, CVCCV, VCCV, CVCVC, VCVC, CCVCV... Tons of things. This proved to be a real barrier, when it came to stringing together words, because it was too choppy. If you have to say something like, "Sangi sanya heni sambu duwev", there's just no way to get a feel for how the phrase should flow, if you've barely got a handle on the words, let alone what you're saying. In particular, the word final consonants really slowed things up, and made things awkward.

  4. As anyone who's ever created a language has probably figured out, the Swadesh List is not the way to start out. The list has the words "dust", "smoke", "ash", "cloud", and "fog", but not "six". In addition, the only emotion word they have on there is "fear". Is that really the only emotion word you want in a language? Maybe if you're Bush, but not if you're human. Suffice it to say, the Swadesh List was woefully inadequate as a starting point for creating a basic vocabulary to be used in a pidgin.

  5. The way I collected data had to change. What I did was I met with everyone, and I tape recorded each session, and took furious notes. This didn't work. I was distracted, and couldn't lead the group, and I couldn't participate, and I was constantly saying things like, "Okay, stop for just a second; let me write this down." I didn't end up even using the tapes much, anyway. What I decided was that I needed an assistant. It was a necessity.

  6. One inherent problem with the way I structured this experiment was with the meetings. We all met on a Monday after dinner and did our thing for an hour or so and then went off on our separate ways until next Monday. What this entailed was one to two hours of thinking about the language per week. I gave them no homework assignments, and didn't really bug them too much—after all, they were doing this out of the kindness of their own hearts (i.e., I wasn't paying them, they weren't getting credit for anything, nothing). Both of these things were problems.

  7. Something that I thought was a problem at the time was that everybody knew each other. All but two of the people who participated lived in the same house (along with me), and the other two were a couple. That was no good, because no one felt about telling another that they were doing things wrong, even though the whole point was that there is no wrong way of doing things. Also, since there were also a couple pairs of roommates, they were good at figuring out what the other was trying to say from body language. These are the kinds of things I should have expected, but didn't.

  8. There was no goal for those participating in the experiment. They were basically there to be my guinea pigs and to give me something to write my final paper on. That's not cool. If you dedicate your time and effort to something, you should have something to show for it, I think.

  9. Last, but definitely not least, everyone relied on their lists way too much. What they should have done was memorize the 300 words completely, so that when they were trying to speak, they'd try to fill them with the vocabulary in their heads, not the vocabulary on the paper I gave them. This was the major problem with the experiment, and it made it so that the final result was a bit artificial.

That, in a nutshell, is an overview of the major problems with the Language X experiment. There were other problems, but they're not worth mentioning. So, when I met with John to decide what to do to make the second experiment better, we discussed specifically these issues. These were the solutions that he and I came up with (these make reference to the specific problems listed above):

  1. In the new word list I created, I limited myself to a three vowel system: "a", "i" and "u". Even with the five vowel system of Language X, no one ever mispronounced these vowels.

  2. I completely overhauled the phonology to make it look simpler, more Polynesian. The phonemes were: "p", "t", "k", "s", "m", "n", "l", "w" and "y". The letter "t" never occurred intervocalically.

  3. The new words were only of the following forms: CV, (C)VCV, (C)VCVCV. The multisyllabic forms were uniformly stressed on the penultimate syllable by the subjects of the second experiment.

  4. Based on what got used and what didn't in the previous class, I created a new word list containing only the essential words, as well as some others I realized were necessary after running the Language X experiment. Though I don't plan on putting up the actual word lists for Language X or Wasabi, you can get a basic idea of what the Wasabi word list was like by looking at the original word list for Kelenala. It has 65 more words than the Wasabi word list, but you'll probably be able to recognize them (e.g., "tofu").

  5. I ditched the tape recorder and got myself an assistant: My good friend from NOLA, Tommy Nosewicz. This guy was awesome. But more on that later. The point is that the whole format of the experiment changed. But more on that later.

  6. First, John and I decided that I should have written homework assignments. John was initially against the idea, because a pidgin is a spoken phenomenon, but given the result of the Language X experiment, he decided that this added level of artificiality was necessary to keep the experiment going. I agreed. I shouldn't have, because he was right the first time, but I did, nonetheless. Also, we agreed that the class should meet at least three hours a week: Either three one hour meetings, or two one and a half hour meetings. I eventually decided on the latter (I was probably influenced by the line spacing thing). Finally, the biggest change was that this experiment was changed into a class, taught by me, thanks to the De-CAL program at Berkeley. I don't want to write too much in this table, so I'll talk more about the class format below.

  7. Obviously, with the class format, there might be some people who knew each other, but, by and large, there would be a bunch of strangers coming together to participate.

  8. Again, with the class format, now participants could actually get university credit for participating in this experiment. In addition, I decided to have the class translate the Babel Text so that, even if they remembered nothing about the class many years to come, they'd always be able to get online and see their names and see what they'd done.

  9. What a class format allows you to do is to set down rules, i.e., do x, or you won't pass this class. Before I actually got in there to teach the class, I assumed that the threat of failing a class would be enough to induce the participants to at least make an honest attempt at memorizing the 300 words they were supposed to.

So, that's what things looked like before the class actually got started. Before telling you how the class went, let me tell you a little bit about how the class came to be in the first place.

Starting Up Your Own Class at Berkeley

First of all, if you actually, truly, hardcore, real-real want to start up your own De-CAL at Berkeley, you should probably go to the source to find out the specifics. After all, policies change. No joke.

Now, then. The idea for a course, as I've said, basically stemmed from the fact that, with a course, you can: (a) Make people do stuff, (b) get more people to show up, and (c) get them to show up more often. It seemed like a good idea. So, all I had to do was devise a syllabus, and get a professor to sign off on the project. Since John and I had already decided on this together, it wasn't really a big deal to get him to sign off on it. Then we had to take it to our department chair, Leanne Hinton (who, by the way, ended up being my advisor [and I'm forever grateful to her for doing so!], since John left for New York and has yet to return), who approved of the project, and signed the form. This form was then turned in to the De-CAL office, and pretty soon, my course was up on the web. And that's when the flood gates opened.

Within about a two week span, I got over 100 e-mails from people who wanted to take the class. "My goodness!" I thought, "I'd better put a cap on this." And so I limited the class to sixty students, and told everyone else that the class was already full. This, let it be known, was a big mistake. It was an understandable one, though. After all, this was the first class I was ever to teach, and I didn't know how the heck I was going to handle 100+ students all turning in assignments at once. What a nightmare! Anyway, at this point, I had my list of sixty people who were on my e-mail list and we set up the first day of class.

In order to speak using a language of made-up words, you need to have a list of these made-up words. So, of course, I made 60 copies (plus a few extra) of the 7 page word list (front and back) to hand out to everyone on the first day (to say nothing of the syllabus, or the first homework assignment, which was a survey). Since this was a De-CAL, I had to provide the funding myself, and it was not cheap. Nevertheless, I was willing to sacrifice.

Finally, I set things up with my good buddy Tom. The idea was that he'd kind of take notes, help me out when I needed it, maybe teach a class or two, etc. Mainly, though, he was there for support, which I sorely needed, and he was good for that. (You're a rock, Tom! Don't let nobody drag you down!)

All right, that's pretty much it. This was all pretty much bureaucratic information, but, you know, it's all a part of the thing the Big Bopper was wont to refer to as life, so it's fair game.

The Class Itself

From here on out, I'm going to be talking about how the class went, what worked, what didn't, and what I learned from it (i.e., what anyone who wants to run this experiment again should take into consideration before attempting it). At the very end, I'll put up some brief notes about the language itself, and, maybe some day in the far distance future, I'll post a discussion of the Babel Text. Not now, though.

From the very beginning, the class didn't go exactly as planned. First, as I said, I got over 100 e-mails from students wishing to take the class. Of those over 100, I limited the class to sixty. Of those sixty, roughly forty showed up on the first day. Of those forty, roughly 24 showed up on the second day. By the end of the class, I was down to 20, of which 18 or 19 actually showed up regularly. For me, this was a workable number of students, since it was a class, and I didn't want a big class. As an experiment, though, I would want a larger number of subjects to encourage more interaction. So what I should've done was said that everybody could join, knowing that half probably wouldn't even show up.

The next thing that happened was the first assignment I gave—the only major assignment for the whole class—was to memorize the word list. Nobody memorized the wordlist. Everybody memorized a few words that we used a bunch by the end of the class, but nobody was able to (and few actually made an honest attempt to) memorize the word list the way I think it should be memorized in order for the experiment to work.

These two points aside, though, I realized that I had a class, and had students, so it's not like I could just throw up my arms and say, "Well, this just won't work as an experiment: Thanks for coming out." I had an obligation to, at very least, have a class that ran the entire course of the semester. So, bearing that in mind, I did my best to hold up my end of the bargain, while still attempting to at least try to run my experiment.

Putting the bleak stuff behind me for the moment, though, and jumping back to the first day of class, everyone knows that if you're going to speak a language in this day and age, it should have a name. Several names were proposed. The most popular were Wasabi (after the beer commercial where one of the "Wazzup!" guys goes to a Japanese restaurant and finds the word "wasabi", or "wasaaaaaaaabi!" amusing), and Spanish. Spanish would've been a good one. It's done well for Spanish, after all. In the end, though, when the hands were counted, Wasabi won out, and so the name of the language became Wasabi, even though, as I mentioned before, the phonology of Wasabi contains no phoneme /b/. It has a /p/, but no /b/.

Having a name, the language, as yet unspoken and unformed, gained a kind of permanency. I tell ya', if a name does nothing else, it at least lends a sense of, well, legitimacy to a thing. After all, if a thing has a name, you can't just toss it aside. Anyway, a good name was enough to get the students back for the second day, and so we started our Wasabi-learning.

The day-to-day structure of the class was that of a second language class. Rather than me teaching them a language, though, I would go over sets of words with them, and introduce families of words (pronouns one day, family members the next, etc.), and then they, the students, would provide the examples. So, one of the first exercises I did was I had them interview one another about their families. The difference was in a normal language class, the instructor gives the students the key phrases (e.g., "Avez-vous des soeurs?", "Quelle age a-t-il?"). What I did was I polled them for some questions which you might ask in English. I then wrote these sentences up on the board and had them try to construct them using the words from Wasabi on their sheet. They then interviewed each other in Wasabi, and responded in Wasabi, and, at the end, reported their findings in Wasabi. And, there it was: After no more than a weekend, with no overt instruction and just a list of words, they were speaking a kind of language. It's structure was mutable, and mirrored English closely, but it was something. Here's an example of what they said:

  • Sali ana X. Sali manu wilaya. Sali saya tunu kayanu wilaya. Sali saya kilu tiwitali: anu tiwi, tunu tali. Sali malipali wima si Y. Sali unatu si kitapi kunayu. Sali yalasa Berkeley.

  • S/he name X. She four year. S/he hold two ten year. S/he hold three brothersister: one brother, two sister. S/he motherfather live at Y. S/he work at book building. S/he like Berkeley.

  • S/he's named X (or "this is X"). S/he's a fourth year (student). S/he's twenty years old. S/he has three siblings: one brother and two sisters. His/her parents live in Y. S/he works at the bookstore (or library). S/he enjoys (being at) Berkeley.

After no more than a weekend, I didn't think that was bad at all. (Note: This is kind of a conglomeration of answers that were given.) A couple things of note:

  1. The verb for "name" was understood and used as a passive verb, even though it was also used as a transitive verb (Sali ana X = "This is X", or "His/her name is X", or "S/he names X"), and a noun. This posed no problems for the hearer.

  2. Wasabi word order mirrors English word order.

  3. The verb for "to hold", saya, was adopted almost immediately for the English verb "have", when its meaning was intended to convey possession. This was one of the most quickly learned verbs, and became productive for all speakers in a short amount of time.

  4. The lack of a copula didn't seem to bother anybody at all.

  5. Some compounds were created on the spur of the moment, such as tiwitali, "brothers and sisters", and malipali, "parents". Each of these words had a main stress on the penultimate syllable, and a secondary stress on the first. The compound "kitapi kunayu", on the other hand, was a combination of two words, each with their own stress, and clearly not a compound in the way that malipali and tiwitali were compounds.

  6. Another facet of the wordlist that didn't seem to bother anyone was that there was only one locative adposition, si, which just meant "at". It was quickly adopted as the locative preposition, just like long in Tok Pisin.

This was a very promising start for the class. The students were into it and having fun, and additionally, they were getting it. So right towards the beginning I was very hopeful.

Then the rest of the class happened.

Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly, depending on how you look at it), the advancement that took place in the first few class meetings was never matched in the eleven or twelve weeks that followed. The language never really progressed beyond the point described above. There were a couple of students who became more and more comfortable as the weeks wore on, and who could spontaneously produce sentences in Wasabi without referring to their list, but the vast majority of the class pretty much just read from their list and did the best they could do without having to put much effort into it.

One mistake I made was assigning written homeworks. Everyone would do the assignments, and would do them more or less correctly, but they would do them differently. So, for example, one part of one assignment asked them to come up with a way to express "the cold boy" vs. "the boy is cold". Most people just wrote the word for "cold" and then "boy" for the first, and reversed the order for the second, which is what I expected. Others, however, concocted elaborate mechanisms to convey the latter—a couple even made a distinction between "the boy who is cold to the touch" and "the boy who feels cold to himself". Their strategies, though, were different, and they remained different. So, through the course of homeworks, each student pretty much developed his/her own version of Wasabi, and these separate versions never intermingled. In effect, then, the result wasn't a single spoken language that a group of people spoke, but just a kind of test: "See what kind of a language you, as an individual, can make up using these words!" That's interesting from a language creation point of you (and, indeed, is the point of Kelenala), but certainly one wouldn't write a paper on it (if you could, why even bother with subjects? You're a good enough subject yourself).

The idea behind the written assignments was to make sure that the students were thinking about the language over the long weekend (we met on Tuesdays and Thursdays), for starters, but also I imagined that students would go home and come up with a bunch of different strategies for expressing a given phrase, and that then, when they came back to class and participated in discussions, the various strategies would compete, with an ultimate winner emerging (or maybe two or three). For this to work, though, the students would have had to have been able to speak, and for them to have been able to do that, they would've had to've had memorized the wordlist. None of them did this, and, as a consequence, none of them could speak, which meant that none of them did speak, which meant that the innovations of the written homeworks remained written; never spoken.

That was the main problem with the class from the experimental point of view. The goal was for them to create a language, and they never did—at least, not a single spoken language. I realized this early on, and while this was disappointing, there were other problems.

My good buddy Tom pointed out to me over burritos, one day, that the students were getting frustrated. I'd been completely oblivious to this, but it should have been fairly obvious. Firstly, they weren't progressing as well as I would've liked them to, so that was frustrating to them (not just to me). Second, there were students who really put effort into the class and attempted to speak and do everything they could, and there were those that didn't. They showed up, listened, participated when forced, but other than that, they didn't do anything. The students who actually put effort in were starting to get frustrated by this, since, ultimately, they'd be rewarded the same (De-CAL classes are graded on a pass/not pass basis, and there's rarely a case where someone doesn't pass). Further, the curiosity factor of the course wore off. Some of the students were getting tired of going to a class that they wouldn't take anything away from, save two or three credits. These were all serious issues, and I don't know how well I addressed them. But what I decided, then and there, was that I was going to stop bothering with the experimental aspect of the class, and just focus on making the class rewarding for the students. This was a tough pill to swallow, since I really was interested in this as an experiment (and still am), and since this was my very first linguistics experiment. It also meant that I would have no senior thesis. Of course, since I wasn't even planning on applying to graduate schools at that time, this didn't matter so much.

As a result of the conversation I had with Tom, I instituted some major changes. First, this was when I came up with the idea to translate the Babel Text. This actually turned out to be quite a chore (it was at the time approaching the second round of midterms, the weather was miserable, everyone was tired...), but in the end, we did it, and that in itself was satisfying.

Another thing I did was I tried to kind of give lectures on different topics—you know, teach them stuff. I talked a lot about different aspects of linguistics, but also about being a successful college student (many of them were freshman, so this was one of their very first classes), dealing with stress, the ins-and-outs of the "system" at Berkeley, and so forth. Based on my reviews at the end of the semester, students actually found this more interesting/useful than much of the other stuff in the class.

I also made sure to do more in-class activities that they liked. So, one fun thing we did was we'd tell a group story, where one person would come up with a sentence and draw a picture corresponding to this sentence on the board. The next person would have to create the next sentence, and draw their own picture, etc. This is always good for a laugh (lots of animals killing people and then urinating). I also took a tip from my old guitar instructor, who, when I just got fed up with learning music theory, started just having me bring in songs that I wanted to learn how to play. So, every so often, I would bring in a song whose lyrics were easily more or less easily translatable, and they'd translate them into Wasabi, and I'd play them and attempt to sing them for them (this was always fun, since the syllables never lined up correctly. Among those I remember doing: "Eight Days a Week" and "Love Me Do", by the Beatles, and Radiohead's "The National Anthem".

Finally, in a bit of luck, my class got some media coverage. A local Berkeley news station (very local) wanted to do a story on the De-CAL program, and, of the 100 or so De-CAL classes, they decide to feature my class, as well as another on puppeteering. So, they came in for one class session and tape-recorded, and then I and one of my students went into to be interviewed live on their show. It was a lot of fun, and though it didn't actually do anything for us, it was a story for them to tell later on.

At the very end of the class, I let them in on exactly what the experiment was that they were taking part in (I didn't tell them about pidgins and creoles, or anything, beforehand, for fear it might alter the "natural" development of their language). I also told them that the experiment was basically a failure. I made sure to let them know, though, that, first and foremost, it wasn't their fault, but mine, and that this didn't mean that the past semester had been wasted, by any means—after all, we did a lot of stuff. All in all, it was a very positive experience for all concerned (I'm basing this on their evaluations), and I don't for a moment regret any part of it.

Some Conclusions

Though the Wasabi experiment was a failure, I did learn something about the pidginization process. Both Language X and Wasabi exhibited some common traits, the most obvious being that the languages were highly analytical. That could be expected. What was surprising, though, was what the languages looked like (this may sound somewhat subjective, but it can be quantified with data). Based on the two experiments I ran, here's what I think a pidgin created in this situation will look like. It will reflect a combination of:

  1. The dominant language(s) of the subjects.

  2. The way the subjects think a foreign language is supposed to sound.

  3. The X factor.

Let me comment on the above.

The first item should be fairly intuitive. If you give a speaker a list of words s/he's never seen and say, "Speak, using only these words", what they'll probably do is think up a sentence in their own language and attempt to match the words from the list with the words in their sentence. A handful of my students never got past this stage. One thing I predict will definitely follow from the L1 is word order. So, if I did this experiment with Turkish or Japanese speakers, I would expect the word order to be SOV, not SVO.

The second item is something I think is original, but should also be fairly intuitive. Several of my students saw this wordlist, noticed right away that it looked nothing like English, and so treated it like a "foreign language". Well, what exactly was a foreign language to them? To most of them, it was Spanish, French or German (there were some other speakers of other languages there, but most had had one of these three—almost everyone had Spanish). As a result, they attempted to pronounce the words as if they were Spanish, and a few of them even copied Spanish constructions (e.g., putting the adjective after the noun). I would argue that this was because they had an idea of a prototypical foreign language, and, when in doubt, they'd try to make Wasabi fit their prototype.

Finally, the X factor, obviously, tells you nothing. What I mean by the X factor is that there are a number of factors that could or could not affect the development of the language, and which might be able to be eliminated completely. One that can't be eliminated is the natural development of the language amongst peers. Say a particular speaker likes construction Y, but the rest of the class uses construction X. It doesn't matter if construction Y is simpler, more universal, etc., construction X will win out. Also, the very design of the words will affect the development of the language. Say you made the word for "friend" pupu. No English speaker would use this word, if s/he could avoid it. (This is actually one of the reasons I think Esperanto never caught on in America. In order to say, "How are you doing?", you have to say, "Kiel vi fartas?" Even I can't say that with a straight face.) Also, comparing the phonology of Language X to Wasabi, there were some words in Language X that were never used because they were too much of a mouthful. When you only have 300 words to work with, this fact actually becomes important. A final point is that if you're in a classroom, the speech of the more popular students or the smartest students will be emulated by the rest. Such a fact is not foreign to the field of linguistics, especially historical linguistics.

Something whose absence you may notice from the description above is any mention of universal grammar or Derek Bickerton's bioprogram. The reason for this is that I think: (a) universal grammar has nothing to do with pidginization (or, more generally, the field of linguistics), and (b) the bioprogram theory is false. Universal grammar didn't drive anything when it came to either of my experiments. Any relationship Wasabi or Language X shares with other pidgins and creoles will probably the same as the relationship between those pidgins and creoles and English, which will be the same relationship between Wasabi and Language X and English. I think that saying that some of the resulting structures in Wasabi (for example, SVO word order) are a result of universal grammar is basically an intellectual copout, and indicative of nothing. Saying that the resulting structures are a reflection of the dominant language, though, is a testable hypothesis, and potentially interesting.

One theory that my experiments might support is John McWhorter's monogenesis theory. A brief summary of this theory would be that all the English-based creoles originated in the same place, West Africa, and that's why they all share many features, and why elements of the various pidgins and creoles can be traced to a particular dialect of English (that of the slave traders). Though this theory doesn't say anything about non-English-based creoles, it suggests that there is (or should be) a stronger tie between the lexifier language and its pidgins/creoles than universalists suppose. Further, it suggests that these pidgins shouldn't be treated as separate phenomena (i.e., what the universalists are saying about pidgins and creoles is akin to saying that the basic word for "orange" is "orange", since the word for "orange" in English and French and German and some others is, well, "orange"). I think that an experiment like the ones I ran could be a litmus test for the monogenesis hypothesis.

One theory that Wasabi doesn't seem to support is John McWhorter's prototype hypothesis. Though Wasabi is simpler than, say, English, and though it does share a lot of features in common with other pidgins and creoles, I don't think that saying it's attempting to be more or less like a prototypical pidgin would be of any interest at all. Fortunately (and I'm sure John knows this), you can't ever "disprove" a prototype hypothesis. Even if you found a pidgin or creole somewhere that was the most complex language the earth had ever seen, all one would say is that, "This is a highly peculiar creole, and very low on the creole continuum". To disprove John's prototype hypothesis, one would have to find a pidgin/creole that shared very few of the features John lists as being essential for a prototypical creole, and then show that this pidgin/creole was a better prototype. In order to do that, one would have to find a bunch more pidgins/creoles like the one in question. This would never happen, since there just aren't that many in the world. So, while I think John's prototype model is not particularly informative with respect to Wasabi or Language X, the experiments themselves can say nothing against the prototype hypothesis.

So, What Have We Learned?

As promised, here's a list of suggestions I have (aside from those already listed) for running this experiment again:

  1. A classroom is not the environment in which to run this experiment. I had originally thought that this would solve the motivation problem, but it didn't. This should have been intuitive—after all, haven't we all seen (or been) students that never show up to class, never turn in homework, and/or never participate in any way? No, there needs to be some kind of internal motivation. What could this motivation be? I don't know. Maybe if this experiment were run at a singles retreat...? There's always money, but who has it? I'm not sure how well this problem can be solved without sufficient resources (and a student's resources are most definitely insufficient).

  2. Interaction cannot begin until the subjects have completely memorized the list of words. Obviously, in a fifteen week semester (or, even worse, a ten week quarter), there will not be enough time to memorize the word list. Therefore, this class cannot be run over the course of a fifteen week semester or ten week quarter. Maybe over the course of a year, but even then, the longer the time period, the better.

  3. One hour a week is not enough time. Even three hours a week is not enough time. Five hours (like those assigned to a normal language class) might be the minimum number of hours required per week, but even then, more would be better. The ideal would be to force the subjects to use the word list as their only means of communication. How to do this ethically on a tight budget, though, is a tough question to answer.

  4. Though it should be evident, the subjects have to use the language. If speaking doesn't work, one alternative might be to run an online experiment. I haven't thought this through much, but one place where interaction occurs regularly and prolifically is on a listserv, like CONLANG. It might be interesting to run a listserv dedicated to just this experiment, where, in order to be admitted to the listserv, you have to agree to communicate using only the words on the wordlist, with maybe one or two direct nominal borrowings, like "internet", "e-mail", etc. (this could be monitored by the list owner). This would give the individual time to formulate his/her thoughts, without having to speak, but would also prevent a 100 separate languages from arising, since they all would have to be understood by one another. Whether such an experiment would be accepted by the linguistics community, though, is a separate matter. (Note: For an extremely interesting version of this type of experiment [or what I think is pretty close] check out Kalusa.)

  5. If at all possible (and it very well might not be), there should be no common language amongst the subjects. Not only would this necessitate the need for a pidgin, but it would ensure that the new language wasn't basically a relexification of another language.

The Wasabi Language

I won't lie: There ain't much. What there is, I'll eventually put up here. To start with, click here to view a .jpg of the wordlist.

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