Here is a paper I wrote on the subject of the potential origins of the English word, "gibberish," and the feasibility of its roots being in unintelligible speech in Gibraltar. (December 2007.)
An Alternative Etymology for Gibberish
Garrett Wesley Gibbons
Brigham Young University
The historical roots of a word like gibberish are not likely to often be investigated or reanalyzed. Because of this, one etymology for the word has exclusively been championed by academics while a perfectly feasible alternative has been ignored by historical linguists.
The meaning of the word gibberish is not currently an issue of debate. Most English dictionaries define it similarly. The Oxford English Dictionary represents the general consensus, and defines gibberish as ‘[u]nintelligible speech belonging to no known language, and supposed to be of arbitrary invention; inarticulate chatter, jargon. Often applied contemptuously to blundering or ungrammatical language.’ The origin is usually traced to the word gibber, synonymous with jabber, a word imitating unintelligible speech.
An alternate etymology is prevalent and highly popular in Gibraltar, however, where many believe that the word describes their supposedly unintelligible code-switching between English and Spanish. This patois is called Llanito, and indeed has received international recognition since the mid-1700s. Spanish historian Ignacio López de Ayala recorded the following about the language in Gibraltar in 1766. He said that the Gibraltar residents spoke ‘for better or for worse, Spanish and English, and a common dialect or jargon between all nations, not excepting the Africans’ (Ayala, 1782) (See Endnote 1 for original Spanish). It is clear that code-switching was prevalent early in the British occupation.
Many non-academic sources cite use this etymology to describe the origins of gibberish, reasoning that the ‘unintelligible speech’ aspect of the word originates in the fact that visitors to Gibraltar have historically been unable to understand the natives’ speech. Given the military significance of Gibraltar and its high level of tourism, many visitors have heard this language and may have coined a term to describe it.
These two etymologies stand independently. The folk etymology refuses to acknowledge the possibility of cross-lexical influences to the word, such as jabber. The academic Linguistic community seems to refuse to acknowledge the Gibraltar possibility, despite an inexplicable hole in that theory: the supposed root word, jabber, is first attested half of a century later than the first appearance of gibberish. These two proposed etymologies will be analyzed and discussed before a proposed methodology for analysis is set forth. The diachronic analysis will continue under a philological framework.
1. GIBRALTAR ETYMOLOGY.
I will first discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the folk etymology of gibberish, namely that it is a derivative of the place name, Gibraltar. This word is an object of national pride in Gibraltar today, where the people champion their validated importance in the world by citing gibberish as an example of how their unique speech has made its way into common English vocabulary. Given the small size of Gibraltar, with a population of under 30,000 (Ethnologue 2005) and a national area of 2.5 square miles, the notion of their inspiration of an English word is exciting.
1.1 STRENGTHS OF GIBRALTAR ETYMOLOGY.
The word gibberish is today used, universally, to mean ‘meaningless chatter.’ The meaningless portion of that chatter could very likely have come from a known location where speech was unintelligible, such as in Gibraltar.
The local Llanito speech, a thorough mix of Andalusian Spanish and common British English, is a global rarity in its level of convergence. Neither language clearly dominates, and sources disagree when attempting to define the foundational language in the mix. For example, a recent contributor to wordreference.com describes Llanito to be ‘a dialect of Andalusian Spanish, heavily influenced by English and not the other way round, as the Ethnologue maintains’ (wordreference.com 2007).
In local speech, morphemes are freely exchanged between words of the different languages. Syntax can reflect either English or Spanish constructions, and often varies mid-utterance (Kellerman 2001 passim). Phonemic interpretation seems to have found a stable middle ground between the two languages, and the semantic interpretation of any given word can assume complete bilingualism. Figures of speech are also mixed between the two languages. The result is a speech that is unintelligible to anyone not very fluent in both British English and Andalusian Spanish—and even if that condition is met, Llanito remains partially closed to anyone except the locals.
Gibraltar has been a major military outpost for the nations that have occupied it, beginning as early as the Phoenicians in about 950 BC (Kellerman 2001:11-14). Its tactical location has been recognized widely since at least then, and was developed moreso during the successive Muslim, Castillian, Marinidian, Jewish, and Spanish occupations, before the British takeover in 1704. Nations have contested the possession of Gibraltar in a constant cycle with ownership shifting every few decades, between 1309-1704. Official occupancy shifted from group to group as nearly-constant battles waged during this period. After the long Muslim occupation, Gibraltar was sequentially occupied by the following groups or nations, following sequential contests: Castillia (1309); the Marinids (1333); the Kingdom of Granada (1374); the Dukes of Medina Sidonia (1462); a refugee group of Sephardic Jews (1473); and Spain (1501). During the Spanish occupancy, Dutch and British naval forces attacked Gibraltar during the Eighty Years’ War (1607) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), when combined British and Dutch forces seized Gibraltar and caused much of the native population to leave without bloodshed. In addition to these successful takeovers, Gibraltar was also unsuccessfully attacked numerous times (Hills 1974).
The military history of Gibraltar clearly establishes the international importance of the location, opening the possibility that Gibraltar was sufficiently known to motivate the creation of a new word in the 16th century.
1.2 WEAKNESSES OF GIBRALTAR ETYMOLOGY.
Unfortunately, most of the proponents of this etymology have no empirical data to support their claims. Aside from the streets of Gibraltar, this etymology is often found in anecdotal writings or in travel guides. An example from Wikitravel.org follows: ‘The term gibberish came from the Llanito habit of randomly alternating between English and Spanish words all the way through a sentence. New words appear at random and spread quickly through the tight-knit community, then disappear just as fast’ (Gibraltar 2007). Sources such as this never cite any study or empirical data, due to the nature of their publication, leaving us to believe them simply by implicit logic or authoritative voice.
However, a general lack of documentation might only suggest that future research only needs to supplement the conclusions that logic brings. The plausibility of this theory is weakened by the fact that the logic has a certain glaring hole: the first recorded usage of gibberish dates to 1554, whereas the British occupation (and therefore the first likely appearance of a form of Llanito) began in 1704.
2. JABBER ETYMOLOGY.
The basis of the only currently accepted academic possibility is that gibberish connotes speech of ‘arbitrary invention’ (OED). The alternative to this would be meaningful speech, as in the case of Llanito, that is not understood. Several phrases in The Oxford English Dictionary used to define gibberish can also be used to describe a situation like Llanito. Examples include: ‘Unintelligible speech’; ‘jargon’; ‘ungrammatical language’; and ‘obscure…verbiage.’
Since the jabber basis is theorized to stem from the invented nature of gibberish, assuming that there is no intended meaning, it finds its basis in its imitative, onomatopoeic sounds of nonsensical speech.
2.1 STRENGTHS OF JABBER ETYMOLOGY.
This explanation has academically endured due to documentation. The word gibberish is said to be a derivative of gibber, which in turn is a derivative of jabber. To jabber is said to be of imitative origin, replicating the sounds of nonsensical speech. The suffix ‘—ish’ denotes a language, and follows English word formation patterns. The word gibber appeared in Hamlet in 1604, three years before the first major British attack on Gibraltar, and exactly one hundred years before the British succeeded in conquering Gibraltar.
It is also clear through the recorded usage of the word in The Oxford English Dictionary that Gibraltar has not been a major consideration in much of the usage. The current meaning seems to exist independent of any denotation of Gibraltar.
2.2 WEAKNESSES OF JABBER ETYMOLOGY.
It is clear that the word gibberish has come to mean ‘meaningless chatter,’ essentially. It is also clear that very few English speakers consider Gibraltar when using the word. Yet the history of this etymology is not without holes. In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymologies, the entry for gibberish reads: ‘Earlier than gibber, but presumably to be connected’ (Concise Oxford 1986:193). The full history traced in The Oxford English Dictionary shows that gibberyshe, the earliest form of gibberish, appeared in 1554. The supposed root form, gibber, did not appear until 1604.
The presupposition seems to be that ‘gibber’ existed before gibberyshe, but was not attested in writing until fifty years later. The theory goes that the ‘-ish’ suffix was added to denote a language, such as ‘Spanish’ and ‘Swedish’ (Chantrell 2002:231). However, to the discredit of this academically accepted etymology, the logic flows more naturally in reverse. In other words, given the dates of attestations, gibber likely emerged as a back-formation of gibberyshe, which could have been coined first. One etymologist even noted that gibberish ‘may not be related to gibber’ at all (Cassell 1999:252).
Finally, The Oxford English Dictionary cites gibber in 1604, but the next citation is not until 1791 (well after Ayala observed and documented Llanito in 1766). The 1604 instance appears in the first act and scene of Hamlet. Shakespeare is known for having inventing perhaps as many as 1,700 words (Crystal 2002). Since the word was not used again until nearly 200 years later, Shakespeare may have coined gabber, independent of a previous coinage of gibberish that may have been based on the name Gibraltar.
The basis of ignoring the Gibraltar etymology, despite its popular appeal, may stem from the fact that the English did not capture Gibraltar until 1704. In other words, Llanito did not likely exist in any form until at least the British occupancy, exactly 150 years after the word gibberyshe was first recorded. The logic is simply that the British occupancy did not cause English to mix with Spanish until well after the word existed.
Despite the glaring fact that Llanito did not likely exist before the British takeover of Gibraltar in 1704, the Gibraltar-based etymology of gibberish may have merit. Even though Spanish and English were not always the main two languages involved in this particular code-switching phenomenon, code-switching between other languages may have long been a significant aspect of Gibraltar’s fame.
3.1 POINTS TO ESTABLISH.
I will seek to establish the Gibraltar etymology as historically possible. This will be accomplished in two stages, both of which must be achieved before the Gibraltar Etymology is considered to be possible (and worthy of academic consideration).
In the first stage I will determine the antiquity of any form of the name Gibraltar, from which gibberish may have been derived. In the second stage I will seek to historically establish that code-switching has been prevalent in Gibraltar from times previous to the earliest recorded instance of gibberish, according to The Oxford English Dictionary.
If the name Gibraltar was used in times when code-switching was a prevalent part of the community, and if this happened before the earliest English usage of gibberish, then I will conclude that this etymology has merit and should be duly compared to the currently-accepted academic etymology. Only if both of these conditions are met will the Gibraltar etymology be considered plausible.
We will first analyze the issue of the antiquity of the name Gibraltar, from which gibberish may have been derived. Following that we will investigate the history of code-switching in Gibraltar. Dealing with historically relative issues such as culture, society and language, I recognize that not every key element has been recorded. For example, with the focus on the Spanish-Moorish wars of the 14th-16th centuries, most historians completely neglected any mention of language, culture or society until the 18th century. In instances where the documentation is slim, deductive logic will be employed.
The English name Gibraltar appears to be derived from the Arabic name for that peninsula, jabal al Tariq, ‘mount of Tariq’, named after the Berber Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad, who lead the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD (Klein, 1966:655). No documentation of the history of the English Gibraltar seems to exist beyond that Arabic origin, and no etymologist, out of 50 sampled, assigns a date to the first recorded usage of Gibraltar. Various kingdoms in Spain occupied and contested Muslim forces for Gibraltar during the 14th-17th centuries, and the name Gibraltar was used in Spanish during that time.
The academic community offers no derivation for the name Gibraltar from the original jabal al Tariq, but a simple derivation can be easily conjectured. The l in the Arabic seems to have undergone a shift to r. The vowels were apparently modified in trans-language adoption and the final –iq was dropped, forming the Spanish name that lead to the current English name at some point between 711 AD (when Tariq ibn-Ziyad invaded the Iberian Peninsula) and 1704 (when the British occupancy began).
When Gibraltar became known as jabal al Tariq also remains unknown. The nature of its name suggests a Muslim occupancy, however. When the next group to possess Gibraltar, the Castillians, came in 1309, it is unlikely that they named it after a Muslim, whom they had just overthrown. They more likely continued usage of The Rock’s former name, jabal al Tariq, showing that it had been the established name of The Rock since at least before their arrival in 1309.
Regardless of not knowing the first instance of the English Gibraltar, it is firmly established that the older Arabic name is phonetically similar to Gibraltar, and that this name has been used since at least 1309, if not as early as 711. Clearly, this is at least 150 years before the first recorded usage of any form of gibberish. This establishes that the name Gibraltar predates the word gibberish.
4.2 CODE-SWITCHING IN GIBRALTAR.
I will now seek demonstrate that code-switching may have been prevalent in Gibraltar from before the time that the word gibberish was first recorded.
As established in section 1.1, Gibraltar has been occupied by dozens of parties and groups since early history. It has been a cultural mixing zone since at least the times of the Phoenicians, which trend continued through the Roman occupation. Under Muslim control, Gibraltar was a center of trade, and despite frequent military contests, it continues to be to this day. Its population has been in a nearly-constant state of flux, and has always been known for close language contact, although perhaps due to its relatively small population and very small geographical footprint, Gibraltar has not received exhaustive cultural attention in the eyes of pre-British writers.
Despite that fact that code-switching has historically been a part of life in Gibraltar, this discussion begs the question of whether or not people in England knew that it was happening enough to create a term to describe it. These types of questions cannot be plausibly answered at this time, given the current corpus of documentation, but the possibility exists enough that it should be seriously considered.
Since both of the aforementioned conditions have been met, I conclude that the etymology of the word gibberish, as describing speech in Gibraltar, is possible. In extension, I see no reason to discount this theory based on the current information available. In contrast, the merits of this etymology should persuade the academic community to consider this etymology as a feasible possibility.
6. FUTURE WORK.
This is an issue that will likely never be resolved. Future work in this area will be difficult, since diachronic studies can only conjecture upon the motivation behind a new word being coined. A step to take in analyzing the merits of the Gibraltar etymology of gibberish will be to create a historical index of textual instances in which it was used to describe speech in Gibraltar, since no such study has yet been made. Only a study as exhaustive as that contained in The Oxford English Dictionary (for the ‘meaningless chatter’ possibility) will be able to establish the foundation necessary to compare the two etymologies on even ground.
In addition, more serious academic inquiry into the language history of Gibraltar needs to be performed. Very few historians of any kind have dedicated much attention to the culture of Gibraltar, focusing always on its military history. As researchers become aware of the history of Gibraltar and its significance in the etymology of gibberish, they will be able to continue to judge the merits of either side of this etymology, based on future discoveries of old documents, journals and anecdotal accounts about language in Pre-British Gibraltar. Old accounts about the society of Gibraltar, especially during the Spanish occupation, may become newly relevant.
1. The original Spanish follows: the people in Gibraltar spoke ‘bien ó mal el Castellano é Ingles, i un dialecto ó jerga comun á todas las naciones, sin excluir las Africanas.’
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