UC Irvine linguist uses language and DNA to trace Latin America’s African roots

UC Irvine professor Armin Schwegler likely didn’t imagine that the Spanish he picked up at weekend parties with classmates of his youth would one day lead him to study the roots of a Creole language that combined Spanish words with a grammar system that migrated from Africa.

During his 30 years at UCI, a major outcome of Schwegler’s work has been reconstructing Latin America’s African past through the history of Palenque, a 400-year-old Colombian community established by people of African ancestry who escaped the slave trade.

Using their language, Palenquero, Schwegler was able to find clues that helped determine the origins of the language and, subsequently, of the people who spoke it.

Schwegler, a linguist and professor of Spanish and Portuguese, has studied a dozen languages in his career — despite grade-school teachers who told him he couldn’t do it.

“At the age of 13, I flunked out of school,” Schwegler said. “ My teachers told me I was incapable of learning foreign languages.”

The Switzerland native, who grew up speaking French and Swiss German, went on to complete his schooling and then traveled to California while still a teenager to learn English.

“When I landed here … the first people I heard, they were actually speaking Spanish,” Schwegler said. “I literally thought I was in the wrong country.”

Some of his classmates in his English courses were from Honduras, Venezuela and Mexico. Within months he was speaking both English and Spanish with ease.

His interest in languages led him to UC Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics, and he became interested in how language structures change over time.

“I saw one sentence of this language called Palenquero that attracted my attention because it was kind of an unusual pattern,” Schwegler said.

More than 95% of Palenquero consists of words from the Spanish lexicon, but a Spanish speaker wouldn’t be able to understand it.

“It has a grammar of its own,” Schwegler said.

The village of Palenque was formed by slaves who fled Cartagena, Colombia, a major port of the slave trade in the Americas.

As a graduate student, Schwegler went to Colombia in 1985 with the intent of going to Palenque and learning the language.

A local family took him in and he spent months there.

Though he wasn’t the first researcher to contact the Palenquero people, he was the first to spend periods up to several months living in the area and becoming fluent in their language. He returned several times and spent summers living in the 4,000-person village, including with his wife and young daughter.

At a funeral ceremony, Schwegler uncovered a key to understanding the language’s history. He observed a ritual in which elders chanted songs containing unrecognizable words that had been passed down through oral traditions.

“I recorded these chants and eventually I broke the code and figured out how to decipher these things,” Schwegler said.

The songs contained references to African places — Congo, Angola and Loango, a pre-colonial kingdom that existed until 1883 in what is now largely the Republic of Congo.

This pointed Schwegler to the region that was sung about and specifically to Kikongo, a language in which he was able to trace words from the burial songs.

He determined that the Creole language was based largely on a grammar system from the Kikongo spoken by early settlers of Palenque, combined with a mostly Spanish lexicon of the community.

Schwegler proposed that the Palenqueros were nearly direct descendants of the Kikongo-speaking region, contradicting the widely held belief that the slave trade had forced the migration of people from across Africa.

“The data led me in that direction,” Schwegler said. “And so gradually I began to publish more and more, and then eventually … openly affirmed in writing that this was my hypothesis.”

In 2010, DNA testing made it possible to lend more evidence to Schwegler’s theory when population geneticists became interested in his research and put their scientific practices to work.

DNA analysis determined that the ancestors of Palenque came from a small Congolese region known as Myombe, where Kikongo is still spoken.

No matter how strong the evidence, Schwegler believes that with time and technology, such as advances in DNA sampling, more information will come to light.

“The biggest danger in research is when you think you really have the answer or most of the answers — that’s when you find out you’re probably wrong,” he said. “So that’s the nature of research. It’s a step-by-step kind of thing.”