Chapter 110: Savvy

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 110.

1. Feature description

Many contact languages have words like savvy, save, or sabi with the meaning ‘know’ (or similar), deriving ultimately from Portuguese saber or from the etymologically closely related words saber and savoir in Spanish and French. Savvy can have grammaticalized modal, copular or other meanings, but this feature only concerns the lexical meaning ‘know’ (although the former will also be commented on below).

Savvy is among a small number of Romance words with a world-wide distribution in pidgins and creoles, others being grande ‘big’ or pequenino ‘small’ (see Chapter 109). Portuguese overseas exploration and contact with non-Europeans started in the second half of the 15th century and Spain followed suit soon after. Interestingly, savvy, grande and pequenino are attested quite early also in non-Romance contact languages.

2. The values

This feature has two values, presence (value 1) or abscence (value 2) of a savvy word:

A savvy word exists40
A savvy word does not exist36

Value 1. Unsurprisingly, the form used in the majority of the Portuguese-lexicon creoles in APiCS is sabe, which directly derives from the Portuguese etymon saber. But there are other forms as well, as illustrated in the following examples:

It is remarkable that Portuguese-derived savvy words are also common in English-lexicon contact languages, where the forms are:

Spanish‑ and French-lexified creoles most probably derived their words for ‘know’ from the respective etyma in their lexifier, and not from Portuguese. The different forms are listed in (3) for Spanish‑ and in (4) for French‑lexified creoles:

Value 2. Languages that do not have a word derived from savvy use lexifier or substrate words for ‘know’, e.g.

kámtaks Chinuk Wawa, < Niuuchahnulth; Grant 2013
tahu Singapore Bazar Malay, < Malay; Khin Khin Aye 2013
kone Reunion Creole, < French; Bollée 2013
nuo ~ nou Nicaraguan Creole English, < English; Bartens 2013a

3. Distribution and form

Numerical distribution. Over half of the APiCS languages (40) have a savvy word but, as will be shown below, savvy is only found in European lexifier contact languages.

Distribution by lexifier. Since the words for ‘know’ are phonologically very similar in Portuguese (saber /sɐber/), Spanish (saber /saßer/) and partly also in French (particularly the infinitive /savwar/ and plural forms savons /savɔ̃/, savez /save/, savent /sav/), it is at times impossible to unambiguously identify the etymon of a savvy word in a Romance-lexified creole. This is particularly difficult in the Spanish creoles which had some measure of Portuguese input and a little easier for the French creoles, which had less contact with Portuguese in their history. Common sense suggests that the likelihood is that savvy words in Spanish- and French-lexicon contact languages are derived from the Spanish and French etyma and not from Portuguese, and vice versa. However, this is only a rule of thumb and identifying the etymon remains difficult for a number of contact languages. For example, Papiamentu has had both Spanish and Portuguese influence (Maurer 2013d), which means that sa could have been derived from either or both. In-depth studies of the etymology of savvy are needed for individual contact languages, but these are beyond the scope of this chapter.

Since Portuguese, Spanish, and French were the lexifiers of Romance creoles, it is relatively unspectacular that we should find savvy words in these languages. What is more interesting, and will be discussed further below, is 1. that savvy is absent from a number of Romance creoles and 2. that it is present in some non-Romance lexifier contact languages.

Savvy is found in 19 of the 20 Portuguese and Spanish lexicon creoles included in APiCS, the one exception being the Gulf of Guinea creole Angolar, which uses (e)ta (etymology unknown; Maurer 2013a).

Savvy words meaning ‘know’ are also reported for three of the nine French creoles – Guadeloupean Creole sav(é) (Colot & Ludwig 2013a), Guyanais savé (Pfänder 2013), and Martinican Creole sav (Colot & Ludwig 2012b), the /v/ pointing towards a French (or, less probably, Spanish) origin. Incidentally, Neumann-Holzschuh & Klingler (2013) report that se (< sais, sait) is attested in the Pointe Coupee variety of Louisiana Creole. They also found one dubious instance of sabai in the earliest Louisiana Creole text, representing the language around 1720. The majority (6) of the French-lexified creoles in APiCS, however, derive their words for ‘know’ from French connaître rather than savoir, for example Reunion Creole kon(e)(tr) (Bollée 2013) or Haitian Creole konn(en) (Fattier 2013). The latter is interesting because although Haitian Creole has a connaître-derived verb to express ‘know’, modal (epistemic and deontic) meanings can be encoded by a savoir-derived word. Compare

Do you know somebody who needs to go to Chicago?
I have come in order to talk to you. (Fattier 2013)

Nevertheless, since this chapter is only concerned with the lexical meaning ‘know’, Haitian Creole is counted as a language without a savvy word.

Savvy was also grammaticalized into a habitual marker in Palenquero and Tok Pisin:

They did not use to do this.
The parents would go to the garden.
See example 22-186

While a strong presence of savvy in the Romance creoles is not surprising, an interesting finding is that of all the non-Romance-lexified APiCS languages, savvy is only attested in pidgin and creole Englishes. Within this group it is rather common: savvy is attested in 18 of the 27 English-lexicon contact languages, that is, in two thirds. The proportion of savvy-languages in this group would probably be even higher if earlier language stages were taken into account. The APiCS contributors for Creolese (Devonish & Thompson 2013), Hawai‘i Creole (Velupillai 2013), Jamaican (Farquharson 2013), and Trinidad Creole English (Mühleisen 2013) report that the word is archaic in their language, which could be taken as an indication that it may already have been lost in others.

Phonological form. With one exception (Sri Lanka Portuguese, which has a /b/ ~ /v/ alternation), the second consonant in savvy words is realized as a bilabial plosive /b/ in Portuguese and Spanish creoles and as a labiodental fricative /v/ in the French creoles. The picture in the English-lexified contact languages is a little more varied. While the Pacific varieties tend to have /v/ – Bislama save (Meyerhoff 2013), Chinese Pidgin English savvy (Li & Matthews 2013), Tok Pisin save (Smith & Siegel 2013) – the other 15 pidgin or creole Englishes have /b/. Nevertheless, spellings indicating a /v/ are clearly preferred in early sources referring to Pacific pidgin Englishes, but there is the occasional <b> and sometimes one and the same source even varies between <v> and <b>—Wendeland (1939: 76, 97), for example, referring to the Tok Pisin of 1894-1915. In the Atlantic, today’s pidgin and creole Englishes are exclusively /b/ but there is considerable <b> ~ <v> variation in older texts. For example, in my collection of early West African Pidgin English, <v> is attested until ca. 1930 (in competition with <b>). It may be objected that <v> was only a conventionalized spelling for what actually was a /b/, influenced by English savvy (itself possibly derived from a creole form). However, both b- and v-spellings are also found in non-English sources and Thomas (1860: 111), referring to West Africa around 1855, explicitly mentions both forms: “saby or sava is used on the whole coast as synonymous with understand”. If savvy in English-lexified pidgins and creoles does indeed go back to a Portuguese etymon, the presence of /v/ is a puzzle: Portuguese saber derives from Vulgar Latin sapere ‘to taste’, whose intervocalic /p/ changed to /b/ in Portuguese (Cardoso, p.c.). There is thus no evidence of an earlier /v/ that could have found its way into the English-lexifier contact languages. More research is certainly needed here, but it seems that early contact Englishes around the world had two savvy forms, /savi/ and /sabi/, while today the Pacific varieties prefer /v/ forms and the Atlantic varieties exclusively rely on /b/ forms.